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.
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."
As if to underscore how important the Darfur issue has become, America's envoy arrived in Khartoum on the same day that Liu arrived. Both will conduct separate talks with the Sudanese government this week.
"China has been pushing the Sudan government behind the scenes for at least two years now," says Alex De Waal, a Sudan expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "They were a driving force behind the hybrid force of UN and AU [African Union} peacekeepers," which began to deploy in Sudan last month, "and it has been doing this before there even was an activist campaign over Darfur."
The combined attentions of human rights campaigners and Hollywood stars such as Mia Farrow, Don Cheadle, George Clooney, and now Spielberg may make bigger news in the United States than in Beijing, but activists have had a surprisingly stinging effect nonetheless. Beijing's response has come out sounding hurt rather than angry. But the very fact that it has responded at all is a big change.
"It is understandable if [critics] are not familiar with China's policy," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said last week. He said China had played "a positive and constructive role in the proper solution of the issue" and that "China's important role in the process is widely applauded by the international community."
Since envoy Liu was appointed last May, apparently signaling a shift from Beijing's previous diplomatic support for Khartoum's stonewalling, US, British, and UN officials have welcomed what they say are behind-the-scenes efforts by the Chinese to pressure the Sudanese authorities.
This month, Liu reportedly told Sudan's Foreign Minister, Deng Alor, that "the world is running out of patience with what is going on in Darfur." He urged Sudan not to take actions that would "cause the international community to impose sanctions on them."
As Sudan's major trade partner, buying nearly three-quarters of its oil exports, and also selling large arms shipments to Sudan, China is thought to have special influence in Khartoum.
Liu's expected mission is to parade China's achievements in Sudan and de-link the Darfur conflict from the Olympic Games.
"I think they've realized this level of criticism is really damaging to their image," said Kerry Brown, an associate fellow at Chatham House. "In the early 1990s they wouldn't have [cared]. But now they are so nervous about the Olympics, we actually might see them do something new."
Liu's trip this weekend to Sudan, his fourth since he got the job, has a dual purpose, says He Wenping, an Africa expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-run think tank in Beijing. "The first goal is to keep things moving towards a solution of the Darfur issue because there have been a lot of delays," she says.
"The government also intends to depoliticize the Olympics," she adds. "They do not want Darfur hanging over the Olympics."
Dr. He does not expect international pressure to change what she says is China's preference for diplomatic efforts, rather than such tactics as sanctions against Khartoum.
"I don't think the pressure will lead to a dramatic U-turn," she says. "But it has had some influence. As the pressure mounts, of course the government has to respond" with "active measures" such as Liu's visit to Sudan.
International pressure has changed China's approach to the Darfur crisis before, says Chris Alden, an expert on Sino-African relations at the London School of Economics. "From a public defense of Sudan" until 2004, Beijing has "shifted in the UN Security Council to successfully getting Khartoum to accept an international peacekeeping force," he says.
But pressure from the West and nongovernmental organizations was not necessarily the driving force, Dr. Alden suggests. Rather, the increasingly obvious frustration among African leaders with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir's government (denying him the AU presidency two years in a row, and sending in an AU intervention force) was "more important," he says.
Beijing "could either be seen as going against the grain of African opinion, or getting in line with the African position, and they got in line," Alden suggests.
The new wave of pressure, however, is unlikely to significantly alter Beijing's approach, predicts Alden. "It seems they will stick to their guns against sanctions, but say they are open to any other form of pressure."
But while the Spielberg resignation may sting, some analysts say it merely points to larger problems with China's foreign policy.
"The Spielberg dilemma is a reaction to an even bigger dilemma," says Alexander Neill, head of the Royal United Services Institute's Asia Security Programme. "It's a grander issue. It's linked to the party and to patriotism, and nationalism, and it's showing."
Mr. Neill says, "China has to re-evaluate as a global stakeholder just how it becomes involved with countries that have civil war issues, internecine struggles, regimes that are unpalatable to its neighbors or the West.
"It is going to need some tweaking, because its policy of noninterference is wearing a bit thin."