Over the past 45 years, China has developed a high level of expertise in dealing with the political UN, that is the General Assembly and the Security Council. However, within the operational UN, and in particular the specialized agencies, its influence is still disproportionally low compared to what it could be and should be. This is now changing, albeit at a glacial pace as China seeks to assert itself in what was essentially a western dominion, namely UN peacekeeping.

Traditionally, China’s foreign relations were essentially bilateral. Multilateral action through the intermediary of the UN system was very much a western domain in the fields of humanitarian aid and economic development assistance, and even more so in the area of peacekeeping.

What is referred to today as UN peacekeeping is actually peace monitoring. It consists of troops operating under a nominal UN mandate to be deployed in a high-tension situation where their presence can have a restraining influence on the parties in conflict. In practical terms, this means that their mission is not so much to impose peace as to provide a presence that has a stabilizing effect.

Peacekeeping operations are governed by the UN Security Council. Barring any veto, the Council adopts a resolution inviting member states to provide troops and allocate funding for a specific peacekeeping operation.

The upshot of this modus operandi is a formula in which the wealthy nations provide the funding and the poor nations the troops. Thus, of the current some 100 000 peacekeepers, 8,000 are Ethiopian, 7,000 Bangladeshis, 7,000 Pakistani, 5,200 Nepalese 3,000 from Burkina Faso and 2,700 from Ghana. Conversely, the US contributes 78 peacekeepers, Russia 98 and the UK 400.

Governments contribute peacekeepers generally in battalion size, commanded by their own officers, with their own weapons, uniforms, support facilities, procedures and codes of discipline. As all expenses and salaries are paid by the UN, contributing to peacekeeping is a lucrative business, especially for poor countries with large armies that are generally idle.

The deployment of military peacekeepers is only the tip of the iceberg of UN peacekeeping. Overall each peacekeeping operation is a complex setup, which includes a force commander, a special representative of the UN Secretary General, and a large support staff to deal with logistics, administration and political affairs.

Until 1992, China steered clear of UN peacekeeping. Then in 1992 China took the unprecedented step of contributing a small military contingent to the UN operation in Cambodia. This was followed in 1999 by a much larger Chinese contingent, which was allocated to the UN peacekeeping operation in East Timor. In 2001 the Chinese authorities created an Office of Peacekeeping Affairs within their ministry of Defense and Peacekeeping. It has now become one of the major components of China’s UN policy.

China currently contributes 2,833 peacekeepers and has stated that it intends to increase the number to 8,000. In terms of funding, China currently contributes some US$1 billion a year for UN peacekeeping operations plus a $200 million trust fund for peace and development, which makes it the second-largest donor for peacekeeping after the US. However, the US, which currently covers 28% of the peacekeeping budget compared to China’s 10%, only contributes  78 peacekeepers; this figure reflects Washington’s reluctance to put its military under foreign command.

Currently, the UN runs 16 peacekeeping operations of which nine are in Africa. It is these operations that China is focused on supporting, and while 80% of China’s peacekeepers are in Africa, 50% of these are in South Sudan. Visibly, Beijing, after many years of hesitation, has discovered that UN peacekeeping, by stabilizing crisis situations where China has political and economic interests, can be a useful tool in furthering the country’s foreign economic projections.

However, what China has yet to discover is that contributing peacekeepers or funding is not enough to secure influence. Staffing at all levels of the UN bureaucracy that administers each single peacekeeping operation is far more important than the number or nationality of the peacekeeping troops, and this is an area where China is lagging. While China is the second-largest contributor to peacekeeping, if you look at the staffing levels within the UN Secretariat, which actually administers peacekeeping, China is in 15th place. This low ranking has a direct impact on China’s influence within the UN system.

Unlike structured national bureaucracies with well-defined hierarchies, the international civil service is essentially anarchic: accountability is lacking; instructions, when given, are often not fully followed through; and supervision is erratic. Within each single peacekeeping operation the key element of allocation of resources is in the hands of the bureaucracy, and the degree of control exercised by the force commander or the chief of mission is often more symbolic than real.

Over the years the recruitment of Chinese staff members within the UN system has been lagging and Beijing has concentrated on trying to place its citizens in high positions, neglecting the lower and middle ranks. Ultimately it is within these that most of the actual power rests and in this realm, the Chinese are few and far between.

Granted, for products of the Chinese educational system, with its respect for rank and structure, the UN bureaucratic environment is an alien world. But until Beijing realizes that staffing the lower and middle ranks of the UN bureaucracy is often more important than holding a few isolated top-level positions, the influence of China, whatever the number of peacekeepers it contributes, will not reach its full potential and will fall far short of that of western nations with long-term UN staffing policies.