China's responsibility on the world stage
President Hu Jintao's third trip to Africa in four years shows the importance Beijing attaches to the world's poorest, but one of its most resource-rich, continents. Past visits have concentrated on trade, aid and investment, but with Sudan among the nations on the itinerary starting today, politics must also now be broached.
As a world power with ever-growing influence, China can no longer ignore its international responsibilities. Those are being amply fulfilled when it comes to improving the lives of Africans economically; they are not, however, when it comes to protecting their rights.
In Sudan, where government-approved genocide continues to take place in the Darfur region despite a UN Security Council resolution and the presence of peacekeepers from the African Union, the rights of millions of Africans are being violated. China, through lucrative oil and trade deals to be boosted by pacts during Mr Hu's two-day visit beginning on Friday, has considerable leverage to stop the killings, rape and displacement of people.
To do otherwise by putting accords on oil exploration and trade ahead of those obligations damages the nation's claim to be a worthy partner for global peace, security and stability.
State leaders have long argued that respecting a nation's sovereignty is foremost in any relationship it is involved in. Criticising a government for violating the basic rights of its people is considered an infringement of that sovereignty, even if international law is being ignored. So, too, is an insistence that any accords are reliant on governments cleaning up corruption and shedding dubious ethics.
The rationale behind this 'no strings attached' policy is not hard to fathom. China does not want to be told what to do; it will cease to be credible if it turns around and tells other countries what to do. When it was first conceived in the 1950s, the policy won China applause from developing countries that felt victimised by their former colonial powers, which attached all kinds of conditions on trading links with them. Over time, however, the policy is seen more as a defensive move by China to ward off foreign criticisms of its own shortcomings.
Today, the policy is bringing convenient benefits to its booming economy, particularly its resource-hungry manufacturing and industrial sectors. African governments have welcomed the tens of billions of dollars in trade. For signing contracts they have been rewarded with US$5 billion in aid, a figure mainland leaders agreed at a summit with African leaders in Beijing last November to double by 2009. Repressive governments like those in Sudan and Zimbabwe have found the approach more appealing than that adopted by western nations, which often insist on political and human rights reforms when drawing up pacts.
But as much as Beijing likes to portray its manner of deal-making as mutually beneficial, of partners treating one another equally and devoid of the conditions of one-time colonial rulers, ignoring abuses is doing more harm than good. Sudan - where more than 200,000 people have been killed, 2.5 million more made refugees and tens of thousands of women raped while the government claims otherwise - is ample evidence.
Elsewhere in Africa, endemic corruption continues to flourish, reaping rewards for those in power while negating for the continent's poor whatever benefits China's dealings may bring. Ignoring abuses and anomalies was possible in the past when the nation was struggling with the same problems as African counterparts. The nation's economic and political ascendancy internationally dictates that the same can no longer apply.
Mr Hu well realises this; that is why China has taken a lead role in trying to defuse tensions in East Asia by trying to convince North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons programme. The same responsibility must apply to other nations where people are threatened. This was ignored on a recent Security Council resolution on Myanmar, which Beijing refused to sanction. But with Mr Hu about to meet Sudan's leaders and under pressure from UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to use his influence to bring peace to Darfur, the only option is to be a worthy global player.
Expectations have been raised by China calling on Sudan to co-operate with the UN in finding a solution. That impetus must continue, not only during Mr Hu's visit but with other situations around the world where people's lives are being destroyed by abusive, corrupt or irresponsible governments.