;UNITED NATIONS: China has offered to send more than 500 soldiers to the UN force seeking to contain Islamist militants in Mali in what would be its biggest contribution to UN peacekeeping, diplomats said Wednesday.
The move could be a bid to overcome tensions with the West over the Syria conflict and to strengthen its relations in Africa, where it is a major buyer of oil and other resources, diplomats and experts said.
France, which intervened in the west African nation in January, hopes to hand over to UN peacekeepers in July. More than 6,500 African troops are already in the country but the UN is looking for at least 3,000 more to bolster the force.
The final number of Chinese troops who will take part has has not yet been decided, diplomats said.
"China has offered between 500 and 600 soldiers," said one senior diplomat. "We don't have detail yet on what kind of troops they would be providing."
"It is a significant move by China," said another UN diplomat confirming the numbers. Both diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity as talks between UN leaders and China are not yet completed.
At least 155 of the Chinese troops are expected to be engineers, according to a UN official who confirmed talks are underway.
China rejected UN peacekeeping missions as an unwarranted interference when it joined the United Nations in 1971. It contributed its first peacekeepers in 1992 and has since stepped up its presence though they have not taken part in military operations.
It currently has about 2,000 troops in missions around the world. Though most are in engineering, medical and other logistics positions, it has more troops in UN forces than the other four permanent UN Security Council members, the United States, Russia, Britain and France.
China's UN mission did not immediately answer calls seeking a comment on the Mali mission talks. But Chinese ambassador Li Baodong has signalled support for the battle against extremists in Africa.
The UN force in Mali, to be known under the acronym MINUSMA, will take over from French troops who halted an advance by Islamist guerrillas who had controlled the northern half of the country for 10 months. The guerrillas are now staging attacks from desert and mountain hideouts.
"The fight against terrorism in Africa should in no way have to be fought by African countries alone," Li told a UN Security Council debate this month on conflict in Africa.
"The security turmoil in certain parts of Africa provides a hotbed for terrorism," he added.
The international community should "adopt swift, effective and coordinated actions and integrated policies" that help African countries "in their fight against terrorism and thoroughly eliminating the breeding grounds of the scourge," Li said.
"We will continue to do what we can to provide support and assistance to African countries to jointly address the threat that terrorism has brought," Li said.
"China has not played a major role in diplomacy over Mali. Its deployment of peacekeepers may be a goodwill gesture to France and other Western powers to soothe some of the tensions over Syria," said Richard Gowan of New York University's Center on International Cooperation.
Russia and China have vetoed three Security Council resolutions that sought to step up pressure on Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.
"China is also always keen to maintain good relations with the African bloc at the UN, and this deployment is a positive signal to Nigeria and other regional powers," added Gowan.
But diplomats said China would probably be reluctant to put troops in the firing line in Mali. The UN has acknowledged that the peacekeeping force will probably face attacks.
"Mali is a high-risk mission," said Gowan. "There's a high chance of attacks on UN forces by Islamist rebels. How will China react if its personnel are targeted? If it takes losses, this could alter its positive attitude to UN operations."