Chinese troops may join U.N. Mali force


China has offered to send more than 500 soldiers to the U.N. force seeking to contain Islamist militants in Mali in what would be its biggest contribution to U.N. peacekeeping in history.

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 Wednesday.

France, which intervened in the West African nation in January, hopes to hand over to U.N. peacekeepers in July. More than 6,500 African troops are already in the country but the U.N. is looking for at least 3,000 more.

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. We don’t have details yet on what kind of troops they would be providing,” said one senior diplomat.

Another U.N. diplomat called it “a significant move by China,” while a colleague said at least 155 of the Chinese troops are expected to be engineers.

China rejected U.N. 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.

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 U.N. forces than the other four permanent U.N. Security Council members.

“China has not played a major role in diplomacy over Mali. Its deployment of peacekeepers may be a good will gesture to France and other Western powers to soothe some of the tensions over Syria,” said Richard Gowan of New York University. “China is also always keen to maintain good relations with the African bloc at the U.N., and this deployment is a positive signal to Nigeria and other regional powers.”

However, diplomats and analysts said China would probably be reluctant to put its troops in the firing line in Mali.

“Mali is a high-risk mission,” said Gowan. “There’s a high chance of attacks on U.N. forces by Islamist rebels. How will China react if its personnel are targeted? If it takes losses, this could alter its positive attitude to U.N. operations.”