China’s Darfur Policy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 7

As the atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan continue, Beijing has become the subject of much international criticism for its failure to utilize its leverage over Khartoum to halt the violence and persuade President Omar al-Bashir to permit UN peacekeepers to enter into the region. In her testimony before U.S. lawmakers, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice singled out China as she called for increased pressure on Khartoum to accept a UN peacekeeping force to settle the bloody conflict (AP, February 17). The UN’s special envoy to Sudan, Jan Pronk, has likewise stated that “if there is any country which could play an important role [in convincing the Sudanese government], it is China. China never put a lot of pressure [on Sudan]” (AFP, January 16). Beijing has also been accused of protecting President al-Bashir—and Chinese oil interests in Sudan—by “repeatedly us[ing] its UN Security Council veto power to block further sanctions on the regime” (AFP, February 2). A Council on Foreign Relations January 2006 report said that China has additionally been a major supplier of weapons to Sudan, a claim elaborated upon by the June 2006 Amnesty International report, titled “China: Sustaining Conflict and Human Right Abuses—The Flow of Arms Accelerates.” The report revealed that an unknown number of Chinese aircraft and helicopters were supplied to Sudan in the 1990s, and at least 222 military trucks have been sighted in 2005 [1]. To characterize Beijing’s reluctance in taking more aggressive measures to intervene in the Darfur region as solely because of oil, however, would be a gross simplification of China’s interests and motivations.

Oil, Trade and Arms?

To be certain, China has significant energy interests in the country. Sudan’s oil reserve estimates of 6.4 billion barrels are considerable, and China has invested heavily in the country’s oil infrastructure. In addition to constructing numerous pipelines and refineries, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation is the majority owner (40 percent) of the Greater Nile Petroleum Oil Company, the largest oil company operating in Sudan [2]. China has also invested some $2 billion into the country’s Merowe hydropower dam, which is expected to provide for all of Sudan’s energy needs when it opens in 2008. According to Western sources, in January, Sudan ranked as China’s fifth largest oil supplier with a share of 6.5 percent of China’s oil imports (Dow Jones Newswire, February 28). Yet, Sudan’s reserves, ranked 33rd in the world, are hardly as impressive as Saudi Arabia’s 262.7 billion barrels, ranked 1st, or Angola’s 9 billion barrels, ranked 13th. Moreover, Sudan’s oil production has been slower than expected, reaching only 365,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2006, well below the 500,000 bpd target (Sudan Tribune, March 7). It seems unlikely, therefore, that China’s oil interests in Sudan are the sole consideration behind its actions or lack thereof.

Likewise, while China’s economic relations with Sudan are substantial, their share in China’s overall foreign economic relations should not be overstated. In 2005, China’s trade with Sudan increased by 55 percent year-on-year (imports by 53 percent and exports by 58.5 percent), yet its share in China’s total foreign trade remained between 0.2 and 0.3 percent. In Africa, China’s trade with Angola and South Africa were more substantial. In 2004, Sudan ranked 4th on China’s FDI destinations list with $146.7 million (or 2.7 percent of the total). Yet in 2005, Sudan’s ranking declined to 8th with $91.13 million (or 0.7 percent of the total). Of the Chinese accumulated FDI at the end of 2005, Sudan’s share was 0.6 percent [3]. This by no means is an attempt to minimize China’s economic involvement in Sudan; the value of China’s contracted projects in Sudan in 2005 ($1.33 billion) was 83 percent more than in 2004 ($725.65 million). It does mean, however, that in relative terms, Sudan is far from being a critical trading partner of China, and therefore economic concerns are at best only a partial explanation of why Beijing protects Sudan.

On the military front, China has maintained stable relations with Sudan over the years, and as Chinese Defense Minister Cao Guangchuan asserted in his public statements, China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), attaches great importance to developing relations with the Sudanese army and are ready to promote cooperation between the two sides in various fields (Xinhua, March 31, 2006). Nevertheless, following the implementation of the UN Security Council arms embargo in December 2005, Chinese arms sales to Sudan are likely to have been halted altogether. What should also be noted is that Sino-Sudanese military relations are far less extensive than Khartoum’s relations with other governments, notably Russia. In fact, Chinese analysts, attempting to deflect recent international criticism away from China, argue that the cause behind the escalation of the Darfur conflict to what is now almost a civil war, is due in large to the influx of modern weapons from other countries during previous regimes [4].

Beijing’s Response to Potential Intervention

Beijing is undoubtedly interested in encouraging peace and stability in Sudan in order to create a more receptive environment for its burgeoning economic activities, but its approach differs from its Western counterparts. Following its long-standing policy of non-interference, Beijing prefers that internal conflicts be settled by the parties directly concerned (the government and its adversaries). As Beijing stated, “[R]esolving the Darfur issue should be realized through dialogue and peace talks” (Zhongguo Tongxun She, February 3). If such a domestic attempt were to fail (or, if an agreement was reached but still needed to be implemented), Beijing would then prefer that a regional organization take charge of the process. Only if the regional approach were to fail would Beijing reluctantly agree to an intervention by the United Nations, at which point it would have no choice but to become involved as well.

Reflecting its preferences, China’s active involvement in Sudan’s peace settlement began only after the Sudanese government and the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on January 9, 2005, thereby ending 21 years of civil war in southern Sudan. On March 24, 2005, a unanimously adopted UN Security Council resolution authorized the dispatch of peacekeeping forces to the region. The Chinese were quick to comply and in May 2005, sent their first group of peacekeepers to Sudan. A more organized Chinese detachment was deployed in May 2006, and in January 2007, it was replaced by 435 PLA transportation, engineer and medical troops (Xinhua, January 18). Stationed in southern Sudan, however, these contingents are isolated from Darfur, where the conflict continues.

The stalemate in Darfur has in fact resulted in China’s support for the intervention of African Union peacekeeping forces, as well as the efforts of the Arab League. When visiting Sudan in early February 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao said that “the African Union and the United Nations should play constructive roles in a peacekeeping mission in Darfur” (Xinhua, February 2). Yet for Beijing, the situation in Darfur is fundamentally different from the one in southern Sudan. Whereas the CPA was accepted by the government as well as by the rebels—thereby paving the ground for UN peacekeeping operations—the Darfur Peace Agreement that Khartoum signed on May 5, 2006 with a main rebel faction has been rejected by other rebel groups and, consequently, has been turned down by Khartoum as well. This has been a critical factor influencing China’s voting behavior at the UN Security Council.

Beijing welcomed the May 16, 2006, agreement to hand over the Darfur peacekeeping mission from the African Union (the African Union Mission in Sudan, whose 7,000 troops had been unable to stop the Darfur atrocities and whose mandate was due to expire on September 30, 2006) to the UN Security Council by January 2007. While the Chinese delegate voted for this resolution—adopted unanimously—the delegate still expressed his country’s reservations, stating: “If the United Nations is to deploy a peacekeeping operation in Darfur, the agreement and cooperation of the Sudanese Government must be obtained. That is a basic principle and precondition for the deployment of all peacekeeping operations” (Resolution 1679).

Based on this agreement, on August 31, 2006, the UN Security Council approved the deployment of up to 17,300 troops (and up to 3,300 civilian policemen) to Darfur and “invited the consent of the Sudanese Government […] for that deployment.” Although Wang Guangya, China’s representative, supported the deployment, he insisted that the “consent of the Sudanese Government” should have been obtained before the vote and should have been clearly included in the resolution. Since both amendments were rejected, China abstained during the vote (Resolution 1706; Xinhua, August 31, 2006). Sudan categorically opposed the UN peacekeeping force deployment in Darfur as “entirely unacceptable.” As it stands, the resolution may be interpreted as allowing UN troops to move into Darfur even without Sudan’s consent if it is needed to halt the atrocities in the area (AFP, September 1, 2006). Fully aware of this humanitarian crisis, Beijing offered assistance valued at 40 million yuan ($5.1 million) to improve the living conditions and the overall situation in Darfur as well as a 100 million yuan interest-free loan ($12.8 million) to the Sudanese government (AFP, February 2).

Complex Considerations for Involvement

Beijing’s response toward the situation in Darfur reflects not only its pragmatic interests, but also its fundamental and ideological concerns. Beijing is certainly worried that the U.S.-led efforts to stop human rights abuses in Sudan (and elsewhere) could at some point be directed at China itself. In addition, China is likely to be troubled with the implications that intervention would present for its own sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity—ideals that are highly valued by Beijing. During his most recent trip to Sudan in February, President Hu Jintao introduced four principles for handling the Darfur issue. As evidence of Beijing’s concerns, the first principle that Hu underlined stated: “Respect Sudan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Resolution of the Darfur issue will definitely benefit the process of reconciliation among ethnic groups throughout Sudan, benefit safeguarding of national unity in Sudan, and benefit regional peace and stability” (Xinhua, February 2). Wen Xian, a senior People’s Daily editor, elaborated that “any program or schemes for the settlement of the Darfur issue, if not favorable to the maintenance of Sudan’s national unity, is bound to complicate the problem” (People’s Daily, February 7). To be sure, precedents that erode the territorial integrity of sovereign states by the United Nations are unacceptable to Beijing. For instance, in a hypothetical case of a conflict in Tibet or Xinjiang, China would never permit UN peacekeeping forces onto its territory. Instead, Beijing would quickly and forcefully resolve the situation. Implicitly, this is precisely what they had expected from Khartoum: the restoration of stability at all costs.

It is Sudan’s evident inability to do so—combined with the international pressure and the threats to China’s economic interests—that have forced Beijing to convince Khartoum to accept the UN peacekeeping contingent in Darfur. From the very beginning, Beijing has cautioned that external intervention would only complicate the Darfur issue. As an editorial in the People’s Daily warned, “The situation has worsened since some Western countries are eager to ‘internationalize’ what had been a pure [sic] internal affair of Sudan […] The Darfur issue wouldn’t have escalated so fast, we should say, without intervention from external powers driven by their own interests” (People’s Daily, May 12, 2006). Denying that any U.S. pressure has been exerted on Beijing to persuade Sudan to accept the UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, Beijing itself—though not terribly enthusiastic about the situation—ultimately favors an early settlement along these lines. Already, Chinese energy interests have been threatened, and in late November, two rebel groups attacked a Chinese oil facility located between south Darfur and west Kordofan (Sudan Tribune, March 4).

China’s special envoy to Sudan attempted to hint cautiously and delicately just before Hu Jintao’s visit: “We hope that the Sudanese side could pay attention to the international community’s concern” (Zhongguo Tongxun She, January 17). In its reports about Hu’s meeting with al-Bashir, Xinhua mentioned that the talks had been “frank,” “candid” and “sincere”—Chinese euphemisms that reflect disagreements. Reportedly, Hu Jintao “has advised” al-Bashir that an efficient peacekeeping force, is required to restore peace in Darfur (The Star [South Africa], February 13). Still, Beijing will by no means use threats, let alone approve of sanctions, to force Sudan to accept UN peacekeeping forces in Darfur and has stated that “exerting pressure or imposing sanctions will only further complicate the issue” (Xinhua, January 24).

China is walking a tightrope on its policy toward Sudan. On the one hand, Beijing is undoubtedly cognizant of the repercussions that the ongoing atrocities have upon its stated interests. Not only does the conflict affect China’s ability to expand its economic and energy interests in the country, but it also damages China’s reputation as a “responsible stakeholder,” an image that it is laboring to establish. On the other hand, however, China is also equally supportive of Sudan’s sovereign right to settle its internal affairs or agree to international intervention. China is hardly likely to surrender its foreign policy pillar of non-intervention and surely does not want to become associated with the West, least of all with the United States. Consequently, Beijing has opted for the middle road, juggling its relations with all parties according to a “doctrine of the mean.”

Dr. Yitzhak Shichor is Professor of East Asian Studies and Political Science at the University of Haifa, and Senior Fellow, the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.


1. See Amnesty International’s report, “China: Sustaining Conflict and Human Rights Abuses,” available online at:

2. See

3. National Bureau of Statistics, China Statistical Yearbook 2006.

4. Jiang Hengkun and Liu Hongwu, “Zhongzu rentong haishi ziyuan zhenduo: Sudan Daerfuer diqu chongtu genyuan tanxi” [Racial Identity or Resource Competition: An Investigation into the Origins of Sudan’s Darfur Conflict], Xiya Feizhou [West Asia and Africa], No. 5 (2005), p. 11-12.