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China speaks out on Darfur crisis

Keen not to taint Olympics, and under pressure from West, Beijing sends envoy to Khartoum with strong words.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer, Staff writer, Laura J. WinterCorrespondent / February 25, 2008

Liu Guijin: After years of vagueness, China's envoy is blunt.


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Johannesburg, South Africa; Beijing; and London

For much of the five-year conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, Khartoum has counted on the silent support of its most important trading partner, China. While Western diplomats and human rights groups pressured China to exert its influence to halt the fighting, which has killed more than 200,000, Beijing seemed unmoved.

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This week, however, China has gone on the diplomatic offensive, opening up about past efforts and future plans. Just days after Hollywood director Steven Spielberg resigned as an artistic director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics – accusing Beijing of not doing enough to stop the Darfur crisis – China sent its special envoy on Darfur, Liu Guijin, to Khartoum Sunday, both to deliver a stern warning to the Sudanese government, and to remind its Western critics that they, too, could be doing more to stop the fighting.

At a stopover in London, which one analyst described as a "public relations roadshow," Mr. Liu told a crowd of diplomats and China experts at Chatham House, a prominent foreign-affairs institute, that China has been "forced" to take open action on Darfur. "According to our original culture, we do a lot of things quietly," he said. "We do not like to speak everywhere. But the situation has forced me to speak out on what we have done and what we are going to do."

China's change of tactics, from quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy to more public speechmaking, could be motivated by many factors, from a desire to maintain its paramount influence in Sudan to a need to protect its upcoming Summer Olympics. Whatever the motivations, China's diplomatic initiative carries risks and raises questions of how much influence China really has with its African allies.

"Definitely, China has found the need to play the role of global actor," says Mariam Jooma, a Sudan expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria (or Tshwane, as the South African capital city now calls itself). Mr. Spielberg's action may have sped up Beijing's diplomacy, but China looks at Sudan in much broader terms than mere public relations.

"To the west of Sudan, the Chadian rebels have been pushed back, in part with French military assistance," says Ms. Jooma. "To the south, the SPLM [Sudanese People's Liberation Movement] is hedging its bets by signing up the US as a major ally. So for strategic reasons, China is beginning to feel the need to send a message that it is quite a big player in Sudan."