China and Darfur: "Signs of Transition"
China and Darfur: "Signs of Transition"
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

China and Darfur: "Signs of Transition"

In China, attitudes toward Darfur are evolving rapidly - so that instead of being part of the problem, it could play a significant role in the solution.

As the Darfur crisis drags into its fourth year, with President Omar al-Bashir's regime in Khartoum continuing to stare down international concern, China has often been tagged the villain in the drama. Certainly Beijing has regularly blocked tougher action in the UN security council against its energy supplier and commercial partner, invoking the principle of non-interference in internal affairs which has for decades been at the core of its foreign policy.

But like so much in China, attitudes toward Darfur are evolving rapidly. This is not just because of Beijing's concern about possible embarrassment at the 2008 Olympics, although this has certainly agitated policymakers. In fact, the Darfur crisis coincides with a fundamental reassessment of China's entire approach to foreign policy. Meeting regularly, as we do, with Chinese officials and foreign policy experts, we find clear signs of at least four transitions now underway.

First, China is moving slowly from a foreign policy based on strict adherence to non-interference in others' internal affairs - stemming both from its own unhappy experience and that of the decolonised states whose cause it so long championed - to one fully engaged in addressing such transnational concerns as terrorism, trafficking in arms, drugs and humans, health pandemics and climate change.

Second, China is coming to accept that its global role vis-a-vis developing countries is no longer simply to defend them against western interference, but also to promote their long-term stability and responsible behaviour. China does not want to be perceived globally as a defender of authoritarian regimes that perpetrate or are oblivious to human suffering.

Third, China is adjusting to the reality that its bilateral relations with countries like the United States cannot be disentangled from certain difficult third-country issues, such as North Korea, Iran, and Sudan. It is becoming more responsive to diplomatic concerns being expressed not only about familiar internal and bilateral issues, but about the behaviour of its friends in Africa and Asia.

Finally, while actively pursuing its immediate global economic interests, especially in energy and other natural resources, China is increasingly adopting a longer term and more nuanced perspective. In Sudan it is becoming convinced of the need to pressure Khartoum for a solution to the Darfur crisis, starting to recognise that its continuation could undercut the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended decades of war in southern Sudan, and lead to new fighting that will shut off oil production entirely.

China was moving in these directions well before the Darfur-related heat became anything like scorching. At the 2005 World Summit it accepted the "responsibility to protect" principle, that state sovereignty is no licence for atrocity crimes. From mid-2006 there were signs of quiet pressure being applied to President Bashir to moderate his position. In mid-March 2007, UN ambassador Wang Guangya, openly expressed his frustration that Bashir had reneged on his earlier agreement to allow a hybrid UN-African Union peacekeeping mission to enter Darfur to protect civilians. President Hu Jintao has apparently pressured Bashir to accept the UN plan for the heavy support package and the hybrid force, and offered 275 engineers to support that force. And last month [May] it appointed Liu Guijin, one of its top Africanists, as a special envoy - very rare in its foreign policy structure - for Darfur.

None of this means that the international community should reduce its pressure on China to do the right thing in Sudan. Beijing still regularly depicts the situation in Darfur as "stabilising" or "improving", and has yet to openly accept that tough sanctions must be part of the effort to persuade the Khartoum regime to abandon its murderous policies. And Chinese calls for "patience" over Darfur are wearing thin after so many years of death, destruction and colossal human misery. But there is mounting evidence that balanced and intelligent argument for more effective action on this and similar issues will find resonance in Beijing.

Global leadership has been sorely lacking in facing down Sudan, and China is not itself going to provide that. The whole cast of international players, in the security council and elsewhere must abandon quick-fixes and half-measures, and move toward tougher measures which will change the cost-benefit calculation of the Khartoum leadership - and also pressure the Darfur rebels - in favour of peace over violence. But there is reason to believe that Beijing is shifting in Sudan from being an obvious part of the problem to a significant part of the solution, and that this is part of an important evolution in its wider foreign policy.


Former President & CEO
Former Vice-President for Multilateral Affairs

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