Almost exactly a year after I published an op-ed calling on China to break tradition and contribute combat-ready peacekeeping infantry — something they’ve never done before — to the UN mission in South Sudan, they have announced they will be doing just that.
700 troops will be arriving in January and March — along with drones, armored vehicles, mortars, anti-tank weapons, light arms, and body armor. China’s military and government stressed that the troops will only be armed to protect themselves from attack. (Although this seems like it might be overkill, at least two UN peacekeepers were killed in December 2013 while trying to defend a UN military base and refugee haven from being overrun by two thousand rebel child soldiers, who began massacring civilians once inside the base.)
It is China’s first UN peacekeeping mission that doesn’t just involve sending medics, engineers, guards, and other non-combat troops (of which they have sent thousands to UN-monitored conflicts all over the world).
China is very likely the only country with relatively good ties to just about everyone in South Sudan’s crisis, due to its role as the primary buyer and developer of South Sudanese oil. Although they lean somewhat toward supporting the incumbent government, they also need the rebels to cooperate (to restore the oil production levels) and the rebels need China (to buy the oil from their areas and give them revenue). This gives China an unusual opportunity to be the force in the middle. But it is also a sign that China is stepping up its role and responsibilities in world affairs to a level proportionate with its size and power.