The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will shortly start deploying a 700-strong infantry battalion to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) peace-keeping and stabilisation, marking the first ever international deployment of Chinese combat troops with the UN in Africa.
According to a statement issued last week by the Central Military Commission and the Ministry of National Defence, the Chinese troops will be based in the capital Juba.
They will be assigned to duties which include the protection of civilians caught up in the war, protection of United Nations and other humanitarian mission staff, and conducting area patrols.
The PLA task-force will include 579 troopers and 121 officers. The statement said the first batch of 180 soldiers will arrive in South Sudan this week to prepare for the deployment of the rest of the force by sea and air in March.
“The size of the infantry battalion is 700, including 121 officers and 579 soldiers to the army, a motorised infantry brigade from 26 Army Base,” the statement said.
Among the troops set for deployment, 43 have peacekeeping experience, 437 are from advanced operational companies, 131 people had been awarded third class medals with 13 women from the combat infantry squad being deployed to a peacekeeping mission for the first time.
Speaking during a pre-deployment parade held at PLA’s Qinyang military base in Henan province on December 24, expedition commander Wang Zhen said the battalion will be armed to standards which meet the requirements of the UN request:
“The force will possess drones, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, anti-tank rocket systems, mortars, light machine guns, body armour, helmets and other kinds of defensive weapons and equipment. These weapons and equipment will be used exclusively for self-defence,” Zhen said.
The rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement In Opposition (SPLM-IO) led by former deputy president Riek Machar welcomed the upcoming deployment of PLA troops but warned that they should stick to their core United Nations mandate of protecting civilians and never get involved in the armed conflict.
The armed group has steadfastly opposed the deployment of foreign troops in South Sudan and vowed to defend the ‘territorial integrity of the nation’ against any ‘invading’ or ‘colonising’ force.
SPLM-IO chairman for external relations, Dhieu Mathok told the French-based Sudanese website Sudan Tribune that China should consult the group prior to any troop deployment to demonstrate that it is committed to genuine peace and not coming to provide indirect military support to the government in Juba.
“SPLM/SPLA welcomes participation of the Chinese battalion as part of UN peacekeeping forces in South Sudan. However, the movement urges China and any other country that wants to deploy its troops in the oilfield to first seek its consent before taking further steps.
“The SPLM/SPLA commits itself to a genuine dialogue that could promote friendly relationship and tranquility between the movement and the Chinese government,” Mathok said.
The movement has previously accused china of backing the ‘SPLM-Juba’ government of President Salvar Kiir by providing weapons, military training, financial assistance and technical support to the South Sudanese armed forces.
In July last year, the South Sudanese armed forces took delivery of a US$38 million consignment of Chinese made weapons which included anti-tank weapons.
More than 2 000 Chinese peacekeepers drawn from the engineering, medical, transport and guard units are currently on assignment in conflict zones around the world.
Additional PLA troops from the medical corps have also been deployed to help tackle the Ebola health crisis in West Africa.
U.N. officials said the South Sudan deployment is the first time China has contributed an infantry battalion to a UN peacekeeping mission. In 2013 China sent a smaller “protection unit” to join the UN mission in Mali.
Ellen Margrethe Loj, UN special envoy to South Sudan and head of the world body’s peacekeeping mission, said there were currently 10 488 troops on the ground. The operation has a mandated strength of 12 500 peacekeepers, Reuters reports.
“The Chinese battalion is not there yet, but we have a Chinese engineering company and we have a Chinese level 2 hospital,” she told a small group of reporters at the United Nations in New York last month.
Fighting erupted in December in South Sudan, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011, after months of political tension between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy and political rival, Riek Machar. The conflict has reopened deep tensions among ethnic groups, pitting Kiir’s Dinka against Machar’s Nuer.
The conflict has killed more than 10 000 people, caused over 1 million to flee and driven the country of 11 million closer to famine.
Peace talks brokered by African regional bloc IGAD have yet to reach a deal. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power has warned Kiir and Machar that if a peace deal cannot be reached during current talks then long-threatened sanctions were likely to be imposed by the U.N. Security Council.