You could almost hear the clock ticking last week as diplomats scrambled to find a solution to end the killing in Darfur, western Sudan. In late August, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for a U.N. peacekeeping force to deploy across the region, where more than 200,000 people have been killed in three years of fighting between rebel groups and government-backed Janjaweed militiamen, whom human-rights groups and the U.S. accuse of murdering, raping, looting and even genocide.
But Sudan's government in Khartoum has said U.N. troops are not welcome, and warned that the existing African Union force must leave by the end of this month, when its mandate runs out. Humanitarian groups and diplomats fear that a security vacuum will lead to more bloodletting and the forced withdrawal of aid agencies feeding and sheltering three million people displaced by the fighting.
With the deadline approaching, the French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said he would fly to Khartoum to pressure Sudan's government to allow troops in; Kofi Annan declared that Sudan would bear full responsibility for the growing humanitarian crisis; and the A.U., which rarely criticizes its own, said Khartoum should relent. At week's end, there was the hint of a fudge: the A.U. force might stay on as a transition to a U.N. force. It won't stop the killing the A.U. soldiers are ill-equipped and backed by the weakest of mandates but it creates another few months in which the world can dither.
Amid the diplomatic flurry, and as evidence emerged of a new government offensive in Darfur Human Rights Watch says government planes indiscriminately bombed civilian-occupied villages in rebel-held areas last week one powerful voice was noticeably silent: China's. Khartoum and Beijing are close. The China National Petroleum Corp. owns 40 percent the largest single share of the consortium that pumps some 330,000 barrels of oil a day from Sudan's oil fields. Beijing has blocked the threat of U.N. sanctions against Sudan's regime and protects it in other ways. But with the bodies piling up in Darfur, would China, which abstained in the Security Council vote on a peacekeeping force, try to twist Khartoum's arm to accept U.N. troops?
Probably not. "They tend to see this whole problem in terms of economic investments rather than human rights," says Suliman Baldo, Africa Program Director at International Crisis Group (ICG), an NGO that aims to help prevent conflict. At the same time, says Baldo, "you feel that China wants to be seen in a positive light. They play a very delicate balancing act." Jiang Wenran, Director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, Canada, says Sudan is the focus of debate amongst China's foreign-policy élite. Progressives argue that Beijing should cut its ties with Khartoum, both because it's the right thing to do and because China's oil interests in Sudan are not worth the cost of the country being labeled a genocide abetter. But conservatives, says Jiang, "think that China is being singled out as a part of a Western strategic move to drive China out of Sudan" so that the West can get at its oil.
The latter view is likely to win out for now. China's foreign policy in Africa is driven by economics. When a local paper in Zambia reported last week that China's ambassador to Lusaka warned that Beijing might cut off diplomatic relations with that country if its voters elected a Taipei-leaning opposition candidate in upcoming presidential elections an allegation Beijing denied it seemed obvious China was looking out for its growing mining interests in the copper-rich country.
But as China's influence in Africa grows Chad, an oil-rich neighbor of Sudan's, cut ties with Taiwan last month and recognized Beijing Western diplomats hope that Beijing will start taking other issues into account. "How to get China on board?" says the ICG's Baldo. "This has been the big question mark." It's a question mark that will be repeated in other corners of the globe in coming years.