In recent decades, China’s support for the United Nations has grown considerably. China is now the third-largest contributor to the United Nations’ regular budget, the second-largest contributor to the peacekeeping budget, and has committed over 2,500 personnel to UN peacekeeping operations as of 2018. Multilateral organizations like the UN foster cooperation between countries and can facilitate diplomatic and political solutions to a range of transnational and subnational problems. The UN, therefore, provides China with a collaborative forum through which it can exert global influence. It also provides valuable training to its military through peacekeeping participation while promoting a positive image of China.
Given the United Nations’ mandate for upholding international peace, China’s participation in UN operations offers Beijing a low-cost means of demonstrating its commitment to global stability, thereby allaying concerns over China’s growing military and economic strength. In order to assess China’s growing involvement with the United Nations, this question explores China’s voting record on the UN Security Council, its growing role in UN peacekeeping operations, and its position on UN-mandated sanctions.
Non-participation and Abstention Votes in the UN Security Council
How has China leveraged its position as a permanent, veto-holding member of the UN Security Council?
All five permanent members of the UN Security Council may exercise veto power, arguably the most significant political tool within the UN. The veto enables these countries to prevent the adoption of any “substantive” resolution. Despite the often-competing interests of Security Council members, the veto itself is rarely used. Nevertheless, the instances where countries have used their veto power shed light on their particular political interests.
China has only employed its veto privileges twelve times since becoming a member in 1971, the lowest number for any Security Council member. Nine of these vetoes occurred over the past two decades – a break with China’s previous pattern of abstention in the 1980s and evidence of increased convergence with the other Security Council members in the 1990s. China’s only two Cold War vetoes came a year after its 1971 admission into the UN, when China vetoed Bangladesh’s admission following its independence from Pakistan and blocked a Western amendment to a draft resolution on addressing conflict in the Middle East.
China’s six most recent vetoes have aligned it with Russia on issues pertaining to the ongoing conflict in Syria.1 This alignment is also evident elsewhere. China abstained from voting on April 10, 2018 for a resolution that would have established a mechanism for investigating the recent chemical attacks. Four days later, China voted in favor of a Russian-backed resolution condemning Western airstrikes against Syria.
Vetoes and abstentions have aligned China with Russia on issues where material interests may be at play. For instance, China maintains significant trade relations with some countries that perform poorly on Freedom House surveys, and may view sanctions against these countries as having serious economic consequences for China. These factors may have contributed to China vetoing a 2008 proposal that threatened sanctions against the government of Zimbabwe for intimidation and violence during elections. In 2018, China abstained from voting for 2 resolutions that extended sanctions on South Sudan. These abstentions came after China and South Sudan signed an agreement for economic and technical cooperation in January of the same year.
A Conversation with Joel Wuthnow
0:05 - What are China's primary goals in the UN?
3:53 - What does China’s growing involvement in the UN through sanctions and peacekeeping tell us about Chinese thinking regarding non-interference?
6:24 - In what scenarios might China consider supporting UN-authorized military interventions?
9:37 - Why has China resisted the expansion of the permanent UN Security Council members?
Two of China’s vetoes reflect its concerns over territorial integrity in matters pertaining to Taiwan. In both cases, China declined to approve support for countries that gave diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. In 1997, Chinese UN Representative Qin Huasun voiced the delegation’s opinion that Guatemala’s recognition of Taiwan “infringed upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” which had “harmed China’s interests.”2 In 1999, China vetoed a proposal that would have extended peacekeeping support to Macedonia, with Chinese opposition widely seen as motivated by Macedonia’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Importantly, China has leveraged its position as a permanent member of the Security Council by threatening to veto resolutions it considers unfavorable to its interests. As a result, resolutions are often watered down to suit China’s preferences. Resolutions against North Korea and Iran, countries where China has considerable political and economic ties, have at times been negotiated to avoid sanctions that China considers to run counter to its interests.
In what ways is China contributing to UN peacekeeping operations?
After decades of opposition to UN peacekeeping operations, China’s involvement has flourished. In 1990, China had only five soldiers deployed in peacekeeping operations. This number surged to a high of to 3,084 personnel by mid-2015. As of 2018, China contributes over 2,500 personnel, more than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council. Chinese troop contributions are generally specialized personnel that function as part of military enabling units that perform tasks such as treating medical patients, providing logistical support, building infrastructure, and clearing explosives.
This behavior corresponds with the Chinese government’s efforts to enhance China’s international image through increased participation in global governance. Professor Alan Carlson notes that, following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, China sought to rebuild its international reputation.3 Consequently, China only diverged from the other four permanent members of the Security Council in cases that it viewed as infringing on national sovereignty.
China is emerging as a leader in UN peacekeeping. In September 2015, Xi Jinping pledged to create a standby force of 8,000 peacekeepers and a permanent peacekeeping police squad. Two years later, China completed the registration of the peacekeeping force with the UN. Along with personnel contributions, Beijing committed to a 10-year, $1 billion China-UN peace and development fund for peacekeeping operations. Notably, Xi’s pledge was targeted at specific areas of interest, with $100 million being earmarked for military assistance to the African Union.
China’s role in peacekeeping may continue to grow as the US scales back its contributions to the UN. In March 2018, the US announced that it would not supply more than 25 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget in the future, down from its contribution of 28.5 percent that year. Meanwhile, China supplied 10.3 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget in 2018, a sharp increase from 6.6 percent in 2016.
Bates Gill and Chin-hao Huang suggest that China’s growing interest in peacekeeping throughout the 2000s was based on three perceived gains: presenting a “harmonious,” responsible image of China abroad; expanding non-combat operations for Chinese troops; and providing training, combat experience, and riot-control experience for Chinese police and military. China’s participation in peacekeeping operations, therefore, offers two avenues for China to cultivate its national power. First, peacekeeping directly contributes to global governance. By supporting these operations, China’s leaders demonstrate that they are responsible stakeholders in the global community. According to China scholar Courtney Fung,4 China’s involvement is based on a desire to be perceived both as a great power and as an ally to developing countries. Furthermore, attaching Chinese military and police forces to peacekeeping operations provides a low-risk, non-confrontational means for China to strengthen its command-and-control structure, test its crisis-management capabilities, explore the logistical challenges of supporting an overseas presence, and offer valuable training to its troops.
Although China has deployed observers to most UN-recognized peacekeeping operations since the 1990s, it has been selective about where it deploys troops. Between 1990 and 2008, China sent troops to Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Sudan, and Lebanon. All of these locations hold geostrategic significance for China as well as valuable natural resources (for example, China has significant resource and infrastructure investments in the DRC). This is not to say that China is exclusively seeking material gains from its participation in peacekeeping or that China is not the only country that reaps domestic rewards from peacekeeping. Brazil is known to use its contributions to peacekeeping as a means to develop a professional police force and to modernize its military.
In 2015, China deployed its first official combat troops to South Sudan as part of a full infantry battalion consisting of 1,031 peacekeepers, its largest deployment as of 2017. China has a stake in South Sudan’s oil resources, and more broadly in African resources as a whole. China is involved in African security through more than just peacekeeping, with $20 million in arms sales to South Sudan (since halted) preceding China’s arrival in the new state. In 2016, China was the destination for nearly all of South Sudan’s crude oil exports (valued at $1.33 billion). With its international reputation, power shaping, and resources on the line, China’s roughly 2,500 blue-helmeted peacekeepers may be a relatively small investment.
China has moved from abstaining on virtually every peacekeeping vote out of principled opposition to generally supporting peacekeeping operations.
– Joel Wuthnow
How has China’s position on sanctions evolved?
China has opposed the use of sanctions for decades. It repeatedly used its permanent seat on the UN Security Council to condemn, mitigate, or even occasionally veto sanctions against countries such as North Korea, Libya, Myanmar, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Iran. China’s opposition to sanctions5 was founded on a belief in absolute sovereignty, which included adhering to the principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other countries. Deng Xiaoping favored this policy in order to keep a “low profile” on foreign affairs and to keep focus exclusively on economic development. From a practical standpoint, China generally believed that sanctions were simply counterproductive and in many cases destabilizing to already fragile countries.6
Beginning in the 2000s, China began to take on a more active role in the UN Security Council. The country’s financial and personnel support for the United Nations grew considerably, and China distanced itself from its ideological opposition to sanctions. From 2000 to 2018, China supported 182 of 190 sanctions-related resolutions7 passed by the Security Council. Of the remaining 8, China abstained from 4 votes, and vetoed arms embargoes against Zimbabwe (once) and Syria (three times). China opposed the Syria resolutions on the grounds that it did not want countries to intervene in their internal affairs.
In recent years, China has even demonstrated a willingness to approve sanctions against countries with whom China has a strategic or economic interest. Iran represents an important trade partner and oil source for China, and while China reluctantly supported sanctioning Iran in 2011, China nonetheless continued to purchase Iranian oil. China’s position on sanctions against North Korea perhaps best exemplifies this shift. North Korea’s 1993 announcement that it intended to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty created an international crisis. Chinese officials responded by reiterating their support for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but contesting that sanctions against North Korea would compromise the country’s national sovereignty.
China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It holds a veto. And so when the UN Security Council debates issues like Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Myanmar, Zimbabwe and so on, China has a voice, and China’s fundamental goal is to make sure that its key interests with respect to these countries are preserved.
– Joel Wuthnow
After Pyongyang tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006, however, China cast its first vote in support of sanctions against North Korea. This shift in policy likely stemmed from a combination of China’s irritation at North Korea’s defiance of Chinese warnings to refrain from testing and pressure from the international community. The targeted sanctions included an embargo on weapons and WMD-related technology and luxury goods, as well as financial sanctions. Beijing subsequently backed tightening sanctions on North Korea in Security Council resolutions that passed unanimously in 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2016 in response to missile and nuclear tests.
In many of these instances, China moderated the language and diluted the proposed sanctions in negotiations among Security Council members. However, during recent sanctions levied against North Korea in 2016 and 2017, China took a more active role in supporting some of the harshest sanctions enacted in several decades. This included backing the US-led UNSC resolution 2375, which was adopted in response to North Korea’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September 2017.
China’s past cooperation with the US has triggered criticism from Pyongyang. In June 2017, the DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman accused China of colluding with the U.S. to initiate UNSC resolution 2356, which further expanded sanctions to additional individuals and entities. While China at times has been supportive of UN resolutions related to nuclear proliferation in North Korea, it remains to be seen if China is committed to sustained enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang. Notably, sanctions imposed by the US Treasury in August 2017 and January 2018 on Chinese entities and individuals believed to be supporting North Korea’s weapons program may suggest that Washington believes Beijing’s commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula remains insufficient.
Despite China’s official backing of sanctions, investigations into China’s implementation of sanctions indicate gaps in compliance with UN resolutions on North Korea, especially in the area of luxury goods, cargo inspections, and proliferation-oriented financial transactions. There is insufficient evidence to determine whether China’s lack of full compliance is due to a deliberate effort to undermine the sanctions, inadequate capability to detect and prosecute violators, or local Chinese authorities disobeying orders from the central government. In the weeks following the last round of UN sanctions in 2017, a report surfaced alleging China had continued to allow monetary transfers to North Korea through a Singaporean branch of a Chinese bank.8
Events following the June 2018 summit between President Donald Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong Un suggest that China’s position on the sanctions against North Korea may be driven by political objectives. Following the conclusion of the summit, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang announced, “if North Korea respects and acts in accordance with the [UN] resolutions, then sanction measures can be adjusted, including to pause or remove the relevant sanctions.” Later in the month, President Xi Jinping and Chairman Kim met to discuss future “strategic and tactical cooperation” between China and North Korea.
- The vetoed resolutions are S/2017/172, S/2016/1026, S/2014/348, S/2012/538, S/2012/77, S/2011/612.
- UN Security Council, “Report of the Secretary-General (S/1996/1045 and Add.1 and 2),” January 10, 1997.
- Alan Carlson, cited in Wuthnow, Beyond the Veto: Chinese Diplomacy and the UN Security Council, 42.
- Courtney J. Fung, “What Explains China’s Deployment to UN Peacekeeping Operations?,” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, November 27, 2015.
- Joel Wuthnow, Chinese Diplomacy and the UN Security Council (New York: Routledge, 2013).
- Joel Wuthnow, Chinese Diplomacy and the UN Security Council (New York: Routledge, 2013).
- After 2014, China supported 12 sanctions-related resolutions. Post-2014 data is from the UN Security Council Meetings Records, as updated data from the original source is not available.
- Specific suspected violations are catalogued in annual reports published by the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] Panel of Experts at the United Nations.