It has been a troubling year for China's policymakers as they face the diplomatic fall-out from the country's fast-expanding interests in Africa. Chinese oil workers have been taken hostage in Ethiopia and Nigeria, and opposition groups are now targeting Chinese firms in Sudan. Steven Spielberg's broadside against China's Sudan policy was just the latest reaction to Beijing's tangled web of African interests.
China's role as oil investor and arms supplier to Chad and Sudan came into focus this month as Sudanese-backed rebels nearly toppled Chadian President Idriss Deby's shaky regime in Ndjamena.
Last August, Deby broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of a more promising economic deal from Beijing and some protection from Sudan's regional meddling.
The Sudanese regime had wanted the rebels it armed and trained to take over in Chad and block the EU's imminent deployment of peacekeepers on Chad's border with Darfur. But Deby thwarted the plan with French military help and weapons from Libya. As European diplomats agonized over the prospect of their military mission being sidelined, Beijing stayed silent.
As Western states tried to help negotiate a settlement on Kenya's election battle, Beijing was silent again. Its sole official comment was an editorial in the People's Daily last Thursday, arguing that "Western-style democracy simply isn't suited to African conditions, but rather it carries with it the roots of disaster. The election crisis in Kenya is just one typical example."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu (
Beijing's proclamations of "non-interference" have given way to claims that it is using its influence for the good. That's difficult to sustain in Sudan, where Sudanese President Omer el-Bashir's regime has just sent its militias to burn down more towns in Darfur, but continues to obstruct and delay the deployment of a joint African Union (AU) and UN peacekeeping force. Even worse, there is a prospect of Sudan's peace deal breaking apart as Omer's regime blocks the demarcation of the north-south border through the country's oilfields and the promised referendum on the south's secession.
Yet if China's influence on Khartoum seems to make little difference on the ground, the same can equally be said about the more overt Western pressure on Sudan. Russia, which also arms the Khartoum regime, doesn't even dignify its critics with a response.
European and US diplomats call their policy on Khartoum "constructive engagement." This means that they maintain intelligence cooperation with Sudan despite, or perhaps because of, its role as host to Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. Rolls-Royce and many other European companies have provided vital technology for Sudan's oil industry, although this doesn't come close to China's multi-billion investment.
Other Asian states, such as India and Malaysia, have big stakes in Sudanese oil, but have been better at dodging the opprobrium, as has Japan, which imports more Sudanese oil than China.
Beyond the ethical finger-pointing is a collective sin of omission -- Western and Asian states alike have failed to equip and train the type of effective peacekeeping force that could protect civilians in Darfur.
Beijing claims credit for persuading Omer to accept the UN/AU peacekeepers. But Beijing knows it will face more pressure in the run-up to the Olympics.
That's why Beijing's special ambassador to Africa, Liu Guijin (
That's a change of tack from his comments last year when asked about China's arms shipments to Sudan. He said: "If I am selling a knife, I cannot ensure that my client will not use the knife for murder."
Beijing may now tell us that it's taking much greater interest in how some of its clients wield their Chinese-made knives. Perhaps Spielberg should give Liu a call.
Patrick Smith is the editor of Africa Confidential.
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