Chinese troops have been stationed in Mali for the last half-decade as part of the UN-mandated stabilization force. Deployed after rebel groups overran large portions northeastern Mali in 2013, it was just the second time Beijing had ever contributed combat troops to a UN peacekeeping mission. This Special Report examines how China is using its peacekeeping activities in Mali as an opportunity to train troops and test equipment in a hostile environment—and as a way of extending its diplomatic reach and soft power in Africa and beyond.

Summary

  • China’s participation in the United Nation’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is only the second time in its history that the country has contributed combat troops to a UN peacekeeping mission. 
  • China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has used its participation in MINUSMA to train its personnel to operate in a hostile environment, gain experience working with other UN contingents and in a French-speaking country, and test new military equipment.
  • The MINUSMA experience has also underscored for China the importance of improving interactions with local populations, strengthening cooperation with local militaries, and better communicating the value of China’s growing role in UN peacekeeping to Chinese citizens.
  • However, the PLA contingent in Mali has remained largely risk adverse, particularly since a May 2016 attack that killed one Chinese soldier and injured four others. Moreover, the leading role played by French counterterrorism forces has mostly limited the activities of Chinese combat troops to building infrastructure and providing medical care.
  • China’s participation in MINUSMA underscores Beijing’s ambition to become a key player in UN peacekeeping operations and African security, which is a reflection of its efforts to expand its diplomatic influence and soft power around the world.

About the Report

This Special Report examines China’s ongoing participation in UN peacekeeping missions in Mali and elsewhere in Africa, and how it reflects Beijing’s desire to project its diplomatic influence and soft power around the world. Based on an extensive review of reporting, interviews, and field research, the report also documents the operational and security challenges Chinese peacekeepers face in Mali, as well as efforts to build support at home for its participation in peacekeeping missions. The report was supported by the Asia Center’s China Program at the United States Institute of Peace. 

About the Author

Jean-Pierre Cabestan is a professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. Since 2011, his research has focused on China-Africa relations. He has published several articles on specific bilateral relations that China has developed in sub-Sahara Africa, particularly with Ethiopia, Tanzania, Cameroon, Gabon, Burkina Faso, and Mali. He has more recently focused on the military and security dimensions of China’s policy towards Africa.

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