By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 16, 2007
QINYANG BASE, China, Sept. 15 -- The Chinese military put on a display of its first Darfur-bound peacekeepers Saturday, having troops throw up Bailey bridges and feign combat to dramatize Beijing's desire to be seen as a partner in bringing peace to the violence-torn corner of Sudan.
The training demonstration, by an engineering unit of the People's Liberation Army, was observed by foreign journalists as part of a new campaign by the Chinese government to show that it is cooperating with the United States and other nations to end the Darfur fighting, which since 2003 has displaced about 2.5 million people and contributed to the deaths of as many as 450,000 from violence and disease.
Military engineers wearing U.N.-blue caps worked feverishly to build a stretch of road, erect a bridge and put together a prefab shelter designed to serve as a headquarters building. Force protection troops, meanwhile, simulated reacting to an ambush and sped about the training grounds here in armored personnel carriers in what an army announcer called "a military training show."
In another facet of China's initiative, its special diplomatic envoy for Darfur, Liu Guijin, repeatedly has sought in Washington and at the United Nations to broadcast China's role in persuading the Sudanese government to drop its opposition to a full U.N. peacekeeping force. After long delays caused by hesitations in Khartoum, the Security Council decided in late July to dispatch to Darfur a 26,000-member force -- the largest peacekeeping unit in the world -- and deployment is scheduled to begin by the end of the year. Since then, several nations have redoubled their efforts to get peace negotiations underway.
"On the resolution of the Darfur issue, we have played a very constructive and even unique role," Liu said to reporters this week at U.N. headquarters in New York.
China's previous unwillingness to be seen pressuring the Sudanese government had generated appeals for a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, endangering what the Communist Party government hopes will be a showcase at home and abroad for the country's swift economic transformation. With Olympic enthusiasm high among the Chinese public, anything that casts a shadow over the Games would become a political problem for President Hu Jintao and the party.
Several U.S. entertainment figures, including Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg, raised the idea of a boycott earlier this year. Joining the chorus, 108 members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter to the Chinese government in May warning that the Beijing Games could be spoiled unless China became more actively involved in stopping the violence in Sudan.
It is unclear to what degree the Security Council's decision and Sudan's willingness to accept the U.N. force have dissipated the threat of an Olympic boycott. Spielberg, for instance, had threatened to back out of his role as artistic adviser for the opening ceremony; his spokesman did not respond to a question whether the threat still stands.
China has become Sudan's largest oil customer in recent years and has signed large-scale oil exploration deals with the government in Khartoum. In addition, it has sold weapons to the Sudanese military. In that light, China's critics argue that it should be doing more to make sure the Darfur conflict is resolved and the region's dire humanitarian situation is tended to. The Bush administration, while lauding China for trying to help, had complained repeatedly that Beijing's diplomats were not using their full influence to push Sudan.
The training exercises, at this base in Henan province 400 miles south of Beijing, involved a 315-man force of military engineers who are scheduled to deploy to Darfur early next month. Their mission, officers said, is to lay groundwork for the full U.N. peacekeeping force by building roads, bridges and landing strips.
Senior Col. Dai Shaoan of the Defense Ministry's peacekeeping affairs bureau said the Chinese force will include several construction units, a force protection unit and a medical unit. China has not yet decided whether to contribute combat troops to the full U.N. force, he said, but will "study positively any request from the United Nations."
The engineering force will take 145 vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, bulldozers and trucks, he said. It is made up entirely of volunteer officers and enlisted men who will serve eight-month rotations in Darfur, he added.
"They are all the top troops from their former units," Dai said.
Lt. Col. Shangguan Linhong, who will command the first rotation, said his men, in addition to military training, have studied the origins of the Darfur conflict and the geography and customs of the area where they will be deployed. Although the region is overwhelmingly Muslim, Dai said the Chinese military has not sought out Muslim troops for this peacekeeping unit or others in Muslim areas.
China, which avoided contributing to U.N. peacekeeping missions until 1990, has sent more than 8,000 soldiers abroad since then. The Defense Ministry said 1,648 Chinese soldiers are serving in U.N. peacekeeping forces now, including those in Lebanon, Liberia and Congo.
Dai, sweating in the Chinese military's new olive-green uniform as he answered reporters' questions, deflected queries about the criticism directed at China and the threats of an Olympic boycott. "If you and I are friends and I have problems with my brothers and sisters, nobody can blame you for that," he said.