Beijing and Tokyo have sent troops to a UN peacekeeping mission in far away South Sudan. Maxwell Downman examines their motives, and the implications for east Asia.

From export markets to territorial claims over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, competition between China and Japan is growing. Now the rivalry has found a new arena: United Nations peacekeeping.

Both countries have their own reasons for making use of UN peacekeeping missions. Under Xi Jinping, China seeks to justify an increasingly interventionist foreign policy, with the aim of protecting its expanding overseas interests. Shinzo Abe’s Japan, meanwhile, wants to justify constitutional change that allows the deployment of forces abroad.

Recently this competition has played out in South Sudan, the world’s newest state, which collapsed into civil war soon after independence from Sudan in 2011. China and Japan have both contributed forces to UNMISS, the peacekeeping mission to South Sudan since 2014. But blue-helmeted troops have struggled to protect civilians since the escalation of hostilities last July, leading the UN Secretariat to warn that the country is edging closer to genocide.

Since 2010 China has rapidly increased its contribution to UN peacekeeping, in terms of both financing and troops. Last year it gave 10 per cent of the UN peacekeeping budget, making it the biggest contributor for the first time, with Japan narrowly beaten into second place. Since it can also shape peacekeeping mandates through its permanent membership of the Security Council, Beijing has new and unparalleled influence over peacekeeping. With 2,630 personnel currently deployed, over 1,000 of them in South Sudan, China is the tenth largest troop contributor, but will become the largest if it fulfils its pledge to build an 8,000-strong peacekeeping task force.

HELPLESS: When SPLA-IO rebels raided a UN camp in Juba in July 2016, Chinese peacekeepers refused to come to their aid
HELPLESS: When SPLA-IO rebels raided a UN camp in Juba in July 2016, Chinese peacekeepers refused to come to their aid

Yet the Chinese contribution has not been wholly disinterested. As its business interests have expanded, with its One Belt One Road initiative and new African investment, so have the risks it wants to offset. In 2016 China signed over $50 billion worth of deals in Africa, overtaking the US and Europe as the continent’s most important trade partner.

In South Sudan, where China has received 90 per cent of oil exports since independence in 2011, Chinese peacekeepers have followed the country’s investment. Before contributing troops to UNMISS in 2014, a new clause was inserted at Beijing’s instance, allowing peacekeepers to protect oil installations – the majority Chinese-owned. This was a first for the UN.

China’s new interventionism has gone as far establishing military bases abroad. Last November, Beijing confirmed its intention to base forces in Djibouti to deepen its participation in peacekeeping and anti-piracy missions near Somalia and the Gulf of Aden – through which nearly 45 per cent of Chinese oil imports pass.

Japan, meanwhile, has had an uneasy relation with peacekeeping, relying on financing for influence, due to its constitutional prohibitions on overseas deployment of the Self-Defence Forces (SDF). These restrictions, designed to allay fears of a return of Japanese militarism, have governed regional security arrangements since the Second World War, with the US assuming responsibility for Japan’s nuclear defence.

Recently, however, Abe has pushed two controversial security laws through the Diet, enabling the SDF’s participation in UNMISS, in which it deploys 350 engineers. Restrictions on military deployment abroad were eased, and the use of the SDF for collective defence was made legal. The Prime Minister pushed through these major constitutional changes against stiff opposition, arguing that Japan needed to deepen its engagement in peacekeeping, and that the constitutional constraints were not applicable, given the nature of 21st century conflicts.

Abe has shown a knack for jumping the gun with the SDF’s deployment, forcing the Diet to catch up legislatively. Peacekeeping has thus been instrumental in advancing the debate over the expanding role of the armed forces. In 2013, the Diet passed an emergency exception law, permitting the supply of ammunition to other peacekeepers, following attacks in Juba, the South Sudanese capital. Last year, Japanese troops were used to evacuate 70 Japanese nationals and 47 aid workers, in the face of increasing violence. Much of the right-wing press lauded the SDF’s actions – constitutionally illegal at the time – and called for the development of greater overseas military capacity.

In December, Japan dispatched a fresh battalion to UNMISS under the auspices of the new laws. Troops will be authorised to engage in front-line operations as well as protecting and rescuing UN staff. This was followed in January by a deal with Australia, allowing the two countries’ troops to supply ammunition to each other in peacekeeping. Japan has even entered into negotiations to establish an SDF base in Djibouti, much like China, for the purpose of supporting peacekeeping and anti-piracy missions. This would be the first time Tokyo has set up a military base abroad since the Second World War, a monumental shift in Japan’s post-war consensus.

While these manoeuvrings may fulfil Chinese and Japanese strategic aims, the benefits to peacekeeping in general, and South Sudan in particular, remain questionable. In 2014, China was found to be supplying arms to the South Sudanese government in the midst of the civil war. It abrogated its contracts under international pressure, but the Conflict Armament Research Group found that as recently as last year, 1,300 boxes of Chinese ammunition were in the hands of the SPLA-IO rebel group, who are fighting against the government and peacekeepers.

In July 2016, when SPLA-IO rebels raided a UN camp in Juba, gang-raping aid workers, Chinese peacekeepers refused orders to come to their aid. UNMISS commanders have reported Chinese ‘resistance and unwillingness to expose themselves’, and Chinese decision-makers show little concern for human rights, which underpin the mandate. Japanese forces also remained in their camp as Juba descended into conflict. Abe has been reluctant to risk the death of any Japanese peacekeepers, given the unpopularity of his new security legislation, currently attracting only 20 per cent support.

In December, in an attempt to stem the violence, the US proposed an UN arms embargo in South Sudan. This resolution failed by two votes, with both China and Japan abstaining. China’s abstention is hardly surprising, given its previous voting record, but Japan – usually a stalwart ally of the US – abstained on the grounds that the resolution could result in retaliatory rebel strikes against Japanese peacekeepers, and thus endanger their participation in the mission.

The question is how these actions far away in Africa could affect tensions closer to home. Will Japan’s new security legislation alter a precarious regional order? Will China respect international law where it clashes with what it sees as its national interest? Its response to the UN’s arbitration in the South China Sea does not inspire much confidence. As the newly-installed President Trump ushers in a new period of American isolationism, these issues will inevitably come to the fore.

Maxwell Downman is a political researcher currently working for Labour in the House of Lords, as well as the think-tank The Democracy Forum.  He specialises in East Asian international politics, specifically Sino-Japanese relations

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