China Prepares to Send Peacekeepers to Darfur The Chinese government organized a reporters' trip to an army base in central Henan province to see the People's Liberation Army engineering unit headed to Darfur to join peacekeeping forces there. Saturday's reporting trip was clearly an attempt to deflect criticism over China's close economic ties with the government of Sudan.
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China Prepares to Send Peacekeepers to Darfur

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China Prepares to Send Peacekeepers to Darfur

China Prepares to Send Peacekeepers to Darfur

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Tens of thousands of people have died in Sudan's Darfur region in the past four and a half years; another two million have been displaced from their homes. Critics blamed the Sudanese government for backing militias in the fighting and Sudan's ally, China, has come in for much in for much criticism too.

But this weekend, China showed off a unit of army engineers who'd be going to Darfur to support a U.N. peacekeeping mission. The Chinese engineers will arrive ahead of the expected deployment of 26,000 U.N. and African Union troops and police next year. The deployment could help Beijing mollify some of its critics.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from the army base in Henan province.

(Soundbite of soldiers shouting)

ANTHONY KUHN: With whistles and a shout, the Chinese soldiers pushed a 50-foot steel bridge by hand over rollers and across a ditch. Their unit of 315 engineers, guards and medics is due to deploy to Darfur next month.

(Soundbite of engines)

KUHN: The unit will bring bulldozers and cranes to build the barracks, roads and air strips that the main U.N. and African Union forces will use next year. The government's message in bringing reporters to the engineer's base in central Henan province was clear: China is working to be part of the solution in Darfur, not part of the problem.

Senior Colonel Dai Shao'an is deputy director of the Office of Peacekeeping Affairs in Chinese Ministry of Defense. He insisted that neither the reporting trip to this base nor the engineer's deployment were concessions to public opinion.

Senior Colonel DAI SHAO'AN (Deputy Director, Peacekeeping Affairs Office of the Ministry of National Defense): (Through translator) No matter whether people will continue to blame China or not, we will continue to play such a constructive (unintelligible).

KUHN: Rights groups and celebrities have called for a boycott of next year's Beijing Olympics. They say Beijing has shielded Khartoum from censure in the U.N. while selling it guns and buying its oil. Beijing argues that it's helped persuade Khartoum to accept the high-breed U.N. and African Union peacekeeping force.

For the men of the Chinese contingent, their eight-months stint in sky blue U.N. berets is not a bad deal. They get useful field experience and around $1,000 a month in pay from the U.N.

One officer, who identified himself as Captain Joe, said they didn't expect to see much fighting.

Captain JOE (Chinese Contingent in Darfur): (Chinese Spoken)

KUHN: The U.N. is sending other peacekeepers to protect civilians, he said, that's not our responsibility. Our responsibility is engineering work.

(Soundbite of soldiers shouting)

KUHN: Of course, the soldiers say they're ready to defend themselves if attacked and they're working hard on their kung fu moves.

(Soundbite of soldiers shouting)

KUHN: This all represents a big change for China. Beijing has always said that it doesn't interfere in other country's internal affairs. Until 1990, it refused to contribute anything to U.N. peacekeeping operations. Since then, it's dispatched over 8,000 peacekeepers. It currently has around 1,600 troops in U.N. missions in Liberia, Congo, Lebanon and Sudan.

International relations expert Shuen Hung at the People's University in Beijing says that China is now a power that seeks to participate in maintaining the international order including joining in multilateral security operations.

Mr. SHUEN HUNG (International Relations Expert, People's University, Beijing): (Chinese Spoken)

KUHN: China is aware of the international community's wishes that China should bear more international responsibility, he says, and it's willing to satisfy these wishes to the best of its abilities.

Senior Colonel Dai Shiao'an suggested that China was willing to increase its participation in Darfur operations including sending combat troops, if the U.N. requests them.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Xinyang City, Henan Province, China.

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