About the Author: Heather Hwalek works in the State Department's Office of Sudan Programs Group.
Members of the State Department's Office of Sudan Programs Group are frequently sought out to participate in conferences held in Washington to discuss the situation in Sudan and the conflict in Darfur. But rarely is there an opportunity to travel halfway around the world -- all the way to Beijing -- to engage Chinese scholars and a diverse group of international actors on the topic.
In June, Sudan Programs Group Deputy Director Jason Small and Desk Officer Kemi Yai boarded a 14-hour flight to China's capital city to attend the country's first public forum on Darfur. A government-affiliated think tank, the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), hosted a two-day conference on "Peace and Development" in Darfur. Academics and NGO representatives from various African, Middle Eastern and European countries joined Chinese academics and government officials from Sudan to discuss the root causes of the conflict, the current situation and trends, possibilities for a peace settlement, and the responsibility of the international community. The conference was an avenue for China to detail for the international community their policy towards Sudan and efforts to end the violence in Darfur. The conference was especially timely given the media hype over China hosting the Summer Olympics next month.
Chinese representatives detailed the Darfur conflict as a fight over resources that could largely be resolved by development assistance. Jason highlighted the challenges to achieving peace in Darfur and the U.S. government's efforts to help meet this goal, such as the contribution of over $5 billion in humanitarian, peacekeeping, and development assistance, financial and logistical support to help train and equip African peacekeeping troops, and continuous engagement in the political process. Kemi Yai spoke on obstacles to the Darfur political process, namely fragmentation of rebel groups and the tenuous relationship between the governments of Chad and Sudan. Jason and Kemi also met with the Chinese Special Envoy to Sudan.
The international community has widely recognized China's strategic importance in addressing Sudan issues. The U.S. government has specifically encouraged China to help pressure the Sudanese government to facilitate the deployment of the joint UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), end the flow of conventional arms to belligerent parties in Darfur, and support humanitarian groups operating in the region. Although China is often criticized for its relationship with the Government of Sudan, it is important to realize that the Chinese have supplied personnel to both UN missions in Darfur, including vitally-needed engineers for UNAMID. This contribution constitutes the first and only major non-African units deployed to Darfur to be accepted by the Government of Sudan.
Though the United States and China may differ at times on the best course of action in Darfur, the Chinese were gracious hosts during the conference. In a display of Chinese hospitality, guests were afforded a visit to the Great Wall and treated to a Farewell Reception in the courtyard of the CIIS building, a beautiful former foreign embassy. The Sudan Programs Group looks forward to continuing its role in building relationships with international partners to address the conflict in Darfur.