Chinese People’s Liberation Army and 39 years of UN peacekeeping operations




The strength of a nation emanates from its military setting, discipline, coordination, cooperation and spiritedness. This assures the citizenry the promise of security against external aggression and invasion by any invading force. A nation with a weak military, uncoordinated and undisciplined, such nation cannot guarantee the security of its own people nor come to the aid of other nations when threatened.

The People’s Liberation Army of China is a rare and unique kind of an army in its formation, setting, organization, discipline and loyalty to the state and the people they serve. Since its founding in 1927, the PLA has been waxing in strength and loyalty where it contributes effectively in virtually everything that affect the people in the society.

Members of the PLA contribute in safeguarding the territorial integrity of China, combat ready to protect the nation, technologically advancing, helping people in the period of difficulty and tension. The pursuit of peace, amity and harmony has long been the primary aspiration of China. The philosophy of upholding peace, harmony, cooperation and common development has been passed down from generation to generation. For millennia, peace has been in the veins and the DNA of the Chinese nation. It is also a consistent goal of China’s armed forces.

The PLA transcends the boundaries of China in its bid to secure human existence and contribute globally to international peace-keeping and security of the international system. It is unequivocal that the PLA is formidably a strong force that follows direction of leadership and with the support of the Communist Party it has significantly achieved greatness and integrity in its marvelous contributions towards peaceful international system and safeguarding lives and property. The formation of the Peoples Liberation Army has paved a way for a great nomenclature in everything in the People’s Republic of China, bringing people first in the name of everything.

For example, we have People’s Liberation Army, we have Peoples Bank of China, we have People’s University of China and many more institutions whose names begin with the people. This has been the pedigree of the state formation as determined by the irregular warfare in the 1930’s and conventional warfare in the 1940’s, which led to the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In its transitional development, the PLA started as a revolutionary military and then to a political party that govern the state of China. It is therefore correct to argue that, the PLA is the Communist Party of China and the CPC is also the PLA as the two are intertwined and one (the PLA) gave birth to the communist party that today develops the state of China and brings about all the developmental plans and progress made in leadership and governance.

The People’s Liberation Army constitutes a triangular force, comprising the Army, Navy and the Airforce, all contributing to the security of the People’s Republic of China by land, Sea and the Air. It is the largest military force in the world which as a defensive force emerged during the Nanching uprising of the communists against the Nationalists. First called the Red Army and grew under the legendary Chairman Mao and Zhu De with about 5,000 troops in 1929 to about 200,000 in 1933. After gathering momentum, it fought the Japanese imperialists in northern China and after the Second World War, the communist forces were renamed the People’s Liberation Army and defeated the Nationalists which led to the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.China had already understood the significance of peace, it therefore wanted freedom and liberation for peace to prevail hence the struggle to defeat the imperialist Nationalists and the Japanese invaders.

When Mao Zedong reviewed the first military parade of the Chinese Army in 1949, 95 percent of the weapons on display were captured in battles, and 17 fighter jets were all that the new-born PLA air force had to boast of. This shows the resilience and coordination of the PLA in achieving the desired goal of defense. Beyond strength and determination, the PLA had embraced the challenge of technological development knowing fully that an Army cannot survive the contemporary international conflict or peace without marching with the modern technological invention in warfare technology.

It is in line with this that the 1999 military parade marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China witnessed great achievements made by the PLA in its drive toward modernization. 95 percent of the hi-tech weaponry demonstrated during the parade was “Made in China,” and the mid-air refueling exercise in the course of the parade was a fine example of the PLA’s combat preparedness.Formidably, the highest level of deterrence and mutually assured destruction as known within the international system is nuclear capability. China is one of the few countries in the world today, that has acquired nuclear technology, developed a strategic missiles program and is rapidly advancing in space technology.

Since 1970, China has launched more than 50 foreign and home-made satellites into orbit, and succeeded in two manned space flights in 2004 and 2006. Educationally, China has been able to maintain an educated military as the statistics from 2002 indicated that more than 26,000 Doctorate and Master’s degree holders are working in the military, and over 95 percent of the officers have a bachelor’s degree. A large number of the PLA officers are also being sent to study at military schools in developed countries every year.

Now the army is working on a strategic project to train a large cadre of troops who will be competent in operational tasks involving information technology, and help the armed forces. In recent years as the PLA continues to get better equipped and more efficient, it is becoming smaller in size. Following a downsizing of one million soldiers in the 1980s, its overall size was further reduced by another half a million personnel between 1997 and 2000. And from 2003-2005, the army has been further reduced by 200,000 troops, bringing the total PLA strength these days to 2.3 million.Internationally, China has been able to engage the PLA in international operations especially the United Nations Peacekeeping operations for global peace and security to be sustained.

China’s involvement in United Nations peacekeeping is one of its better-known investments in the multilateral system. China is the second biggest financial contributor to the U.N. peacekeeping budget, now roughly $6 billion a year, covering 15% of costs. It is also a significant personnel contributor to the U.N. Since its founding, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been firmly committed to the path of peaceful development; it has made a significant contribution to world peace and development while realizing its own development. China has always resolutely safeguarded the UN-centered international system and the basic norms governing international relations underpinned by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, and worked with countries around the world to uphold multilateralism, equity and justice.

Financially, China is the second largest contributor to both peacekeeping assessment and UN membership fees, and the largest troop-contributing country (TCC) among the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Over the past 30 years, China’s armed forces have resolutely delivered on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, and sent over 40,000 peacekeepers to 25 UN peacekeeping missions. They have faithfully performed their duties and made a positive contribution to world peace and common development. In 1971, China recovered its legitimate seat in the UN and began to play a more active role in international affairs. After reform and opening up began in 1978, China gradually increased its involvement in UN peacekeeping affairs.

In April 1990, China’s armed forces dispatched five military observers to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) and embarked on a new voyage as a participant in the UNPKOs.Practically, China has been in support of all rules and regulations governing the international system as well as the UN peace keeping activities. China always adheres to the basic principles of UN peacekeeping, including consent of the host nation, impartiality, and non-use of force except in self-defense and defense of the mandate. It respects the territorial integrity and political independence of sovereign states, always remains impartial, and strictly fulfills the mandate of the Security Council.

Championing the vision of global governance based on extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.It is conspicuous that over the past 30 years, China’s armed forces have contributed a growing number of peacekeepers across an expanding range of deployments. From a few military observers at the outset of its involvement, China’s armed forces are now sending both formed units and military professionals. Chinese military peacekeepers serve on the UN missions in engineering, medical, transport, helicopter, force protection and infantry units, and as staff officers, military observers and seconded officers.

Chinese military peacekeepers have left their footprints in over 20 countries and regions including Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, Sudan, Lebanon, Cyprus, South Sudan, Mali and the Central African Republic. They have made a tremendous contribution to facilitating the peaceful settlement of disputes, safeguarding regional security and stability, and promoting economic and social development in host nations.Ceasefires are supervised to ensure that conflicting parties abide by their agreements. It was the earliest function of UN peacekeeping, and the first task undertaken by Chinese military peacekeepers. Since 1990, in addition to military observers, more military professionals have been involved in UN peacekeeping as staff officers and seconded officers.

In the past three decades, China’s armed forces have sent 2,064 military professionals to 25 missions and UN headquarters (UNHQ). Thirteen of them have been appointed to key positions as force commander, deputy force commander, sector commander, and deputy sector commander. In August 2020, 84 military professionals were working on missions and at UNHQ on patrols, observation, ceasefire supervision, liaison, negotiation, command and control, and operations planning.Organically, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in January, 2015 dispatched an infantry battalion of 700 troops to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the first organic unit of its kind to operate overseas in a peacekeeping mission.

Over the past five years, six rotations have been committed to UNMISS. The Chinese infantrymen worked day and night amid the rattle of gunfire and the rumble of explosions in the mission area. As of August 2020, these battalions had completed 51 long-range and 93 short-distance patrols, 314 armed escorts, and over 30,000 hours of patrols in weapons-free zones, making a significant contribution to stabilizing the local situation. In August 2018, when a large riot erupted in Juba, capital of South Sudan, the Chinese infantry battalion acted immediately on orders and quelled the violence decisively and promptly.In December 2013, China’s armed forces dispatched a force protection unit of 170 troops to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to conduct guard duties and VIP protection at the Sector East Headquarters.

This was the first time that China’s armed forces had dispatched troops to carry out force protection duties for the UNPKOs. Mali is among the most dangerous mission areas, afflicted by frequent suicide attacks, roadside bombs and other terrorist assaults. Additionally, Over the past seven years, China’s armed forces have sent 1,440 troops for force protection in eight rotations to MINUSMA. The units have fulfilled their tasks effectively in the hazardous southern edge of the Sahara Desert, including over 3,900 armed patrols and armed escorts. They have earned themselves the reputation of “des troupes d’élite” of Sector East.

On May 31, 2016, First Sergeant Shen Liangliang was killed trying to prevent a terrorist vehicle laden with explosives from crashing into the UN camp. He was posthumously conferred First Class Merit by the Chinese military and the Dag Hammarskjöld Medal by the UN. On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, First Sergeant Shen Liangliang was conferred the national honorary title of People’s Hero.Medically, In January 2020, some terrorists attacked the Tessalit Camp in the Sector North of MINUSMA and wounded more than 20 people. The Chinese medical unit in Sector East was rushed in by air and evacuated seven injured Chad peacekeepers to the Chinese medical camp. All the wounded were saved by prompt emergency treatment. In May 2020, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a tense security situation, the Chinese engineer unit built a bridge over the Sopo River in South Sudan to the highest quality standards.

This bridge created a transport route between Wau and Raga, which was highly commended by the local government and residents.It is also notable that In the past 30 years, China’s armed forces have contributed 111 engineering units totaling 25,768 troops to eight UN peacekeeping missions in Cambodia, the DRC, Liberia, Sudan, Lebanon, Sudan’s Darfur, South Sudan, and Mali. These units have built and rehabilitated more than 17,000 kilometers of roads and 300 bridges, disposed of 14,000 landmines and unexploded ordnance, and performed a large number of engineering tasks including leveling ground, renovating airports, assembling prefabricated houses, and building defense works. Twenty-seven transport units totaling 5,164 troops were dispatched to the UN peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Sudan. They transported over 1.2 million tons of materials and equipment over a total distance of more than 13 million kilometers. Eighty-five medical units of 4,259 troops were sent to six UN peacekeeping missions in the DRC, Liberia, Sudan, Lebanon, South Sudan, and Mali. They have provided medical services to over 246,000 sick and wounded people.

Three helicopter units totaling 420 troops were sent to Sudan’s Darfur. They completed 1,951 flight hours, transported 10,410 passengers and over 480 tons of cargo in 1,602 sorties.It is unequivocal that over the past 30 years, China’s peacekeeping troops worked extensively and effectively with international humanitarian agencies, and have played an active role in resettling refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), distributing food, building refugee and IDP camps, and carrying out disaster relief tasks. In April 2020, Uvira in eastern DRC was struck by a rare flood, which posed a severe threat to the lives and property of the locals. The Chinese engineer unit was assigned to disaster relief work at the most critical moment and rushed to help reinforce levees and restore damaged bridges. They have given the locals access to help and protection, and effectively ensured the safety and security of the affected population.It is worth mentioning that over the past 30 years, China’s armed forces have contributed more than 40,000 service members to 25 UN peacekeeping missions. Sixteen Chinese military peacekeepers have sacrificed their lives for the noble cause of peace.

As of August 2020, 2,521 Chinese military peacekeepers were serving on eight UN peacekeeping missions and at UNHQ. Chinese service women are playing an increasingly important role in peacekeeping. More than 1,000 female peacekeepers have worked in medical support, liaison, coordination, demining, explosive ordnance disposal, patrol, observation, gender equality promotion, protecting women and children, and other fields. They demonstrated the talent and professionalism of Chinese women on their UN missions. Chinese peacekeeping troops have been commended by the UN and the international community for their contribution. They have won honor for their country and military. On October 1st, 2019, Chinese military peacekeepers were reviewed for the first time by the country and the people in the parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the PRC.

On September 28, 2015, President Xi Jinping addressed the Leaders’ Summit on Peacekeeping at UNHQ and announced six measures that China would take to support UN peacekeeping. The Chinese government and armed forces have faithfully implemented the decisions and directions of President Xi Jinping, and taken concrete steps to honor their promises. Important progress has been made over the past five years. China’s armed forces have expanded the composition of their peacekeeping troops from single service to multiple military branches, enabling Chinese peacekeepers to perform diverse tasks in addition to enabling functions. The objectives of China’s peacekeeping efforts have extended beyond conflict prevention to building lasting peace.China’s armed forces are willing to share their peacekeeping assets in a spirit of win-win. They have actively helped other TCCs improve training, build capability to respond to complex situation, and better perform in the UNPKOs. In the past five years, China has provided 20 training programs to over 1,500 peacekeepers from more than 60 countries, covering civilian protection and courses for senior mission officials, trainers, military professionals, and female officers. The Chinese military provided assistance in demining and trained more than 300 professionals from countries including Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, Sudan, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The Chinese Ministry of Public Security also trained more than 1,000 foreign peacekeeping police officers.Africa has the greatest need for peacekeeping. In order to help the African countries, improve their ability to maintain peace and stability, and provide African solutions to African issues, the PLA has honored China’s commitment of gratis military aid to the value of USD100 million to support the African Standby Force and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis.

The first installment of the aid including military equipment and supplies has been delivered to the AU, and Chinese military experts have been sent to complete the hand-over and provide end-user training. The PLA has agreed with the AU on the arrangement of the next aid installments.To support the UN efforts for peace and advance multilateral cooperation, China has established a China-UN Peace and Development Fund. From 2016 to 2019, the fund financed 52 peace and security projects to a total value of USD33.62 million.

Twenty-three of these projects were in support of the UNPKOs, which cost USD10.38 million. The goal of these projects is to strengthen coordination and planning of the UNPKOs, increase African peacekeeping capacity, provide protection for peacekeepers, and improve lives in Sudan’s Darfur, Mali and other mission areas.Joint exercises and training are important as a means of improving the UN’s peacekeeping capability and its talent pool.

To learn from each other and improve skills, China’s armed forces have conducted various peacekeeping exercises and training with the UN, and with relevant countries and regional organizations. In June and July 2009, China and Mongolia held a joint exercise codenamed Peacekeeping Mission-2009 in Beijing. In addition, China’s armed forces have sent military personnel to participate in multilateral engagements including the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group Table-Top Exercise on Peacekeeping Operations in the Philippines in February 2014, the Khan Quest multinational peacekeeping exercises in Mongolia from 2015 to 2019, the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group on Peacekeeping Operations and Humanitarian Mine Action field training exercises in India in March 2016 and in Indonesia in September 2019, peacekeeping table-top exercises in Thailand in May 2016 and May 2018, and the multinational computer-assisted command-post exercise Viking 18 in Brazil in April 2018.China’s armed forces established a specialized peacekeeping training institution in June 2009. Since then, the PLA has run over 20 international training programs for UN peacekeepers, including the UN Military Observers Course, the UN Staff Officers Course, the UN Peacekeeping Training of Trainers Course for Francophone Countries, and the UN Senior National Planners Course.

The PLA has also invited UN experts and senior instructors from other countries for pre-deployment training of Chinese peacekeeping troops and military professionals, and sent instructors to assist peacekeeping training in countries including Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Thailand, and Vietnam. More than 100 PLA officers have attended courses or observed exercises hosted by the UN or other TCCs.The People’s Liberation Army is an institution, a discipline to be studied and a force to rely on from its past experiences and contributions to human existence, peace and security around the world. Nations and states should emulate this extraordinary commitment in building reliable Armed Forces like the PLA so as to have a formidable force that will guarantee perpetual peace in the world and security for humanity with the aim of achieving harmony and security within the international system.

Ibrahim writes from the Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Abuja via [email protected]

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