Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Beijing puts quiet pressure on Sudan

By Alec Russell in Pretoria and William Wallis in London

Published: June 18 2007 19:53 | Last updated: June 18 2007 19:53

China’s special envoy to Sudan has indicated that Beijing has privately exerted pressure on Khartoum over the conflict in Darfur, sometimes using “very direct language”.

His comments in an interview with the Financial Times come amid western speculation that China is growing concerned at the potential threat the crisis poses to its commercial interests in Sudan and to the success of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Liu Guijin, a senior Chinese diplomat, was appointed special representative for Darfur in April, in the wake of growing criticism in the west of China’s perceived reluctance – as Sudan’s leading trading partner and top consumer of Sudanese oil – to put pressure on Khartoum to halt the violence in Darfur.

Speaking after a fact-finding mission to Sudan, Mr Liu stopped short of criticising Khartoum and argued that to impose further sanctions, as some in the west are proposing, would be counter-productive.

But he did suggest China had been more forceful in private. “In our own way and through various means and various channels we have tried to advise the Sudanese government to be more flexible,” he said.

“Even on certain issues like [whether] to accept the Annan plan [for a joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force] we use very direct language to persuade them to understand they have to be very flexible.”

At the weekend UN officials said President Omar al-Bashir had agreed to the deployment of the hybrid force.

Mr Liu’s comments chime with the impression of western officials that in recent weeks Beijing has become more active in seeking solutions to the conflict, which has claimed more than 200,000 lives and displaced 2m people since 2003.

“They are concerned that Darfur should not spread out and wreck the [separate] North-South peace agreement and compromise their ability to get the oil,” David Triesman, Britain’s Africa minister, told the FT.

He said there was a dawning awareness in China of how damaging a campaign promoted by US celebrities threatening a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, could become. “The Chinese are beginning to understand these are very powerful forces,” Lord Triesman said.

Speaking in Pretoria after meeting South African officials, Mr Liu, Beijing’s former ambassador to South Africa, said China’s ties with Sudan had been “unnecessarily politicised”, which was “unfair and irrational”.

But, when asked if China was worried the conflict might affect its oil interests in Sudan, he broke with the standard stonewalling approach of Chinese officials.

“As with any investor in any country it is logical that the investor hopes to have a more stable, more peaceful situation,” he said. “That is something quite natural. But currently we do not see imminent danger.

“We are pushing for the long-term solution. We are pushing for the restoration of peace and stability not selfishly only for the benefit of Chinese oil companies but for the peace of the region.”

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