President Hu Jintao pledged a new level of cooperation between Beijing and its third-largest African trading partner at the start of the Chinese leader’s first visit to Sudan on Friday.
Western leaders had hoped Hu would use his trip to press Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to accept U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur and resolve the four-year conflict in Sudan’s vast west.
Hu raised the issue at a closed-door meeting during the Chinese leader’s landmark visit. Hu told Bashir “Darfur is a part of Sudan and you have to resolve this problem,” a source present during Friday talks between the two leaders said.
An official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Hu told al-Bashir his “government should work more earnestly to get the rebels who did not sign the Darfur peace agreement to join the peace process.”
It was a reference to the May peace agreement between Sudanese authorities and Darfur’s main rebel group that has failed to end the fighting that has killed more than 200,000 people in three years and displaced some 2.5 million.
But Hu’s two-day visit, which includes a trip to a Chinese-built oil refinery, was expected to focus more on growing economic links than on bringing peace to western Sudan.
Strengthened economic ties - tax breaks, loans
China is the biggest foreign investor in Sudan and buys two-thirds of the country’s oil exports. It has used its veto-wielding status at the U.N. Security Council to prevent harsh measures against Sudan over the Darfur conflict.
After fanfare and a red-carpet welcome at the Khartoum airport, the two leaders drove to Khartoum’s multimillion dollar China-sponsored Friendship Hall overlooking the Nile, close to a new bridge under construction, also funded by Beijing.
There, the presidents and cabinet ministers signed several partnership accords on China building two schools, a new presidential palace, knocking off taxes on Sudanese exports, as well as a $12 million loan and a $5.1 million grant to Sudan. China also canceled a portion of previous Sudanese debt, but the figure involved was not immediately known.
“China is more fair than the West in dealing with Sudan and its policy has helped boost both business and peace in the country,” al-Bashir said before the closed-door meeting.
Hu said that “although the distance between China and Sudan is great, the friendship between the two people is deeply rooted.”
Ongoing Darfur crisis
Sudan has for months sent mixed signals on whether it was willing to allow a 20,000 strong U.N. peacekeeping force join the overwhelmed African Union troops in Darfur, and some key presidential advisers have continued saying as recently as this week that the U.N. role in Darfur must remain “purely advisory and technical.”
More than 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million been chased from their homes in Sudan’s remote western region since 2003, when rebels stemming from ethnic African tribes rose up against the central government.
Khartoum is accused of having responded with indiscriminate killings by unleashing the janjaweed militias of Arab nomads blamed for the worst atrocities in Darfur, in a conflict that the White House and others have labeled genocide. The government denies these charges.
On Thursday, an AU peacekeeper was killed by unidentified gunmen in a Darfur refugee camp, the 11th peacekeeper to be slain in the conflict.
In rare move, China addresses internal affairs
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged China to help persuade Sudan to accept U.N. peacekeepers during a meeting with Chinese U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya last week.
Ahead of Hu’s visit, Chinese officials urged Sudan to cooperate in finding a solution, in rare public pronouncements under China’s traditional refusal to interfere in what it considers other countries’ internal affairs.
Hu’s visit itself could indicate that the Sudanese leadership is grudgingly moving toward a compromise deal for U.N. troops to merge with the African force and form a joint peacekeeping mission.
After the closed door meeting, Sudanese Foreign Minister Lam Akol insisted Sudan and China were “in complete agreement” over Darfur.
“We don’t need any Chinese pressure on Darfur, because we all agree,” he told reporters, adding that the hybrid U.N.-AU force could head to Darfur “as soon as funding and troops were secured.”
But Ban, U.N. secretary-general, said earlier this week on the sidelines of an African summit that he was still waiting for a firm commitment from al-Bashir on just how much U.N. presence he would allow in Darfur.
The Sudanese economy grew by 12 percent last year according to the International Monetary Fund. Chinese investment has largely contributed to boost production of the country’s prime resource — oil — which has risen to an output of 500,000 barrels a day. China is also funding large projects such as the $1.8 billion Merowe hydroelectric complex.