IT HAS LONG been expected that China would deploy troops in Africa, even though doing so would mark a shift away from Beijing’s long-held policy of keeping itself, in public at least, at arm’s length from involvement in African conflicts.
State media said last year that Beijing would send 700 infantrymen to take part in the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, UNMISS. The first of those boots are now on the ground. The rest — including a small contingent of female soldiers — will be there by March, complete with other staples of ‘self-defense’ — armored personnel carriers, drones, anti-tank missiles and other weapons.
China already contributes more personnel to UN peacekeeping missions than any other permanent member of the Security Council. But most of its some 2,000 blue hats, mainly sent to Africa, are engineers, medical staff and other civilian workers, not, as in the case of South Sudan, a battalion of combat troops.
China has invested heavily in South Sudan’ oil, which accounted for 5% of China’s total crude oil imports as recently as December 2013. However, renewed civil war has since cut production by a third to some 160,000 barrels a day.
The troubled situation in the country, which separated from Sudan in 2011, has worsened since last December when the president accused his sacked deputy of attempting to orchestrate a coup. A potential humanitarian disaster threatens to make it worse still. Some 2.5 million people are facing famine; that is on top of 1.9 million already displaced by the conflict, in which at least 50,000 have been killed.
Oil-producing regions have seen some of the worst of the most recent violence, but Chinese oil workers in South Sudan and Sudan have been particular targets of kidnappings for several years. State-owned China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) owns 40% of the consortium that dominates South Sudan’s oil industry. Late last year, it signed a deal with Juba to stabilize then increase oil output.
Putting troops in the country will stiffen Beijing’s ability to push for a diplomatic end to the conflict, which, in a rare example of cooperation, it has agreed to work closely with the West towards resolving. In this sense, the arrival of Chinese combat troops, even if they are wearing blue hats, underscores not just an international power willing to protect its overseas interests but also one willing to shoulder more international responsibility — for which, it should be said, the U.S. and others have been calling for some time.
This foreshadows, though, what will be a gradually increasing shift towards Beijing being far more of a global actor, albeit taking on a role it will want to play to its own script. As President Xi Jinping said in late November, “We should conduct diplomacy with a salient Chinese feature and a Chinese vision.”