The power play in peacekeeping

Though Indian troops have led the way, the returns in UN power play have been low. The contrast with China is stark

Updated - December 12, 2017 12:35 am IST

Published - December 12, 2017 12:02 am IST

Media coverage of peacekeeping operations is an area with many gaps. Consider for example, an incident last week, where at least 15 peacekeepers and five soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were killed and numerous peacekeepers wounded by armed militants in one of the worst attacks on United Nations personnel. A local Islamist extremist group overran the remote base. Most of the dead and wounded are from Tanzania. Was there any media coverage in India? It would have been a different story had they been troops from the West. In the midst of this, one must focus on China as its grip on UN affairs tightens and it starts deciding policy, to the detriment of India.

China rising

Amid the buzz around Beijing taking centre stage in world affairs, the import of China’s deployment of its first peacekeeping helicopter unit in the peacekeeping mission in Darfur has been lost sight of. Having made a reluctant entry in peacekeeping, when it sent a small cadre of soldiers to Cambodia in 1992, Beijing has become the largest troop contributor among the permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC). More importantly, China is now the third-largest contributor to the UN’s regular budget and the second-largest contributor to the peacekeeping budget. News of any country supporting peacekeeping is good, but what does this portend in Beijing’s quest for great power status? In a September 2017 report, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) says: “China’s participation in UN operations offers... a low-cost means of demonstrating their commitment to global stability... and allay(s) fears about its military and economic strength.” But is the picture that simple for India in geopolitical power play?

The UN, especially the UNSC, is a blue-blooded political body, notwithstanding its charter of considering all countries as equals. In practice, a nation’s voice is in proportion to what it contributes towards the UN, especially funds — India’s contribution is only 0.737% when compared to China’s 7.92% and the U.S.’s 22%. Troop contributions to peacekeeping do not get their due in UN power politics. Having led a peacekeeping contingent, in 2005, I have seen first hand how pivotal posts in UN missions have always been with major fund contributors. China is indeed a part of the picture.

Veto power

The CSIS report states that China has used its veto only 12 times, but two were cast where its economic interests were involved, like in Myanmar and Zimbabwe despite these being low on human rights records. What is more worrisome, however, is that two vetoes were also cast “over concerns over territorial integrity pertaining to Taiwan”. China was against sending UN peacekeepers to Guatemala and Macedonia because they had established diplomatic ties with Taiwan. When this self-serving act is linked with Beijing’s other recent coercive actions such as against Mongolia due to a Dalai Lama visit, and against Japan when it is said to have halted exports of rare minerals following the arrest of a Chinese trawler captain, the increasing front-lining of China in international affairs via the UN has an ominous ring.

In 2015, China committed a standby force of 8,000 peacekeepers and a permanent police squad for UN operations. In addition, there is a 10-year $1 billion China-U.N. peace and development fund and $100 million in military assistance to the African Union. It is no coincidence that Africa is where China has large economic interests. Peacekeeping is said to be a cover for China to test its strengths in overseas deployments. The deployment of a People’s Liberation Army Navy submarine off the Africa coast for anti-piracy patrolling is totrain its seamen in long-distance operations.

Impacting India

Chinese involvement in peacekeeping, along with its higher funding contributions will put Beijing in the driver’s seat in formulating peacekeeping mandates, thereby affecting India in more ways than one.

Is India losing out despite having provided almost 200,000 troops in nearly 50 of the 71 UN peacekeeping missions over the past six decades? We have also sent scarce aviation assets including Canberra bombers to a UN Mission in Congo in the 1960s and helicopters to Somalia, Sierra Leone and Sudan. The truth is that though our troops have been on the front line of facing danger (168 soldiers lost in UN operations, till May 2017), the returns in UN power play have been low. It was perhaps not a troublesome issue until now considering India’s good relations with the other four permanent UNSC members, but will this continue with China rise in the UN, especially with U.S. President Donald Trump’s preoccupation elsewhere? Chinese opposition to India’s candidature for a UNSC seat and its repeated vetos on the Masood Azhar issue are unwelcome indicators.

Peacekeeping missions are the raison d’etre of the UN and India’s generous contributions as far as peacekeeping troops are concerned should be key in its argument to have a greater say in the affairs of the UN. India must demand its pound of flesh.

Manmohan Bahadur, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi

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