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How China's support of Sudan shields a regime called 'genocidal'

Despite instability in the south and the crisis in Darfur, China continues to offer political and military backing.

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For example, while Chinese President Hu Jintao made no public statements about Darfur during his February visit to Sudan, he did discuss the issue with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir behind closed doors, according to Zhang Dong, China's ambassador in Khartoum. China "…never interferes in Sudan's internal affairs," Zhang emphasized to the Xinhua news agency – but it does "play an essential role here" by "respecting" Sudan and "consulting with it as an equal."

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"The Chinese government is very cautious," stresses Xu Weizhong, director of the department of African Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank. "If it loses influence with Khartoum, a direct confrontation between Sudan and the United States could make the situation worse."

In April, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun repeated this message after a three-day trip to Sudan, which included a visit to a Darfur refugee camp, a rare move for a Chinese official. "The Chinese government is deeply concerned with the Darfur issue and has provided several batches of humanitarian assistance materials to the region," Xinhua quoted Mr. Zhai as saying – but there were no public calls for UN troops to be allowed in, or pressure to stop the killings.

Beijing's 'subtle diplomacy'

But less than a week later, whether or not due to quiet pressure by China, President Bashir conceded to a deployment of 3,500 UN peacekeepers into Darfur.

Those peacekeepers have yet to deploy, but this month Bashir also agreed to an expanded force in the region, with up to 25,000 African Union and UN peacekeepers.

At times like this, even the US, which is more often than not critical of Chinese foreign dealings, admits that Beijing's cautious behind-the-scenes diplomacy might be working in concert with the US's more aggressive style.

Appearing at a Senate hearing in April, Bush's special Darfur representative, Andrew Natsios, said Beijing's "subtle diplomacy" complemented, rather than undercut Washington's sanctions-based policy.

He also said he thought China's diplomacy might have been the "critical factor" in persuading Khartoum to accept a "heavy support package" for the outgunned 7,000-strong African Union force in Darfur. "I think they may be the crucial actors. I think there has been a lot of China bashing in the West, and I'm not sure, to be very frank with you, right now it's very helpful."

Still, many critics say that China's willingness to befriend, do business with, and diplomatically protect questionable regimes does not end with Sudan.

For example, Beijing's relations with Zimbabwe, even while cooling in recent months, still include, among other things, supplying it with fighter jets.

This relationship has been a major support to the otherwise internationally ostracized President Robert Mugabe: With both human rights conditions and the economy in a free fall under Mr. Mugabe, China has in recent years sold more than $200 million of military hardware to Zimbabwe.

After Mugabe launched Operation Murambatsvina – or Operation "Drive Out Trash" – last year, in which 700,000 people had their homes or businesses destroyed in order to clear urban slums for renewal, China blocked condemnation in the UN Security Council.

'Coddling' authoritarian regimes?

"There is a perception," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of African Affairs James Swan, speaking at Columbia University in New York in February, " ... that China is willing to coddle authoritarian regimes."

Furthermore, because of its attitude that sovereignty of nations must be respected above all else, China does not tie its aid or investment to conditions such as good governance, fighting corruption, or adopting reforms – the sort of conditions that have long been mainstays for the West and international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

This ends up being convenient for regimes that do not care to make reforms in their countries and undercuts efforts by other donors and investors to press for positive reform, say critics.

"China is doing business here – fine," says Mr. Deng Moyndit. "But it is not being careful with lives of others, which is not acceptable. [China]... is no friend of ours.'"

Staff writers Scott Baldauf and Peter Ford contributed to this report from Khartoum, Sudan, and Beijing.