I may have studied under his mentor, but I can't stand Thomas "Captain Obvious" Barnett. He recently commented on the jump in Chinese participation in peacekeeping operations that started around 2004. His completely credulous surprise isn't all too unique though. Despite the fact that low intensity operations has been in vogue since 2001, peacekeeping is still considered the red-headed stepchild of military operations. I think the defense community would benefit from a little context before they jump to yet another conclusion about China's rise:
Countries participate in peacekeeping operations for a multitude of reasons. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been the three largest troop contributors since the 1980s, each regularly giving between 8,000-10,000 soldiers annually. Peacekeeping has clearly done little to modulate the reputation of these South Asia countries. Then why do they do it? For free training and logistical support, of course!
United Nations peacekeeping operations are paid for using a formula that distributes annual operational costs across all member states. The formula is based on a combination of politics and economics. Each member state ostensibly pays an equal share, except when their per capita gross national income (GNI) is under about $11,000. Countries with a per capita GNI below $11,000 receive a discount on their slice of the peacekeeping bill and that discount increases as national per capita GNI decreases. In the end, the five permanent members of the Security Council (with the voluntary assistance of Japan) are expected to pay the difference.
Countries with deep discounts (80-90%), such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Jordan, Ghana, Nigeria, Nepal and Uruguay, avidly participate in peacekeeping operations because it means someone else will cover the cost of training and sustaining their soldiers for a few years. For desperately countries like Bangladesh, peacekeeping missions often means access to highly specialized training (demining, civil affairs, policing) and language education that isn't available back home.
It may not seem obvious, but even the People's Liberation Army could be turning to peacekeeping as a source of training and support. Even if the DOD's estimate of Chinese military expenditures is correct, the PLA's personnel budget is probably spread pretty thin when it comes to training 2.2 active duty troops. The 300-500 soldier detachments operating in Liberia, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Southern Sudan will probably learn more during their deployment than they would at PLA schools for NCOs and junior officers.
I think the real story here is that China's gradual acceptance of the legitimacy of peacekeeping. Over a period of about twenty years, China went from being a vocal opponent of all peacekeeping operations to eventually supporting 'nonviolent and impartial' blue helmet missions. Despite a few hang-ups over U.S. 'peace enforcement' operations in Haiti and the former Yugoslavia, China was deploying a handful of observers and police advisers by the late 1990s.
As for the two large bumps on Stratfor's snazzy little chart, I think they are reflective of opportunism than a rising China thesis. The 2004 bump coincides with a significant expansion of the troop authorization for the UN Mission in Liberia from 4,000 to a then record-making 14,000. The 2006 increase also lines up nicely with expanded troop authorizations for the UN Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (10,000 to 18,000) and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (2,000 to 12,000).
If you break down current Chinese deployments by assigned mission, these three missions account for about 65% of their total troop contribution. Since each year represented a 25-33% increase in the demand for peacekeepers and typical contributors were already at their maximum contribution levels, it isn't surprising that China was forced to step up its involvement.
The bit of information that really surprised me is that the UN Mission in Sudan accounts for another 25%. I wonder if there is any relationship between China's willingness to support the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Southern Sudan has anything to do with its interests in Sudanese oil - especially considering that oil is mostly located in Southern Sudan.