* General holds China's most senior peacekeeping post
* His 850 troops police buffer zone in Cyprus
* Beijing views peacekeeping as sign of growing status
* Sees it as way to test military skills, say experts
By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent
U.N. BUFFER ZONE, Cyprus, March 27 When Chao Liu
enlisted in the People's Liberation Army in the dying years of
China's Cultural Revolution, he never imagined he would end up
in Cyprus wearing a blue U.N. beret.
His army officer father fought U.S.-led United Nations
forces during the 1950-1953 Korean War. With schools closed and
the country in chaos, he told his 16-year-old son that joining
the military was his best chance of a good life.
Now, as commander of the U.N. mission in Cyprus, Major
General Liu has the most senior peacekeeping position yet held
by China - the biggest contributor of peacekeeping troops of the
five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Beijing makes it clear it views its peacekeeping as a sign
of its growing status as a global power.
While the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has modernised in
recent decades, China has not fought a conflict since a 1979 war
with Vietnam. Deploying on peacekeeping, humanitarian and other
multilateral missions, experts say, is also seen by its rulers
as a crucial way to build skills and test capabilities.
In the past year Beijing has showcased new long-range
transport aircraft and is building new supply ships as it faces
the task of maintaining forces around the world. With many in
the United States and Southeast Asia already nervous about
China's military clout, not everyone is keen to see such growth.
Liu, 54, has about 850 troops under his command to police
the 180 km-long (112 miles) buffer zone that has separated Greek
and Turkish Cypriots for almost 40 years.
The fact he is there, says the softly spoken grey-haired
infantryman, speaks volumes about how China has changed.
"When I was at the military academy, we were told we would
never do U.N. peacekeeping," he told Reuters in his office at a
largely abandoned former British aerodrome in the buffer zone.
"But the changes of the 1970s and 1980s opened up new
opportunities. Being involved in peacekeeping allows us to learn
from the outside world and also to show the outside world who
the PLA are."
The interview was shortly before the Cypriot bailout crisis,
which saw the euro zone country's banks closed and its economy
in chaos for more than a week while the government struggled
over the conditions of a rescue deal from international lenders.
The U.N. force says its work continued unaffected.
China provides more than 1,800 personnel to U.N. missions.
They have built camps in Darfur, run field hospitals in the
Democratic Republic of Congo, cleared landmines in Lebanon and
built infrastructure in South Sudan.
While that number is the highest of the permanent Security
Council members - China, the United States, Russia, Britain and
France - it is less than a quarter of the level provided by
countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.
Missions are largely funded by richer states but manned by
poorer ones who get paid to conduct operations - though, for
China, sending troops is not about the money.
The peacekeeping department of China's Ministry for National
Defence, foreign analysts say, appears to contain some of the
country's best-educated and most ambitious officers, as well as
those with the best foreign language skills.
China has even opened its own peacekeeping school for its
own and foreign forces, including mockups of U.N. camps,
minefields and disaster zones.
Beijing took on its first major peacekeeping command in
2007, when Major General Zhao Jingmin took charge of a U.N.
force in Western Sahara. His tour of duty finished in 2011.
Liu says his good English was almost certainly an important
factor in his Cyprus appointment, as well as his experience as a
military observer in the U.N. mission in Western Sahara and a
year spent at the London School of Economics in 1998-99.
Even so, the mission has required a steep learning curve.
Cyprus has been divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974 and
the ceasefire line has never been formally agreed between the
two sides. The U.N. force must manage any disputes or incidents
in the buffer zone, ranging from the two sides moving their
military positions to incidents involving civilian farmers,
hunters or even people gathering asparagus.
"People in uniform are similar but the system is quite
different," Liu says. "What I've learned in this mission is that
every decision is based on discussion. In China, it is quite
different ... You just make a decision and you don't expect to
Not all of China's deployments around the world are under
the U.N. flag. Last year, it sent a hospital ship - the "Peace
Ark" - to the Caribbean in what was seen by analysts as a
deliberate attempt to show a presence in Washington's strategic
Chinese anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, often
described by Chinese and foreign officials alike as an ideal
example of multinational cooperation, have been broadly welcomed
by Western and other navies, including NATO and EU taskforces.
Some Western officers, however, say the Chinese vessels have
spent much of the time gathering intelligence on other warships
in the area. As the number of attacks by Somali pirates falls,
some suspect that the real focus will become learning new naval
skills and keeping a presence in a strategic area.
China's choice of peacekeeping missions too may have a
broader agenda, foreign officials say. Beijing has considerable
resource or energy interests in several nations, such as Congo
and Sudan, to which it has sent troops, strengthening its
One of the reasons the U.N. chose to send a Chinese general
to Cyprus may have been because of Beijing's lack of involvement
there. Unlike in Greece, Chinese firms have no major presence
and China has had no direct role in the 50-year-old conflict.
For his part, Liu says he has had little or no regular
direction from Beijing on how to do his job.
"They do not bother me and I do not bother them," he said.
"The U.N. rules and regulations are very clear. They sent me,
they recommended me and I should work independently."
(Editing by Pravin Char)