China has committed 8,000 troops to the UN, part of more than 40,000 peacekeepers pledged by member states on Monday, a total representing nearly a third of the UN's current field deployments.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said the personnel would be part part of a standby force, but questions remained about when and how they could be deployed, and what role China would have in deciding that.
"China will join the new UN peacekeeping capability readiness system, and thus has decided to lead in setting up a permanent peacekeeping police squad and build a peacekeeping standby force of 8,000 troops," said Xi.
The new commitments came at a high level summit hosted by the US government, and opened by President Obama. Enlarging and reforming the UN's peacekeeping efforts has been a central goal of the administration. In recent months, American officials, including UN Ambassador Samantha Power, have called on European countries in particular to commit more resources and troops to peacekeeping deployments. European contributions to peacekeeping currently stand at a fraction of what they were decades ago. Obama said the US would double the number of officers assigned to UN peacekeeping missions, an increase that would still see fewer than 200 American personnel officially deployed with the UN (not counting American employees of the UN.)
"We know that peace operations are not the solution to every problem, but they do remain one of the world's most important tools to address armed conflict," Obama told the gathered leaders.
Obama said UN peacekeeping, which includes some 125,000 personnel — among them roughly 106,000 "blue helmets" — stationed in 16 missions, was under "unprecedented strains." In several missions, including those in Mali and the Golan Heights, peacekeepers have been confronted with threats from violent insurgencies and militias. In Mali, dozens of blue helmets have been killed in ambushes on barren Sahel highways, and by improvised explosive devices. But peacekeepers have also come under intense scrutiny for their involvement in a litany of sexual abuse scandals across several missions. In the Central African Republic, the UN has drawn more than a dozen accusations against its blue helmets for such abuse, and others for disproportionate use of force, including the killing of innocent civilians. In Haiti, hundreds of women told UN investigators they had engaged in transactional sex with peacekeepers stationed there. The response from UN peacekeeping Chief Herve Ladsous has been called lackluster; earlier this month, during a rare press conference, after returning from the Central African, seen as the epicenter of sexual exploitation, Ladsous impressed upon reporters that peacekeepers needed more rest and recuperation.
While more than 50 countries announced recommitments or said they would make new forces available to the UN, it was China's pledge which caught the eyes of many, and appeared to catch some officials off guard.
"Xi Jinping definitely stole the show with his plans for an 8,000-strong standby force to back UN operations, and his pledge overshadowed pretty much everyone else's," Richard Gowan, a peacekeeping expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News. "The big question is what this will mean in practice. Is it 8,000 troops ready to deploy at short notice at all times? Or is it a pool of 8,000 that Beijing can draw on selectively to assist the UN when it wants to."
"The history of peacekeeping is littered with exciting-sounding "standby forces" that have never been deployed," added Gowan.
China has some 2,600 peacekeepers stationed in UN missions, mostly in Africa. The largest deployment, more than 1,000, serves in South Sudan. China is one of the largest backers of that country's oil industry, which has been adversely affected by the civil war that broke out in December 2013, and has left more than 50,000 dead.
In his remarks, Xi also said China would pledge $100 million to the African Union for its own rapid-reaction battalions. Earlier, during his speech before the General Assembly, Xi spent much of the time discussing support for African countries, where China has invested billions in recent years to secure natural resources. In keeping with China's longstanding policy of self-interested neutrality at the UN, Xi inveighed little of the crises in the Middle East, topics which dominated the speeches of his American and Russian counterparts.
Other countries made significant commitments to the peacekeeping force. Colombia said it would make available 5,000 peacekeepers, though President Juan Manuel Santos cautioned that the contribution depended on the country's domestic security environment. The African Union said it would increase its peacekeeping budget by 25 percent; Nato pledged to IED-dismantling and strategic airlift capacities; Sierra Leone said it would offer 500 police, among them 300 who are female; the Netherlands said it would extend the deployment of its peacekeepers in Mali for another year; British Prime Minister David Cameron said the UK would send 70 troops to the UN-AU mission in Somalia and possibly as many as 300 more to South Sudan.
"I believe these things are in our own national interest," said Cameron. "When countries break up, we see the problems of migration can affect us all. When countries become havens to terror, we all suffer as a result."
For now, most if not all of the pledges made Monday are on paper. It remains to be seen how many troops will be sent, and when they would become available. Several countries indicated it would take several years to fulfill their commitments.
"There are lots of reasons to be cynical about what we just saw, but the political message of President Obama respectfully listening to other leaders talk about helicopter units — or just ramble on like Francois Hollande — is huge for the UN," said Gowan.
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