The Great Hope or the Great Demon?
Editors note: We are pleased to have this contribution from Daniel Large, a UK-based scholar on China—Sudan relations who has published widely on the topic. His research has focused on China’s role in the changing political economy of Sudan as well as the dynamics of it and other actors, mainly India and Malaysia as they impact upon armed conflict and the prospects for peace in the region. He recently authored a piece, “China and the Changing Context of Development in Sudan,” for the journal Development.
Europe and America have tended to regard China as the Great Hope or the Great Demon, moving historically between binary projections of China as an enlightened model to learn from or as an example to avoid. In the case of Sudan today, however, China is paradoxically held up to represent both: it is supposedly the route to peace in Darfur but it is also responsible for ’empowering evil’ in Sudan.
Steven Spielberg’s decision not to continue his role as artistic director for the forthcoming Beijing Olympic Games is the latest episode in a longer campaign to apply pressure on China to apply pressure on Khartoum to apply pressure on Darfur to stop conflict. Much could be said about this. The Chinese government hardly has a good record in Sudan and the closer one examines relations, the more critical one becomes. However, it may be worth trying to encourage debate on this unfolding story.
The selective Western media gaze is training a spotlight on China, framing its government as the only actor dominating what is in actual fact a more crowded stage in Sudan. This focus on China overshadows much in Sudan today — India’s support for Khartoum, Iranian arms supplies, or even Lundin’s new operations in block 5B in the South. It wasn’t so long ago that the Chinese role in oil development during the 1990s, which has in many ways been more consequential and cannot be divorced from more recent developments, was itself overshadowed by the advocacy campaign against Talisman.
A related point — basic but important – is that the Chinese government’s support for Khartoum in the international political arena has unfolded in relation to the diplomacy of the ‘international community’. China’s diplomacy on Darfur is also, in part, a reflection of the limitations of international engagement generally as well as an issue in China’s relations with America in particular. Beijing now finds itself squeezed between the supportive words from international officials about its Darfur diplomacy and concerted activism fronted by Hollywood. This uncomfortable position is compounded by knowledge that the US government presents a Janus face on Sudan, criticising on the one hand and working with key elements in the Khartoum regime on the other.
Perhaps most importantly for Darfur, however, China’s relation to politics in Sudan needs to be better contextualised. This can be connected to a wider problem with much current and often quite breathless coverage of ‘China in Africa’, namely that it conveys the sense that a new, illiberal ‘Chinese’ politics is being produced. This is misleading. African politics, including Sudan, cannot be painted Chinese to explain all ills. Instead, China in Sudan has emerged as a more serious actor in just over a decade and has fed into a pre-existing pattern of violent politics. China importantly has contributed substantially to oil development in Sudan, which underpins much politics. While Beijing protests otherwise, and continues to cling to the rhetoric of non-interference that is incongruent with the impact of its involvement, the impact of Chinese intervention has unavoidably had political outcomes in assisting the political longevity of the NIF and President Bashir in particular and being complicit with its rule.
The view that peace in Darfur can be achieved via Beijing fails to properly situate Chinese involvement in Sudan within the thick, messy and brutal politics of the centre in Sudan and its history of mobilising violence in its periphery. China has performed a number of valuable roles for the extraverted central state under the NIF/NCP, from bailing out Bashir and his near bankrupt regime in the mid-1990s, to ‘breaking the siege’ of international isolation, delivering a functioning oil export sector, and supporting it at the UN Security Council. However, the primacy of Sudanese politics needs to be remembered. The role of China in Sudan is mixed and messy but the notion that China offers the best route to peace in Darfur exaggerates the efficacy of salvation from without. At times it is as if China can explain Darfur’s ills, period, where it is one part of a more complex situation just as it could do more to be part of a solution process.
The Chinese government has influence with the ruling NCP. Indeed, China’s dominance and the associated dangers of dependency has been a source of concern within a regime that has long maintained an underlying ambivalence toward China. China’s self-styled politics of influence behind closed doors could conceivably effect a change in policy at the centre of Sudanese politics, and, very optimistically, affect its obdurate obstructionism. Clearly, however, the Chinese government has limited influence about what happens on the ground in Darfur. And even less control. Plus it is evident that Chinese government itself has been frustrated by the NCP.
China’s role has become more politicised in relation to Darfur within Sudan where it faces mounting pressure. One recent trend is that Darfurian rebel leaders, including Khalil Ibrahim and Abdel Wahid, have being playing the China card. This has featured vocal opposition to China’s support for the NCP and is a trend that appears to build on, to an extent mimic and certainly dovetail with international activism against China. More significantly, the military targeting of oil installations in Kordofan has brought home a danger Beijing has become increasingly preoccupied with elsewhere, in the Niger delta or the Ogaden for example.
Away from the international spotlight, China has been facing the contradictions of its involvement as refracted in the complex, violent politics of Darfur and Chad. Its more engaged diplomacy on Darfur actually pre-date the Genocide Olympics campaign. More recently, since August 2006 when Chad ditched Taipei to recognise Beijing, China has in effect been supporting two governments engaged in an extended regional conflict. Today China’s support for President Bashir is hard to square with the NCP’s sponsorship of attempts to overthrow Beijing’s new friend in N’djamena, President Deby, who was feted in Beijing in late September 2007. The unintended consequences of China’s political and military support to Khartoum and more recently N’djamena are continuing to unfold.
China is the latest external power to use Sudan as a laboratory for intervention. It has been attempting to navigate uncharted political waters over Darfur, the evolution of its diplomacy on Sudan having already progressed beyond the expectations of most observers and, in all likelihood, those of the Chinese government. However, this debate needs to be deepened and areas of practical action in the terrain between partnership or confrontation with China explored constructively.
What comes after the Olympic Games? These begin on 8 August. Conflict in the Darfur-Chad region looks set to continue for years. Any political settlement will involve a difficult middle—long distance process, not a sprint and in this effective engagement with China, as well as condemnation, will be required.