China and Sudan: Defining the Turning Point

In her posting yesterday, Mia Farrow identifies the success of the "genocide Olympics" campaign—which she was instrumental in starting—as a "defining moment." She is right. For the first time, an international activist movement has compelled the Chinese government to recognize that it has global human rights responsibilities. Beijing’s rebuttal of Stephen Spielberg’s charges is the tribute that realpolitik pays to principle—or conservative foreign relations pays to public relations. But will it be a defining moment in the history of Darfur? That is still in the balance.

As Beijing has been quick to point out, it neither designed nor implemented the Darfur crisis, and its traction over the Sudan government is limited. And others have pointed to the large number of other countries that invest in Sudan or provide it with arms—India, Iran and Malaysia among them. What can we expect China, singularly, to do?

In this regard, it’s well worth taking a long historical perspective on how Sudan handles its foreign relations. Unlike other African countries, Sudan didn’t have a single colonial power—it had two, Britain and Egypt. And insofar as Egypt was itself busy negotiating the terms of its domination by Britain and France, Sudan always maintained a line to Paris. After World War Two, Sudan won its independence by deftly playing off Britain, Egypt, France and the U.S.—its nationalist leaders used intrigue and balancing to play a weak hand superbly well. During the Cold War it was the same, as successive governments diversified their sources of foreign support and patronage.

Taken individually, no single country can dictate a course of action to the Sudan government. As pointed out by Dan Large, Khartoum doesn’t trust China any more than it trusts America, and is keen to limit Beijing’s influence. And as Chris Alden points out in his superb book, China’s political influence in Africa is often overstated, for a range of reasons including multiplicity of Chinese institutions engaging in Africa, clumsy and sometimes unpopular policies, and a general Chinese reluctance to involve itself in domestic issues within African countries. At this moment, the U.S. continues to have more influence than China—not least because normalized relations with Washington DC are the key to a better relations with the World Bank and IMF and hence a chance of debt relief.

The key to international pressure on Sudan is ensuring that it is coordinated and concerted. In the history of the North-South peace agreement, a huge amount of diplomatic time and effort was invested in bringing all the international players together around a single forum and formula. At the time it seemed that marshalling the internationals was just as difficult as bringing the Sudanese parties to the table. A well-aligned international approach isn’t guaranteed to bring results (it didn’t work for the DPA) but it is a precondition for any progress.

But there’s no doubt that China has real traction on Sudan. It helped Sudan escape from its international isolation ten years ago, imports Sudanese oil, and sells Sudan weapons. And China is in Sudan—and in Africa—for the very long term, and is planning accordingly. Beijing has already demonstrated its influence, for example by playing a key role in pushing President Bashir to climb down from his rejection of UN troops for Darfur and instead accept the hybrid UN-African mission that is now partly deployed. And perhaps more important than China’s influence in Sudan is China’s influence globally—it can take a lead in marshalling others to adopt a common approach.

The activists’ greatest challenge is at the moment of their success. What now? Having hit on a formula that works, should the campaign now raise the bar? Add some more demands on Sudan, or add Burma—or even Tibet—to the list? Or is it better to focus on the Darfur-specific demands and—should China do what’s asked—then congratulate Beijing and call off the campaign (while remaining watchful)? If Beijing is asked to publicly humiliate President Bashir, it is most unlikely to comply—that’s not how China does its business. But if we attend to the quieter ways that Beijing pushes Khartoum, and are more realistic in what can actually be achieved in the middle of Darfur’s nasty and newly resurgent war, we may see real progress.

The activists’ central challenge is defining success. Is the success of their campaign the size of the campaign itself and the profile of its leaders? Or is it the difference it makes to the people of Sudan?

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12 thoughts on “China and Sudan: Defining the Turning Point

  1. Does a Chinese official’s response to Stephen Spielberg prove that an international human-rights campaign has been successful in altering Beijing’s policy? Or might it simply mean that Beijing is paying attention: pretty small potatoes six months before the Olympic Games.

    That oil is at the heart of China’s interest in the Sudan weakens outsiders’ leverage. The oil market is global: if the US will not import Iran’s oil, other countries will; was the embargo on Iraq successful? Would even the Sudan’s non-oil producing neighbors boycott Sudanese oil? Oil is a seller’s market; China’s a buyer. Which is more easily boycotted, Sudanese oil or Sudanese gum arabic!

    That the suggestion has been made that China has blinked and might be susceptible to pressure on other issues is precisiely what China has sought to avoid through its hardline rhetoric. (First we take Manhattan, then we take Tibet?) Even China’s involvement in the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear program has seemed tentative, the better for arguing consistency in non-intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs. The best way for Beijing to silence foreign friends of Tibet is for Beijing to stay silent on issues like Darfur.

    A word about Khartoum’s expertise in playing off one set of foreigners against another: Alex de Waal may be conflating 1880s-’90s Anglo-French colonial rivalry and Anglo-Egyptian competititon for influence in the Sudan in the 20th century. And it would be interesting to have details of how the Northern Sudanese politicians played off France to win early independence; certainly the US was in the wings by then, but the playing off was still an Anglo-Egyptian show. If there are vestiges today, in Darfur, of the old colonial era, these might include competition over where eventually a center of gravity may emerge – in Darfur or Chad.

  2. Martin Daly’s comment raises some interesting points.

    First, I think that China’s shift in position is real–or to be precise, it has the potential to be so. Mia Farrow has been exemplary in the very human way she has reached out to the victims of war in Darfur and has kept their suffering, and their need for voice, as the focus of her own activism. I have immense confidence in her commitment and moral compass. But having witnessed other campaigns run into difficulties as they navigate the transition from being voices in the wildnerness to playing the role of real influences on policy, I am concerned that the wider leadership of America’s Darfur campaign needs to have some strategic reflection over its next steps. We have collectively missed enough opportunities over the last few years to make progress on Darfur that we shouldn’t miss this one.

    Second, Martin is right to call me on the French role in Sudanese independence. The important French role was as a rival to Britain in the scramble to control the Nile Valley between the building of the Suez Canal and the “Fashoda Incident” of the 1890s. Independence-era Sudanese political acumen was almost wholly focused on playing off London and Cairo against one another. But the late Kifle Wodajo, a distinguished Ethiopian diplomat, once told me that after World War II, Emperor Haile Selassie encouraged Sudanese leaders to establish contacts with other European powers and to try to use France as a counterweight to perfidious Albion–a skill that the Emperor himself had perfected. I’m sure there’s a neglected trinket of independence-era history to be unearthed there, but I agree that it’s not likely to be a major one.

    In passing, Sudan’s experience with “hybrid” colonialism was not merely the Anglo-Egyptian condominium and its Turko-Egyptian predecessor but also the odd history of the Lado Enclave in South Sudan, a possession of the Belgian King Leopold until his death, after which it reverted to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Sudanese politicians are comfortable with hybridity and transitional arrangements.

    And lastly, there is a strong case to be made that the foreign power with most leverage over Darfur today is France. After the French military intervention in Chad earlier this month, giving it direct influence over the Darfurian rebels, and with France involved in major commercial contracts in Sudan, Paris has an opportunity to take a decisive lead on Darfur.

  3. It is truly sad when it’s no longer about Darfur, the spotlight for Mia Farrow’s misguided effort to blackmail the Olympics and denigrate a billion people.

    Is that any way to ask for help? Especially after repeatedly failing Darfur ourselves over the years?

    The root cause of Darfur is the negative consquences of American power in Africa, and the “Darfur Dream” people ignored that completely.

  4. “The activists’ central challenge is defining success. Is the success of their campaign the size of the campaign itself and the profile of its leaders? Or is it the difference it makes to the people of Sudan?”

    a despicably dishonest and deliberately demeaning framing of the “challenge” Darfur activists face in addressing ongoing Chinese complicity in the Darfur genocide

  5. I am again saddened that when I raise a question about the challenges facing America’s Darfur campaign, some individuals associated with the campaign seem to take that as an accusation and a personal one to boot. It is neither. All points of view are welcome on this blog and even name-calling (up to a point) is permissible.

  6. It is obvious that the Western powers, US and France in cooperation with Idriss Deby in Chad, has a politicial role in the power game fueling the conflict in Darfur. Furthermore, the extend of the socalled “genocide” in Darfur is questionable. Several indicators point to that fact.

    China has taken over the role in Sudan as the main exploiter of the Sudanese oil fields after the US pulled out by mid-nineties before production started. And China’s political strategy in Africa is one of non-interference into the internal affairs of the individual countries in order to promote their relationships with the African governments. Sudan is the most important African partner for China when it comes to oil import. So, China is in an ambigious position when it comes to putting pressure on the Sudanese government. China needs the oil for its expansionist economy!

    The Sudanese government and the West are implementing wars through proxies in Darfur supporting political factions on both sides of the conflict.

    There is no doubt, that the population of Darfur is suffering due to this state of affairs and that there is a humanitarian crisis. But to blame China for the Darfur conflict and “genocide” is ridiculous knowing the history of the US (and CIA) and the french involvement in the area for the last 30 years. Even if China is providing military hardware for oil!

    It is no use blaming the idealistic Farrows and other Western Darfur crusaders for being a part of a CIA set up. I think they are naive folks being used by powers playing a hidden game in the area. And, I see the Sudanese government side of the conflict being an aspect of the center-perifery political struggles taking place in this the largest African nation. The central Sudanese government is under tremendous pressure having conflicts brewing at different levels in all of its four marginal regions: North, East, West and South.

  7. My reading of the comment about the “challenge” facing “Darfur actvists” is that there is a danger of their pursuing strands of action that might lead away from – rather than toward – their undoubted goal. The Genocide Olympics idea might be one such strand; associating the Darfur crisis with Burma, or attracting parties interested in Tibet might be others.

    (It hardly matters, in this context, but Haile Selassie’s table talk – remember that he was in exile in Khartoum after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia – does not seem a very promising source for the study of Sudanese nationalist politics! And the Turco-Egyptian regime was a “hybrid” only insofar as the late Richard Hill chose to clarify its Ottoman nature by giving it a double-barrelled name: to Sudanese it was simply the “Turkiyya”, not “Turkiyya al-Misriyya”.)

    In Alex de Waal’s comment that Sudanese politicians are comfortable with “transitional arrangements” one senses more at stake than varying interpretations of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium – let alone the Lado Enclave. One way to view the modern history of the Sudan is of a “Sudanese” national identity, based on and fostered by the Northern elite’s Arab Muslim ideology, inexorably defeating, through assimilation or other means, any competitors. During decades-long conflicts – and the intervening periods of “transitional arrangements” – ultimate goals (or readings of history) may not have changed much. We shall see, in the South and, how ever events play out in Darfur, in the west as well.

  8. I just read your comments about Darfur, China and the affect of Mia Farrow’s activist campaign. I was an American who was on an American based "stop the genocide in Darfur campaign" before I went to work for the UN in Sudan and visited Darfur. Now my opinions about the situation have completely changed. I admit I was snowed by the American media and activist rhetoric. I am now an advocate of not getting involved or going on the bandwagon of something I don’t know anything about. I am now of the opinion of until you live and work in a situation you may have an opinion but you still only get a small glimpse of the real problems.

    Here is my glimpse. I am not an "expert" nor would I claim to be on any issue, but I worked in Sudan and was not sheltered or lead by any group or special interest but focused mostly on gathering information on the human rights violations against civilians to all parties of the conflict. I am a firm believer that violations have been committed by all parties to the conflict whether they be by commission or ommision, including the “international community”. (I put this in parenthesis as I am still looking for a true definition of the international community).

    While keeping track of the events in Sudan, I continued to hear rhetoric from all sides, the UN, the rebels, the government of Sudan, the "international community", in the media and equally the celebrities and political activists who continued to "speak out" on Darfur. All sides I believe contribute to the on-going issues on in Darfur. How you ask? The issues are not clearly understood by anyone outside the Sudanese "powerful" who continue to exploit the people of Sudan and play the international community however they see fit. Mr. de Waal points out past patterns exist, including the "international community" members making decisions on Sudan and policy while not understanding the full scale and magnitude of the problems, and those in power manipulate the situation. They seem to make Sudan which I believe has multidimensional problems some caused by outside parties, others caused by inside parties, very one dimensional. The problems in Sudan are not just human rights violations of the government against civilians, they are violations committed by the rebels (sometimes for better words "arabs" fighting "arabs"). It’s not a genocide but people killing people out of their own interests. It is also the “international community” at fault by putting in people in decision making roles (or not if we look at the vacuum that existed in the UN for so long) that also don’t full understand the problems.

    The problems also range from these human rights violations to the sharing of resources (economy), poverty and political strife, arms and the sheer manipulation of and by many groups, including the international community, vulnerable Sudanese and rebels.

    The government is backed by those who have a special interest in keeping Sudan’s current government in power. Why don’t we call it like it is, narcissism. For example, one aspect of the problem is the power in Sudan is held by few who do not care about the people of Sudan. The power belongs to the Khartoum government and the rebel groups that are backed by numerous outsiders. I don’t want to be completely negative because I have met a few people within the government who seemed to think about the interest of the people, but on the other hand they had no power. Unfortunately those in power have their own pockets and self interest at heart in Sudan, just as "the international community" does. I am sure Ms. Farrow even has her own motivations, however pure they may be, but I think she is lead by the media and other special interest that have a one sided view of a multi-dimensional problem.

    The Chinese have their interest, as well as the US and those within that group – Senators and Congress men who continue to visit Sudan, US embassy, aid workers, contractors, businessmen, religious groups and political activist. It is not only the US that have these groups involved in Sudan, each of the different European countries, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Jordon and others. We wonder why foreign policy does not work and particularly why the UN doesn’t work.

    Working with the UN, I have seen how it worked in Sudan. It was a nightmare. Something that was meant to do good on behalf of the vulnerable people and help solve the problems, is also run by a bunch of special interest and political correctness. Within the UN people from every different group and culture seek power or money or notoriety or join bandwagons to make themselves feel better or place themselves in a better position; there is too much ego and no common goal for humanity.

    My suggestion is that we start looking at the real problems facing our world today. Everyone has an interest and no common goal. This goes for the problems I have seen as an aid worker in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia and others. We need to get rid of all the one dimensional medias (which are everywhere) and interest groups (which come in all forms) and find ways to address multidimensional problems.

  9. Thanks Laura, for a very beautiful contribution!

    I have been in and out of Sudan since 1978 and have been working within the development field for more than 10 years within that country.

    In my opinion, the situation in Sudan is extremely complex and the solutions not simple.

    With your described point of departure, maybe one could reach some kind of consensus concerning what could be done…but unfortunately, the different interests at various levels are at stake here and power is what rules the world. And this is reflected very well also in these blogs.

  10. Having worked on the recent activism in relation to China, I feel obliged to contribute to this discussion. It is to early to define the success of the Nobel Laureate authored letter and the accompanying global protests apart from pointing out the obvious success of (particularly in the UK Media) providing a cataylst for public discussion of the ongoing situation in Darfur, something that I feel can only be a good thing.

    However, I feel that the call for a boycott of the Olympics has been counter-productive and whilst, it is impossible to keep politics out of sport, the danger remains that, public who may have been sympathetic and ready to mobilise in support of the various grass-roots campaigns for peace in Darfur, now feel unable to comment due to patriotism and the collective feeling of supporting our countries representatives in Beijing.

    This said, it would be silly not to use the Olympics to highlight the importance of China making a long-lasting commitment to Human Rights both domestically and abroad and to draw attention to the important role they play in defusing Darfur.

    Calling for a boycott will divert attention which should be on the ongoing situation on the ground in Darfur rather than on the political wrangling spear headed by high profile, well meaning activists.

  11. I certainly hope it does not come to banning the Olympics. I guess I am not such an optimist, although I like would like to be. I look at the reality I was seeing on the ground. Khartoum’s economy is booming and building is happening everywhere. I suppose this comes from the UN and God knows who else, the rich are getting rich and the poor stay outside Khartoum. I suspect this will remain so regardless of what the Chinese or even the Americans do. Special interest are afoot everywhere and what can the Chinese really do? Pull out and loose their oil and trade interests? Even if by some miracle that were to happen, wouldn’t someone else just step in?

    Honestly I wonder if maybe I am being to simplistic. I hope so, but the Khartoum Government has seemed to be able to do whatever it wants for the last how many years?

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