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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 May 2007, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
China's balancing act over Darfur
By Dan Griffiths
BBC News, Beijing

The future of the war-torn region of Darfur is likely to be decided thousands of kilometres away from Sudan. But not at the United Nations in New York, or in Washington.

Displaced Sudanese woman with her son in Darfur - file photo
The situation in Darfur has long caused alarm abroad

This time it is China that holds the key - a reminder of Beijing's growing global influence.

China and Sudan have long had strong political, economic and military ties.

Chinese leaders have traditionally resisted international pressure to use that clout to bring peace to Darfur. But in the past few months there have been signs of a change in Beijing's approach to Sudan.

So, is this really a new beginning or just a public-relations exercise designed to placate China's critics?

Strong criticism

China and Sudan have a relationship that goes back decades, and the booming Chinese economy has strengthened those ties.

Beijing is now one of Sudan's main investors and trading partners. It has spent millions of dollars investing in Sudan's oil infrastructure. Khartoum now exports close to 500,000 barrels of oil per day with much of that going to China.

Hollywood actress Mia Farrow at a protest against Darfur violence in Washington on 29 April 2007
Celebrities such as actress Mia Farrow are piling on the pressure

China also has a long history of selling weapons and arms to Sudan. In fact, earlier this year Beijing offered to increase military co-operation with Khartoum.

So China has been reluctant to pressure Sudan over Darfur - fearing it might undermine the close relationship with Khartoum.

Beijing has even used its veto at the UN Security Council to block moves to impose sanctions on Sudan unless it stops the fighting in Darfur.

But in recent months international pressure on Beijing has been growing.

More than 100 US legislators signed a letter calling on Beijing to take immediate action to stop the violence in Darfur.

The London-based human rights organisation, Amnesty International, claimed that China was selling weapons to Sudan in violation of a UN arms embargo.

Hollywood stars like Stephen Spielberg and Mia Farrow have voiced their concerns about China's role in Sudan.

And human rights activists have called on countries to boycott the Beijing Olympics in 2008 because of China's close relationship with Sudan.

A change of heart?

On the surface, China appears to have got the point. This month Beijing appointed its first ever envoy for African affairs.

Liu Guijin is an experienced diplomat who knows Africa well, having served as ambassador to both Zimbabwe and South Africa. His work is expected to focus on Darfur.

African and Chinese delegates arrive for the African Development Bank meeting in Shanghai on 16 May 2007
China is having an increasingly large impact on Africa's economy

In April, China urged Sudan in unusually strong terms to show greater flexibility on the UN peace plan for Darfur.

Beijing has also announced it would send nearly 300 military engineers to help international peacekeeping forces in Darfur.

All that is a change from China's traditional foreign policy stance of not interfering in the internal affairs of another country.

So what's going on?

China wants to be seen as a responsible player on the world stage with a diplomatic stature to match its growing economic might.

Growing international criticism on Sudan could dent that strategy.

But there is another reason as well. China does not want anything to impact on the Olympic Games in 2008. Talk of a boycott is the last thing that Chinese politicians want to hear.

But at the same time China does not want to lose its relationship with Sudan.

So it is attempting a delicate balancing act - trying to manage the expectations of the international community while maintaining close ties with Khartoum.

China's leaders are pretty conservative in their outlook. They will not want to perform a major foreign policy u-turn, but these small moves are a sign that they are willing to be increasingly flexible in their approach towards the crisis in Darfur.


SEE ALSO
China defends its role in Africa
16 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific
China appoints envoy for Darfur
10 May 07 |  Africa
China and Africa: Who benefits?
22 Jun 06 |  Africa
Summit shows China's Africa clout
06 Nov 06 |  Business

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