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POLITICS-CHINA: Sudan – Showcase for New Assertiveness

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Sep 21 2007 (IPS) - When soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army join a United Nations peacekeeping unit in Sudan, early October, they will mark Beijing’s new diplomatic assertiveness. They will also signify a departure from a posture of refusing to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

Along with its newly trained peacekeeping force China is also exporting an alternative diplomacy that it hopes will best serve its interests as an ascending superpower. As a country that has pursued a model of economic prosperity without Western-style democracy, China’s formula for conflict resolution advocates economic aid and development that skirt political reform.

No place in the world exemplifies China’s attempts to prove the viability of its development vision better than Sudan.

Beijing has come to be seen as a power broker in this African country because it buys two-thirds of its oil output and supplies its government with weapons. A four-year-old conflict in western Sudan’s Darfur region has pitted China in opposition to other international powers demanding sanctions against the Khartoum regime for supporting violence.

As a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, China has blocked Western moves for sanctions and insisted that U.N. peacekeeping forces to Darfur should be sent in only with Sudanese consent.

More than 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced in the Darfur fighting that started in 2003. Local rebels began the conflict by attacking government troops. The Khartoum government responded by arming Arab horsemen, called Janjaweed, and sending them to terrorise the non-Arab population. U.S. President George Bush has called the killings in Darfur genocide.

Chinese officials have all along rejected criticism that Beijing’s aid for Khartoum is indirectly prolonging the humanitarian crisis. They insist that strong economic growth through trade and investment would reduce social conflicts by raising incomes and improving quality of life.

Chinese international relations experts have joined the argument, saying Beijing would work for the acceptance of its political outlook as a mainstream view.

"The route of Darfur crisis lies with the fight for ecological survival and not with any racial conflicts," He Wenping, head of African studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the ‘Beijing Youth Daily’ this week. "This view may not be universally accepted yet, but more and more politicians are coming to realise that the better way to help Sudan is not through sanctions but through economic aid that would eradicate poverty."

The interview came as China showcased to foreign media its 315-member engineering unit that will be sent to Darfur next month as an avant-garde to a combined United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force approved by the Security Council in July.

Chinese soldiers will be responsible for building bridges and roads and exploring water sources in Darfur, according to senior Col. Dai Shaoan, a director of the defence ministry‘s office of peacekeeping affairs. The unit’s dispatch represents China’s willingness to "quickly restore peace and start reconstruction work," Dai told the media from the unit’s training base in Qinyang, Henan province.

Chinese experts say Khartoum’s nod to the 26,000-strong African Union-U.N. peacekeeping force after months of negotiations should be credited to Beijing’s behind the scenes diplomacy and its unwavering support for the legitimate government in Khartoum.

"Even China’s harshest critics can not deny that Beijing’s involvement was decisive in getting Sudanese government to agree to implement the next steps of Kofi Annan’s (former U.N. secretary-general) peace plan for Darfur," He Wenping pointed.

Foreign diplomats and experts on Darfur note that Beijing also helped in convincing Sudan to attend negotiations with rebel groups next month in Libya. The U.S. special envoy for Darfur, Andrew Natsios, said this week he was not sure what had pushed Beijing to act more decisively on Darfur in recent months, but "China is being constructive, using its leverage with the Sudanese government."

"I think the Chinese are like a locomotive that is speeding up," he told an audience at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They are doing things we didn’t ask them to do."

Detractors argue China has been spurred into action by an international campaign linking the genocide in Darfur with the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Rights activists and Hollywood celebrities have joined forces calling for a boycott to the Beijing Olympics if China does not do more to stop the violence in Darfur.

But Beijing has rebuffed attempts to politicise the Olympics and sought instead to garner more support for the event by inviting top politicians to attend it. During the APEC forum in Sydney this month President Bush said he had accepted an invitation by Chinese President Hu Jintao to attend the Beijing Olympics in August next year.

This week, China’s special envoy on Darfur Liu Guijin defended Beijing’s record in Sudan and said the country would continue to refrain from applying political pressure on the Khartoum regime. "Political pressure is not conducive towards resolving conflicts," Liu said at a press conference.

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