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UN peacekeeping cuts in Africa allow expanded Chinese military role, regional operations unlikely to deter extremism

9 Aug 17

China's just-ended presidency of the United Nations Security Council in July focused on promoting greater African involvement in regional security issues. It comes shortly after the General Assembly approved a reduction in the UN's peacekeeping budget under US pressure, and French President Emmanuel Macron's push for a regional force in the Sahel, indicating significant changes for future peace and security operations on the African continent.

IHS Markit perspective

Outlook and implications

• Budget restrictions resulting in decreased UN resources will enable further jihadist and pro- or anti-government militia activity in countries such as CAR, Mali, DRC, and South Sudan, exposing staff, civilians, and expatriates to increased risk of kidnap, death, and injury.

• Greater regional peacekeeping responsibility by less disciplined and under-financed armies is likely to lead to self-interest, disagreement, and lack of co-ordination, jeopardising peace enforcement

• Potential security voids open the door for China to expand beyond trade and investment into bilateral diplomacy and military intervention in Africa.


Terrorism; Death and injury; Government instability

Sectors or assets

UN; NGOs; Peacekeeping; Multilateralism; Expatriates; Individuals

The United States provides 28.5% of the UN's total annual peacekeeping budget of USD7.8 billion, but President Donald Trump's administration's budget proposals released in May recommended a reduction of almost USD1 billion, prompting a warning from the UN that this would seriously impact its work. US pressure prevailed, however, and the General Assembly on 30 June voted to cut the UN's peacekeeping budget to USD7.3 billion. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, hailed the reduction, stating it was just the beginning. The current US administration, which believes many UN missions are no longer “fit for purpose”, is likely to make further cuts to the peacekeeping budget during Trump's tenure.

The impact will be felt most strongly in Africa, which contains nine of the UN's 15 peacekeeping missions. The multinational aspect of UN peacekeeping, with oversight by a civilian component, has provided a significant post-conflict deterrent in countries such as Liberia, where the mission, formed in 2003, will close in March 2018, and in Côte d'Ivoire (2004), where the mandate ended on 30 June 2017. Violent extremism has changed the nature of peacekeeping this century, with intervention less likely due to inter-state conflict but rather turf wars and particularly jihadist terrorism. Asymmetrical warfare drawing UN peacekeepers directly into conflict situations such as in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), and Western countries anxious to repatriate troops to confront domestic threats have forced a rethink on how to tackle peace and security issues. Reductions in the currently stretched peacekeeping budget are highly likely to result in curtailed payments for troop contributing countries (TCCs), making it less attractive for traditional contributors such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to send the large contingents on which the UN relies. The organisation is looking more towards conflict prevention and mediation through diplomacy, and will likely respond to future crises with political missions rather than large peacekeeping operations, with support for regional military deployments.

AMISOM, an African Union military operation in Somalia supported by the UN, and UNAMID, a hybrid operation between the two organisations in Sudan's Darfur region, have been mooted as future peacekeeping models. The latter, however, has been heavily criticised over allegations of manipulation by the Sudanese government and is an early casualty of budget reductions, with a 30% phased troop drawdown due to be completed by June 2018, while AMISOM has been hampered by disagreements over command and control, pay and the self-interest of its major contributors, Ethiopia and Kenya. President Macron, seeking an eventual exit strategy for France's counter-terrorism 'Operation Barkhane' in the Sahel, supports greater regional peacekeeping as a solution. His proposal for a G5 Sahel counter-terrorism force made up of Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania was “welcomed” by the Security Council, which, however, failed – under US pressure – to approve a resolution on providing financial support. This indicates the difficulties in funding and sustaining such operations, and will make it even harder for the AU to deploy its Standby Force, declared operational last year. Underlining the problem, Chad's President Idriss Déby has said that his country's troops cannot be everywhere – the UN mission in Mali, the G5 and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a regional counter-terrorism operation against Islamist militant group Boko Haram based in N'Djamena. Regional efforts also face political challenges, as highlighted by the return of conflict to Burundi, despite a large UN peacekeeping operation during 2004–06, and the current government's refusal to allow AU peacekeepers.

China's expanding role

China has been steadily building up its footprint on the African continent, initially through trade, investment, and infrastructural developments. The deployment of its first-ever peacekeeping contingent in 2014, to the UN mission in South Sudan, marked a shift in its policy of non-interference and underscored its growing military leadership role, with a Chinese general as the mission's deputy force commander. In July 2016, an independent UN investigation found Chinese troops had abandoned their posts in Juba and failed to protect civilians after coming under attack. China is currently the second-largest contributor to the UN's peacekeeping budget. In February 2016, China began building its first overseas military base in the port city of Djibouti, which became operational this month after the arrival of the first batch of troops. China insists it is a logistics facility to support its peacekeepers in Africa, as well as for anti-piracy and humanitarian missions. There are now indications that China wants to further extend its African role to include bilateral peacekeeping and diplomacy. Following Qatar's withdrawal as mediator in the Eritrea-Djibouti border disagreement, China's UN ambassador, Kuang Weilin, said last month that the country was prepared to send peacekeepers to the disputed Dumeira region and to act as a peace broker.

Outlook and implications

The cuts will lead to a streamlining of UN operations with large multi-disciplinary missions an unlikely response to future crises. Early drawdowns or mission closures, however, risk conflicts reigniting. In Côte d'Ivoire, for example, former combatants have been involved in a series of recent army mutinies over pay and bonuses. While the UN is unlikely to withdraw completely from extremely fragile states, reduced capacity in Mali will likely encourage the further spread of transnational jihadism in the Sahel, while armed opposition groups and government-sponsored militias will likely proliferate in countries such as CAR, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, and Sudan. Consequently, death, injury, and kidnap risks to UN and NGO staff, expatriates, and civilians are likely to increase in the coming years. The trend will likely move towards regional peacekeeping or hybrid operations, but donor funding is likely to fall short, resulting in poorly co-ordinated responses and stretched resources, which are unlikely to pose an effective deterrent. As a result, China, which needs Africa's co-operation for its Belt and Road initiative linking Asia to Europe, will find itself well-placed to expand its continental reach diplomatically and militarily. The Eritrea-Djibouti case indicates that it will likely sidestep multilateral arrangements and fill potential security voids by trying to enter into bilateral military agreements.

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