U.N. BUFFER ZONE, Cyprus (Reuters) - 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 modernized 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 discuss it.”
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 backyard.
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 regional clout.
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