China plans to send an army engineering unit to Sudan's Darfur region early next month as part of a United Nations' peacekeeping force.  More than four years of fighting in Darfur among rebel groups, the government and government-allied militias has killed at least 200,000 people and displaced more than two million others. China buys two-thirds of Sudan's oil output.  Some critics argue that Beijing has not done enough to press Sudan to end the violence in Darfur. Sam Beattie reports from China.

The world's largest army is getting ready to send 315 peacekeepers to Sudan. Their mission is to provide engineering support for U.N. troops in Darfur. 

Darfur is a controversial issue for China, long criticized by the West for its trade with Sudan despite the humanitarian crisis there.  China's previous unwillingness to be seen pressuring the Sudanese government has generated appeals for a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But Chinese military spokesmen say this deployment is not about good public relations.

Colonel Dai Shao An says, "Our peacekeeping mission is not to change the western media's perception of us.  Our purpose is to carry out the mission from the U.N., according to the U.N.'s request, and contribute to world peace."

For most of these peacekeepers, it will be their first time outside of China. Aware of the dangers they face in Darfur, they have been given extra combat training, but they are also aware of the global importance of their peacekeeping role.

An army major said, "According to the requirement of the U.N. we are going to Darfur for peacekeeping, we feel honored and proud of ourselves."  A captain echoed that sentiment. "Taking this peace keeping mission is to keep good relations with the U.N. The U.N. asked us to go, so we are going."

China is Sudan's largest oil customer. It also sells weapons to the Sudanese military. And China maintains that Sudan's internal issues are no one else's concern.

But this could be a sign China is changing its stance. Professor Shi Yinhong of Renmin University feels that "China wants to communicate that it has really become responsible for international security and China is sending troops as part of the U.N. peacekeeping forces. This shows China is becoming more involved in international affairs."

The Chinese troops heading to Darfur will build roads, bridges and maintain barracks for a larger U.N. force that is scheduled to arrive next year.