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?