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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 January, 2004, 09:25 GMT
China peacekeepers in Liberia
By Mark Doyle
BBC World Affairs correspondent, in Monrovia

China has begun deploying 500 troops in the West African state of Liberia, in its biggest ever contribution to a United Nations peacekeeping operation.

The deployment is widely believed to be a result of the new Liberian government's recent decision to open diplomatic relations with Beijing at the expense of its rival Taiwan.

But it is also a sign of the strong political and economic links between China and Africa, which receive little international attention compared with the activities in Africa of the former colonial powers.

Civilians walk past a peacekeeping vehicle in Liberia
Western countries are often wary of sending soldiers to Africa.
When it came to power late last year, one of the first acts of the new Liberian government was to switch allegiance from Taiwan to the People's Republic of China.

The government of former president Charles Taylor had close financial ties with Taiwan, but he has been forced into exile by rebel groups and the threat of prosecution by an international war crimes tribunal.

The 500 Chinese soldiers who will be serving with the United Nations force in Liberia are the first public fruit of the new diplomatic strategy by the new UN-backed government.

They will join other foreign troops who are helping keep the peace as an interim government prepares to hold elections in 2005.

The Chinese soldiers have already started arriving and over the next few weeks there should be a Chinese engineering corps, a transport unit and a field hospital in place.

When asked if there was a direct link between the derecognising of Taiwan and the arrival of the Chinese troops, a senior Chinese officer in Liberia, Colonel Zhao Shaorui, answered diplomatically but made China's intentions very clear.

"Not quite so," he said. "But this government wants to have good relations with China so we should help make sure that this government will work, will function well and will bring peace to Liberia".

China already has strong political and economic links with Africa.

In almost any African market-place you can find Chinese consumer goods for sale, from electrical items to kitchenware.

The Chinese government's aid programme has supplied numerous new football stadiums for African capitals - a popular gift on a football-mad continent.

If the arrival of the Chinese soldiers in Liberia signals a wider commitment to peacekeeping in Africa in order to extend Chinese influence on the continent, Beijing will find it is pushing at an open door.

There is plenty of need for professional peacekeepers here and Western countries are often wary of sending their soldiers to Africa.


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