China offers 500 troops to UN Mali force
23 May 2013, 12:03
New York - China has offered to send more than 500 soldiers
to the UN force seeking to contain Islamist militants in Mali in what would be
its biggest contribution to the UN peacekeeping, diplomats said on Wednesday.
The move could be a bid to overcome tensions with the West
over the Syria conflict and to strengthen its relations in Africa, where it is
a major buyer of oil and other resources, diplomats and experts said.
France, which intervened in the west African nation in
January, hopes to hand over to the UN peacekeepers in July. More than 6 500
African troops are already in the country but the UN is looking for at least 3 000
more to bolster the force.
The final number of Chinese troops who will take part has not
yet been decided, diplomats said.
"China has offered between 500 and 600 soldiers,"
said one senior diplomat. "We don't have detail yet on what kind of troops
they would be providing."
"It is a significant move by China," said another
UN diplomat confirming the numbers. Both diplomats spoke on condition of
anonymity as talks between UN leaders and China are not yet completed.
At least 155 of the Chinese troops are expected to be
engineers, according to a UN official who confirmed talks are underway.
China rejected UN peacekeeping missions as an unwarranted
interference when it joined the United Nations in 1971. It contributed its
first peacekeepers in 1992 and has since stepped up its presence though they
have not taken part in military operations.
The fight against terrorism
It currently has about 2 000 troops in missions around the
world. Though most are in engineering, medical and other logistics positions,
it has more troops in UN forces than the other four permanent UN Security
Council members, the United States, Russia, Britain and France.
China's UN mission did not immediately answer calls seeking
a comment on the Mali mission talks. But Chinese ambassador Li Baodong has
signalled support for the battle against extremists in Africa.
The UN force in Mali, to be known under the acronym MINUSMA,
will take over from French troops who halted an advance by Islamist guerrillas
who had controlled the northern half of the country for 10 months. The
guerrillas are now staging attacks from desert and mountain hideouts.
"The fight against terrorism in Africa should in no way
have to be fought by African countries alone," Li told a UN Security
Council debate this month on conflict in Africa.
"The security turmoil in certain parts of Africa
provides a hotbed for terrorism," he added.
The international community should "adopt swift,
effective and coordinated actions and integrated policies" that help
African countries "in their fight against terrorism and thoroughly
eliminating the breeding grounds of the scourge," Li said.
"We will continue to do what we can to provide support
and assistance to African countries to jointly address the threat that
terrorism has brought," Li said.
"China has not played a major role in diplomacy over
Mali. Its deployment of peacekeepers may be a goodwill gesture to France and
other Western powers to soothe some of the tensions over Syria," said
Richard Gowan of New York University's Center on International Co-operation.
Russia and China have vetoed three Security Council
resolutions that sought to step up pressure on Syria's President Bashar Assad.
"China is also always keen to maintain good relations
with the African bloc at the UN, and this deployment is a positive signal to
Nigeria and other regional powers," added Gowan.
But diplomats said China would probably be reluctant to put
troops in the firing line in Mali. The UN has acknowledged that the
peacekeeping force will probably face attacks.
"Mali is a high-risk mission," said Gowan.
"There's a high chance of attacks on UN forces by Islamist rebels. How
will China react if its personnel are targeted? If it takes losses, this could
alter its positive attitude to UN operations."