China’s vision of itself as the world’s peacekeeper starts in Africa

Chinese peacekeepers in training.
Chinese peacekeepers in training.
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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At the training camp for China’s first official standby peacekeeping police force in Dongying, northeastern China, the recruits are up by 6am. They make their beds, jog around a track clad in their uniforms and blue United Nations helmets, and eat simple canteen meals of mantou buns, vegetables, and meat. Such is the discipline of Chinese peacekeepers, according to a short documentary by China Global Television Network, the international English-language channel of the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV).

It’s an image Chinese officials seem eager to project, especially in Africa where more than 2,400 Chinese troops are part of seven UN peacekeeping missions across the continent. (The video was posted on the network’s Africa page.)

In the video, music swells as Chinese soldiers run through a field with assault rifles. (One peacekeeper is quick to note that he’s never fired his weapon while on a mission.) Other troops are shown performing roundhouse kicks, dips on parallel bars, and driving in practice convoys. Another soldier says he is there to “fulfill his country’s duty to the rest of the world.”

Over the last 15 years, China has ramped up its role in peacekeeping missions. Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, it is the biggest contributor of peacekeepers and is among the world’s top 12 largest contributors of the troops. Chinese president Xi Jinping has pledged to expand China’s contribution to 8,000, from less than 3,000 deployed now.

The portrayal of a strong, competent Chinese peacekeeping force comes almost a year after Chinese troops were accused of abandoning their post protecting refugees in South Sudan. Two Chinese peacekeeper died, a shock for a country unaccustomed to military entanglements abroad.  Some observers have wondered whether Beijing might be angling to become head of the United Nation’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, a position that has been held by the French for almost two decades.

It also appeals to a growing sense of nationalism in China’s military might and influence around the world. Chinese media this week also released footage of live-fire shooting drills at China’s first overseas base in Djibouti, opened last month. China’s top grossing film of all time, Wolf Warrior II, released last month, reflects some of that sentiment. In the movie, a Chinese special ops soldier single-handedly saves locals and Chinese expatriates in an unspecified African country in the throes of conflict.

One soldier in the CGTN documentary says, “Around the world, Chinese peacekeeper police officers are highly respected, just like what you’ve seen in Wolf Warrior II.”