China's 'Combat Troops' in Africa
Posted By John Reed
Monday, July 15,
For the second time in a little over a year, China has infantry on the
ground in Africa, reflecting the Chinese military's increasingly global
395 peacekeepers from the People's Liberation Army just arrived in the
Saharan nation of Mali as part of the U.N.
mission to help restore order there. Specifically, Beijing has sent
engineering, medical and "guard" teams to the Malian capital of Bamako,
according to the Chinese defense ministry. These troops are reportedly part
of the PLA's 16th Army, a formation comprised of infantry, armor and
China traditionally sends thousands of engineering, medical and other
support troops on U.N. missions each year. Of the five permanent members of
the U.N. Security Council, China is the largest manpower contributor to U.N.
However, until very recently, China did not send infantry on U.N. missions.
In fact, Beijing officially insists
the soldiers in Mali aren't combat troops, perhaps in order to maintain the
idea that China doesn't send official combat troops on peacekeeping
"The Chinese security force is actually a guard team that will mainly be
responsible for the security of the [U.N. mission] headquarters and the
living areas of peacekeeping forces," a Chinese defense ministry spokesman
is quoted by China's state-run Xinhua
news agency as saying.
Still, this latest deployment marks the second time in the last two years
that China has sent infantry soldiers to Africa with the purpose of guarding
peacekeeping missions. In 2011, Beijing sent infantrymen to guard PLA engineers participating in a U.N. mission
in South Sudan. Despite Beijing's claims that these troops were there solely
for the purpose of guarding the engineers, the U.S. China Economic and
Security Review pointed out that these guards were from an "elite" combat unit.
The mission to protect PLA engineers and medics isn't without merit; just
last week, seven UN personnel were killed when their convoy was attacked in
Sudan. And the operation reflects China's growing interest in Africa.
Chinese business leaders have been all over the continent for the last
decade, spending billions of dollars on projects and prompting some to worry
that Beijing was going to beat the U.S. in the African influence game (an
assertion U.S. President Barack Obama dismisses). All of this has prompted Chinese
military deployments aimed at protecting Chinese workers abroad.
The Chinese navy has been conducting anti-piracy operations in the Arabian
Sea for years. And in early 2011, China sent military transport planes and
even a guided missile destroyer to Libya to help evacuate some of the tens
of thousands of Chinese citizens there as the revolution against former
Libyan dictator Muammar al Qaddafi heated up.
These latest deployments of Chinese infantry are simply a reflection of
China's growing role in the world, motivated by the need to protect Chinese
investments and to be seen as a more responsible player in global security
affairs, say several experts.
"This role is not limited to Africa, and thus I don't see this current shift
as an 'Africa' policy, but rather the evolution of their U.N. role coupled,
possibly, with a long-standing special relationship with Mali," professor
Deborah Brautigam with John Hopkins University's School of Advanced
International Studies. "If they want to play a leadership role in the U.N.,
they need to step up and expand what they contribute to its various parts."
For now, that means sending in a relative handful of troops. In the future,
the numbers may not be quite so small.
"China is slowly setting the scene for eventually sending a combat unit to
some future UN peacekeeping operation," said David Chinn, former U.S.
ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso who now teaches at The George
Washington University. "In this sense, this is a significant development and
is in keeping with China's policy of slowing expanding the size and function
of its support to peacekeeping."
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