Its biggest investor takes a pragmatic approach to Sudan's affairs – and is keen that the independence vote runs smoothly.
China has more to lose than most if things fall apart in Sudan this winter, where a potentially explosive national referendum on southern independence is due in January. Beijing is the country's biggest investor while for its part, Sudan is a significant oil supplier. Renewed instability could also adversely affect China's expanding interests in neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, Chad, Libya and Egypt.
Mindful perhaps that the stakes are high, Liu Guijin, China's special representative for Africa and Beijing's point man on Darfur, is pushing hard to ensure the vote happens peacefully and on time. Speaking in London at the end of a European tour, Liu said Sudan was fast approaching an important crossroads and urged the international community to do all it could to avoid a pile-up. "If the situation in southern Sudan gets out of control, it will affect the peace and stability of the whole region," he warned.
Liu said the referendum, widely expected to result in southern secession and the creation of a new sovereign state, was crucial to full implementation of the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) that ended decades of north-south conflict. While China would be happy to see the country's unity maintained, it would respect the outcome of a "transparent and credible" vote. But like the UN and some western powers, he said Beijing was worried that key agreements were not yet in place.
"Time is the pressing issue," he said. "The international community must make an effort on two tracks. One is to ensure the referendum takes place on time, that there is the needed infrastructure, for instance there are enough ballot papers printed. It also needs to push the two sides [the ruling parties in Khartoum and Juba] to resolve their differences." Outstanding issues included demarcation of the north-south border, wealth sharing, and the status of each other's nationals should the south secede.
Western officials have also expressed concern at the slow pace of preparations for the referendum, amid suspicions that the ruling National Congress party of President Omar al-Bashir is deliberately dragging its feet. In a report published this week, the independent International Crisis Group urged a swift settlement of the boundary issue "to avoid future complications, including a return to conflict ... As the country's oil resources are concentrated in these areas, the political and economic implications of border demarcation have been amplified, and some border areas remain dangerously militarised".
China's political and commercial embrace of Bashir's national unity government has been much criticised in the west. Khartoum is accused by American pressure groups and Christian organisations of causing tens of thousands of deaths in Darfur, where rebel groups and tribal militias have fought government forces and their janjaweed proxies since 2003 – though the figures are much disputed. External pressure has increased since the international criminal court (ICC) charged Bashir with genocide and war crimes.
Liu rejected such criticism, saying China had contributed millions of dollars to alleviate suffering in Darfur and fully supported the UN and African Union-sponsored peace talks. The importance of the talks has been underscored in recent days by an upsurge in fighting in west Darfur state's Hamidiya camp. But Liu said their potential to bring peace to Darfur was undermined by the continuing boycott exercised by two of the main rebel factions, which he said should end immediately.
More controversially, Liu argued the referendum and Darfur must take precedence over attempts by the ICC and its supporters to arrest Bashir. "The international community has to be pragmatic ... We understand the importance of the immunity issue ... It is not ignored. But the priority is a holistic solution of Darfur and the CPA." Bashir's arrest would make solving these problems "more difficult" and on that, he said, there was "a kind of consensus" between China and the US (both non-ICC signatories) and countries that backed the court, such as Britain and France.
Liu said China supported statements by the African Union and the Arab League urging members not to co-operate with ICC attempts to arrest Bashir. ICC signatory Kenya was reported to the UN security council for hosting Bashir in Nairobi last month, a move the EU decried as "totally unacceptable". But Liu said he agreed with African leaders who accuse the court of operating "double standards" when it comes to Africa, compared to its approach to western actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
China strongly supported the sovereign right of all African nations to run their affairs without outside interference, he said – a principal reason why overall China-Africa trade plus bilateral investment and resource-backed development loans in numerous countries in addition to Sudan were booming.
It was not a case of China propping up dictators, Liu said. It was a case of helping Africans to make their own way. As for Bashir, he added, his fate was primarily a matter for the Sudanese themselves: "No one has the right to take away the immunity of a head of state, not even the UN security council."