Chinese peacekeeping police officers stand guard in Port-au-Prince, capital of Haiti, on August 16, 2006 (XINHUA)
"We all pass each other by. If one day I leave, please do not miss me. All of this is my choice, without regret." Days before he lost his life in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, 22-year-old Li Lei had written the aforementioned sentences in his diary.
The young Chinese man had been assigned to a UN peacekeeping operation in the conflict-ridden country. On July 10, a mortar shell struck the vehicle carrying Li, killing him and his comrade-in-arms, Sergeant Yan Shupeng, 33, in the incident, and injuring five other Chinese personnel.
The attack was the second time within two months that Chinese soldiers had been fatally hit in peacekeeping operations, following the terrorist attack on a UN camp in Gao, north Mali, on June 1 that killed a Chinese peacekeeper and injured four others.
China's increasing contribution to world peace as a responsible member of the international community runs parallel to its global rise. According to China's Ministry of National Defense, China has sent more than 30,000 troops to participate in 24 UN missions since it became involved in such undertakings in 1990, and 19 Chinese peacekeepers have been killed to date while on duty. Presently, China is the second largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping and the largest provider of troops among the UN Security Council's permanent members.
At the UN headquarters in New York, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stands in silen tribute to peacekeeping soldiers who died carrying out UN missions, on May 19, 10 days before International Day of UN Peacekeepers (XINHUA)
The bulk of Chinese soldiers participate in UN peacekeeping missions in Africa and the Middle East, the globe's two main regions that are fraught with instability.
Since 2013, South Sudan has been ravaged by a civil conflict that has displaced many of its citizens. Since then, the Chinese contingent has become an integral part of the UN's peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.
In April 2015, China sent to the war-torn country the first ever Chinese infantry battalion to be deployed for overseas peacekeeping. The 700-strong unit was tasked with protecting civilians and UN personnel and facilities as well as with humanitarian work. A Chinese engineering company and a medical team—numbering around 300 personnel in total—was also dispatched to the northwestern city of Wau to serve the UN mission.
A fresh round of fierce fighting broke out in Juba in early July, resulting in nations such as Britain and Germany withdrawing personnel from the UN missions. Despite the situation, Chinese peacekeepers remained steadfast in their positions.
"Some countries evacuated their peacekeepers from the conflict region to protect their soldiers' lives. China's decision to not withdraw its soldiers doesn't mean we do not care about their lives. All lives are precious," said Ambassador Liu Guijin, China's former special representative on African affairs, in an interview with Beijing Review.
"However, Chinese soldiers are aware of their responsibilities as UN peacekeepers. The more troubled the region is, the more they are needed to maintain stability and assist local people. In the face of danger, the mission is always considered the number one objective by Chinese soldiers."
Liu added that, "China, as a big country, honors its international commitments and responsibilities. It will not optionally withdraw its peacekeepers, and in the meantime, it will take more robust measures to reduce casualties and protect the lives of its soldiers while saving people in countries affected by conflict."
So far, China has sent 14 batches of peacekeepers to Wau. The 14th force will finish operations and return home this September. During their year-long mission, they accomplished 260-plus onerous tasks laced with danger and difficulty. For example, engineers renovated vital supply lines in South Sudan by building over 600 km of road, while medics treated more than 5,100 patients.
The dedication of Chinese soldiers in performing such missions has won recognition from UN officials. At a UN headquarters reception on July 27, Herve Ladsous, the UN Under Secretary General for peacekeeping operations, spoke highly of Chinese peacekeepers for showing great professionalism and dedication.
In an interview with Xinhua News Agency late last year, Ellen Loej, head of the UN Mission in South Sudan, said she appreciated very much the quick reactions shown by Chinese peacekeepers when disturbances occur.
On July 6, 218 Chinese peacekeepers with the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) were awarded UN medals. The head of MONUSCO, Maman Sambo Sidikou lauded the Chinese peacekeeping force as the most outstanding and popular team on the mission.
Ambassador Liu, who has been stationed in Africa for more than two decades, said that "Chinese peacekeeping forces deserve the compliments [due to] their excellent performance in these UN missions." He told Beijing Review that Chinese blue helmets strictly abide by the UN blue helmet code of conduct and host country laws, working diligently to finish tasks ahead of schedule when possible.
One midnight, Captain Dong Rongqiang got up, put on his uniform and bulletproof vest, and then headed to the gate of the Chinese peacekeeping force's camp in Mali to replace the soldier on sentry duty, despite being a high ranking officer. This is common in Chinese peacekeeping forces, as military officers and soldiers perform equal duties in many cases, and have the same meal standards. In addition, Liu emphasized the discipline of Chinese soldiers, noting the rarity of Chinese peacekeepers violating laws when on duty.
On February 7 this year, days of rain had destroyed part of the road connecting Baraka to Lusenda in east Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was the only passage for MONUSCO forces to access the Lusenda refugee camp. If blue helmets weren't able to reach the camp, conflict could have flared up again.
MONUSCO officers, understanding the date's significance as New Year's Eve of the Chinese Spring Festival, wished to delegate the task to others. However, the Chinese contingent voluntarily assumed the task. After three days and two nights of arduous, highly intensive labor, they successfully restored the road.
China began contributing peacekeepers to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in 2013, which is regarded as the world body's most perilous active mission, with more than 60 blue helmet deaths since its foundation in 2013.
Currently, approximately 400 Chinese peacekeepers are based in Gao, east Mali, carrying out security, engineering and medical work. Besides completing their UN mission, Chinese soldiers have built good relations with locals.
Koen Davidse, deputy special representative of the UN Secretary-General in MINUSMA, has spoken highly of the role Chinese peacekeepers have played in helping maintain peace and stability in the region. On May 14, a 10-year-old local named Joseph told peacekeepers in less-than-perfect Chinese, "Chinese teacher, I wish you safe." That day, a group of Chinese blue helmets were heading back to China. Upon hearing the news, dozens of students and teachers flocked to the Chinese military camp to see them off. Such scenes are not uncommon.
In a previous interview with Xinhua, Davidse stated his overwhelming admiration for the unique relationship between Chinese troops and the population of Gao. They support many schools in Gao and provide medical support, something that is widely acknowledged and highly appreciated.
According to China's Defense Ministry, over the past 26 years, Chinese peacekeepers have built and repaired over 13,000 km of roads and over 300 bridges, cleared over 9,400 landmines and various types of explosives, transported over 1.2 million tons of cargo across a total distance of around 13 million km, and treated 160,000 patients.
China's commitment to peacekeeping was underlined last September, when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at a UN summit that the country would contribute 8,000 troops to a UN peacekeeping standby force. Xi also pledged military aid worth $100 million to the African Union.
At a reception on July 27 held by China's permanent mission to the UN to mark the 89th anniversary of the founding of the PLA, Huang Xueping, head of the Chinese delegation to the UN Military Staff Committee, told media, "China will further play its role as a responsible member of the international community, take more international responsibility and obligations, and contribute more to the cause of peace and development of mankind."
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Copyedited by Dominic James Madar
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