PLA cel­e­brat­ing 27th an­niver­sary of na­tion’s in­volve­ment in UN mis­sions over­seas

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHANG ZHIHAO

“If you were killed dur­ing a mis­sion, how would you like your UN death ben­e­fits to be dis­trib­uted?”

That was one of the first ques­tions Se­nior Colonel Yang Xi­jun was asked when he signed up as a mil­i­tary ob­server for the 2006 UN mis­sion in Su­dan, a North African coun­try rav­aged by tribal war­fare, dis­ease and poverty.

Yang’s cho­sen role had his­toric res­o­nance. On April 21, 1990, China par­tic­i­pated in a peace­keep­ing mis­sion for the first time by de­ploy­ing five mil­i­tary ob­servers in the Mid­dle East as part of the UN Truce Su­per­vi­sion Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Two years later, the coun­try sent 400 Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army en­gi­neers to as­sist the United Na­tions in Cam­bo­dia, China’s first de­ploy­ment of mil­i­tary per­son­nel on an of­fi­cial “blue beret” mis­sion.

More than 2,500 Chi­nese peace­keep­ers are par­tic­i­pat­ing in 10 UN-led mis­sions, mean­ing the coun­try pro­vides a greater num­ber of per­son­nel than the four other per­ma­nent mem­bers of the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil com­bined.

China also is the sec­ond­largest fi­nan­cial con­trib­u­tor to peace­keep­ing mis­sions, pro­vid­ing more than 10 per­cent of the $7.8 bil­lion bud­get for 2016-17.

In 2015, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping com­mit­ted 8,000 troops to the UN peace­keep­ing standby force. He also pledged $100 mil­lion to the African standby force, which is backed by the African Union, and $1 bil­lion to es­tab­lish the UN Peace and De­vel­op­ment Trust Fund.

Ac­cord­ing to Gao Mingbo, sec­tion di­rec­tor of the Depart­ment of In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tions and Con­fer­ences at the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs, the three big­gest changes dur­ing the 27 years in which China has par­tic­i­pated in peace­keep­ing ef­forts are the in­creas­ing so­phis­ti­ca­tion of mis­sions, the wider range of per­son­nel re­quired and the grow­ing vol­ume of equip­ment and sup­port fund­ing.

While Yang agreed with Gao’s as­sess­ment, he noted: “The suc­cess of peace­keep­ing mis­sions ul­ti­mately falls on the shoul­ders of the brave men and women in blue hel­mets.”

In Fe­bru­ary, Yang signed up for his fourth mis­sion, as a high-rank­ing lo­gis­tics of­fi­cer for the UN peace­keep­ing mis­sion in Mali, West Africa.

“Ini­tially, my fam­ily thought I was mad for con­stantly throw­ing my­self into for­eign con­flicts and risk­ing my life for coun­tries they barely knew,” he said. “But I think it’s a great honor to rep­re­sent my coun­try and to fight not for re­sources or dom­i­nance, but for sta­bil­ity and the greater good of those in need.”

Eyes and ears

Mil­i­tary ob­servers are like war re­porters, ac­cord­ing to Yang. They have to in­ter­act with lo­cal peo­ple, learn about the cul­ture and the pre­vail­ing sit­u­a­tion, and re­port any sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­i­ties or vi­o­la­tions of cease­fires or hu­man rights to the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

“Since we are not al­lowed to carry weapons, our bat­tles are fought with binoc­u­lars, cam­eras and note­books,” he said. “Our goal is to raise aware­ness and pull the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to­gether to pre­vent crimes against hu­man­ity. We are the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil’s eyes and ears.”

How­ever, un­like re­porters, who of­ten have the lux­ury of work­ing on the side­lines, “fac­ing life-threat­en­ing dan­ger is part of our daily rou­tine”, he said.

One of those dan­gers in­volves long-dis­tance pa­trols. Ac­cord­ing to Yang, cross­ing dis­ease-filled swamps and bar­ren wilder­ness is con­sid­ered easy, and the real chal­lenge lies in fields laced with land­mines, a com­mon prob­lem in the West­ern Sa­hara and South Su­dan.

“In the car, we sit on top of our bul­let­proof vests and put sand­bags on the floor, hop­ing they will ab­sorb some of the blast from a small mine. But if we hit an anti-tank mine, we are dead,” he said.

“It be­comes more dan­ger­ous dur­ing the rainy sea­son be­cause the safe tracks left by pre­vi­ous ve­hi­cles are washed away. Then, we rely on our mem­o­ries, GPS and luck.”

Some of the most un­pre­dictable and se­ri­ous dif­fi­cul­ties come from deal­ing with lo­cal peo­ple. “It can be very dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish friend from foe,” he said.

“A vil­lage may look in­no­cent, but the make-up of its pop­u­la­tion can be very com­pli­cated. Armed ex­trem­ists or guer­ril­las of­ten live with women and chil­dren, and some­times even use them as hostages or weapons.”

It helps that Chi­nese peace­keep­ers have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing dis­ci­plined and on good terms with the lo­cals.

“You have to earn peo­ple’s trust and re­spect through gen­uine acts of good­will, and con­vince them you are risk­ing your life for their well-be­ing,” he said.

In early 2012, con­flict broke out in Mali be­tween the gov­ern­ment and armed groups, in­clud­ing Is­lamic rad­i­cals and Tuareg rebels. In April 2013, the UN formed the Mul­tidi­men­sional In­te­grated Sta­bi­liza­tion Mis­sion in Mali, known as MINUSMA.

Mali is the most dan­ger­ous on­go­ing peace­keep­ing op­er­a­tion in the world. In the past four years, 118 peace­keep­ers have been killed, and in June last year, a car bomb ex­ploded at a UN camp in the north­ern city of Gao, killing Shen Lian­gliang, a 29-year-old sergeant first class, and in­jur­ing seven other Chi­nese peace­keep­ers.

“The en­emy was hid­ing among the civil­ians; sui­cide bombers and car bombs were com­mon and threats were ev­ery­where,” said Se­nior Colonel Zhang Ge­qiang, who was field com­man­der of the first “po­lice force” — a mil­i­tary unit that un­der­takes pa­trols, crowd sur­veil­lance other front-line tasks — China sent to Mali in 2013.

Be­fore de­ploy­ment, Zhang drilled his 170 elite sol­diers, se­lected from 2,030 ap­pli­cants in the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Shenyang Mil­i­tary Re­gion. In ad­di­tion to the po­lice force, the unit in­cluded a 155-strong engi­neer­ing di­vi­sion and 70 med­i­cal per­son­nel.

Peace­keep­ers are only al­lowed to use their weapons in self-de­fense, so dur­ing shoot­ing drills, Zhang or­dered his sol­diers to hang a brick from the bar­rels of their ri­fles and tie sand­bags to their arms. They were also or­dered to use their trig­ger fingers to pluck grains of rice from a bowl.

“Th­ese ex­er­cises are meant to train their hands, to make them sen­si­tive and steady, so they can ac­cu­rately aim for non­lethal body parts or shoot a gun out of an en­emy’s hand,” he said, adding that wilder- ness sur­vival, bomb dis­posal, un­der­cover and stealth ex­er­cises, and crowd sur­veil­lance and con­trol also fea­tured heav­ily dur­ing train­ing.

Trump card

On Dec 5, 2013, the first batch of 135 Chi­nese peace­keep­ers ar­rived in Gao, which had been lib­er­ated from oc­cu­py­ing in­sur­gents less than a year be­fore.

The Chi­nese force was put to the test al­most im­me­di­ately. On Dec 24, two rock­ets were fired at their com­pound; one landed in a river, the other ex­ploded 1 kilo­me­ter away.

Dur­ing their nine-month mis­sion, the Chi­nese peace­keep­ers con­ducted more than 450 pa­trols and 290 es­cort mis­sions, and were sub­jected to more than 30 rocket at­tacks and sui­cide bombers, but there was not a sin­gle causal­ity, Zhang said.

On Aug 1, 2014, at a medal cer­e­mony for UN peace­keep­ers, the then-MINUSMA force com­man­der, Ma­jor Gen­eral Jean Bosco Kazura, thanked the Chi­nese peace­keep­ers for their cru­cial con­tri­bu­tion.

“The Chi­nese peace­keep­ers are MINUSMA’s trump cards,” he said.


China’s fourth team of peace­keep­ing po­lice in Liberia prac­tice climb­ing skills in groups last year.


Chi­nese peace­keep­ers train in Mon­rovia, Liberia, in Jan­uary.


Blue berets salute dur­ing the fu­neral of Shen Lian­gliang, who was killed in Mali last year.

A stu­dent re­ceives a school­bag do­nated by UN per­son­nel in Montser­rado, Liberia.

A sol­dier jumps through a flam­ing hoop as part of a train­ing ex­er­cise in Mon­rovia.

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