In recent decades, China’s support for the United Nations (UN) has grown considerably. Whereas in the past China was reticent to play an active role in the organization, it is now the second-largest contributor to the UN’s regular budget. It is also the second-largest contributor to the peacekeeping budget and provides more personnel to peacekeeping operations than any other permanent member of the Security Council. These contributions enable China to exert diplomatic and political influence globally. They also provide Beijing with opportunities to reassure the international community of China’s commitment to global peace and stability.
UN Security Council Resolutions
China’s activity as a permanent member of the UN Security Council
The UN Security Council (UNSC) consists of five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – and 10 non-permanent members. All five permanent members (P5) of the UNSC may exercise veto power, arguably the most significant political tool within the UN. The veto enables any of the P5 to prevent the adoption of any “substantive” resolution. Despite the often-competing interests of UNSC members, the veto itself is rarely used. Nevertheless, the instances where countries have used their veto power shed light on their respective interests.
Through 2019, China has only employed its veto privilege 14 times, leaving it tied with France for the lowest number of any P5 member. As a point of comparison, the US has vetoed 80 resolutions since November 1971 – when China joined the UN – accounting for nearly two-thirds of all UNSC vetoes during this period.1 China cast 13 of its 14 vetoes since 1997, demonstrating its growing activity within the UNSC.
|UN Security Council Vetoes (1971-2019)
|Number of Vetoes
|Share of Vetoes (%)
|Total Resolutions Vetoed
|Source: United Nations
China’s 11 most recent vetoes have aligned with Russian vetoes, with eight of these pertaining to the ongoing conflict in Syria.2 This convergence is also evident elsewhere. In April 2018, China abstained on a draft resolution – vetoed by Russia – that would have established a mechanism for investigating the use of chemical weapons. Four days later, China voted in favor of a Russian-backed resolution condemning US-led airstrikes against Syria. More recently, China and Russia vetoed a draft resolution on a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province in September 2019, only to put forward a competing draft resolution that would allow Russia to continue military operations there.
Other material and economic interests are also at play. China has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to maintain significant trade relations with countries that have been threatened with UN-mandated sanctions. In May and July of 2018, China abstained on two resolutions that extended sanctions on South Sudan, where earlier in the year China signed a $248 million loan agreement. Similarly, in February 2019, China vetoed a US-drafted resolution to address the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, where China has significant economic and political interests.
A Conversation with Joel Wuthnow
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, China vetoed a resolution to send a peacekeeping mission to Guatemala because it claimed Guatemala’s recognition of Taiwan “infringed upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”3 In 1999, China vetoed a proposal that would have extended peacekeeping support to Macedonia, likely in response to Macedonia’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Taiwan.4
Importantly, China has leveraged its position as a P5 member by threatening to veto resolutions that it considers unfavorable. This has contributed to resolutions being watered down to accommodate China. 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.
China has moved from abstaining on virtually every peacekeeping vote out of principled opposition to generally supporting peacekeeping operations.Joel Wuthrow
China’s contributions to UN peacekeeping operations
After decades of opposition to UN peacekeeping operations, China is now a world leader in peacekeeping operations. This behavior corresponds with Beijing’s efforts to enhance China’s international image through increased participation in global governance. In 1990, China had only five soldiers deployed in peacekeeping operations. This number surged to a high of 3,084 personnel by mid-2015 and remains at over 2,500 personnel today – the most of any P5 member.5
President Xi Jinping has expanded China’s role in peacekeeping operations as part of a larger effort to strengthen China’s global presence. In September 2015, Xi pledged to create a standby force of 8,000 peacekeepers and a permanent peacekeeping police squad. China followed through on its pledge two years later with the registration of the peacekeeping force with the UN.
Beijing complemented this push by committing 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. In March 2019, China announced that the fund would support nearly double the number of peacekeeping training and capacity-building programs.6
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.
According to China scholar Courtney Fung, 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 currently provides 232 peacekeeping personnel (including 218 troops), to MONUSCO, the UN mission in the DRC. China has significant investments in the DRC, including an 80 percent stake in one of the world’s largest copper and cobalt mines.
Additionally, China’s largest peacekeeping commitment – by a wide margin – is in South Sudan, where China has provided a full infantry battalion of 1,031 peacekeeping troops. China has a stake in South Sudan’s oil resources, and in April 2019 increased its imports of Sudanese oil from 10,000 barrels per day to 30,000 barrels per day. By assisting with peacekeeping in these countries, and others, China seeks to maintain stability that will better ensure the security of its investments.
This is not to say that China is exclusively seeking material gains from its participation in peacekeeping missions, or that China is not the only country that reaps domestic rewards from peacekeeping. Brazil, for instance, has been known to use its contributions to peacekeeping as a means to develop a professional police force and to modernize its military.
China’s revised position on UN sanctions
In the earlier decades of its UN membership, China routinely opposed the use of sanctions. China’s veto privileges enabled it to condemn, mitigate, or even occasionally veto sanctions against countries such as North Korea, Libya, Myanmar, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Iran. China’s opposition to sanctions was based on a belief in absolute sovereignty and emphasized non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. In many cases, China also viewed sanctions as destabilizing to already-fragile countries.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Beijing began to adopt a more flexible position on sanctions. China supported 182 of 190 sanctions-related resolutions passed by the UNSC between 2000 and 2018. Of the remaining eight, China abstained from four votes, and vetoed arms embargoes against Zimbabwe (once) and Syria (three times). China opposed the Syria-related resolutions on the grounds that it did not want countries to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries.
Over this period, China’s financial commitments to the UN also increased. China contributed a total of $12 million to the UN regular budget in 2000 – accounting for just one percent of total contributions. By 2019, this number had surged to $367.9 million (12 percent of total), making China the second-largest contributor after the US (amount and percent).
In recent years, China has even demonstrated a willingness to approve sanctions against countries with which China has strategic or economic interests. China’s position on sanctions against North Korea perhaps best exemplifies this change. 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.
However, after Pyongyang conducted its first test of a nuclear weapon in October 2006, China cast its first vote in support of sanctions against North Korea in Resolution 1718. This shift likely stemmed from a combination of Beijing’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 has subsequently voted in favor of sanctioning North Korea through six resolutions passed between 2009 and 2017.
In many of these instances, China moderated the language and diluted the proposed sanctions in negotiations among UNSC members. However, during 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.
Like any state, China has an interest in engaging with the UN, as long as engagement turns out to be a net positive for BeijingCourtney Fung
China’s cooperation with the US on sanctions has triggered criticism from Pyongyang. In June 2017, the DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman accused China of colluding with the US to initiate UNSC Resolution 2356, which further expanded sanctions to additional individuals and entities. While China at times has been supportive of UNSC 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, in August 2017 and January 2018, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Chinese entities and individuals believed to be supporting North Korea’s weapons program – perhaps suggesting 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.
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.