Terms of Engagement

The Accidental Peacemaker

China now finds itself on the side of peace in a brewing border conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. But is it really committed to stopping its old buddy, Bashir?

Kazuhiro Ibuki - Pool/Getty Images
Kazuhiro Ibuki - Pool/Getty Images

China did something very unusual in the United Nations this week: It did not abstain from, much less veto, a resolution threatening to impose sanctions unless Sudan stopped killing civilians in South Sudan. China has long treated Sudan as a client state, and it stood by Khartoum during the long years when Western powers tried to stop the atrocities the regime was committing in Darfur. Yet, after a discussion that a Security Council diplomat described as "substantive but not acrimonious," China voted for Resolution 2046, which demands that both Sudan and South Sudan put an end to cross-border attacks and return to negotiations.

China has not, of course, become a convert to human rights, as the current standoff over activist Chen Guangcheng proves all too vividly. Nor is it having second thoughts about its foundational foreign-policy doctrine of "nonintervention," which has made China the defender of authoritarian regimes the world over. A recent report on Chinese foreign policy by the British group Saferworld concludes that "At least for now, non-interference, stable regimes and stable relations that are conducive to maintaining China’s global economic engagement, will retain precedence in guiding Beijing’s diplomatic relations with conflict-affected states."

But something important has happened: Facing a situation in which the principle of nonintervention doesn’t tell it what to do, China has been forced to join the United States and other countries, as well as the African Union, in actively trying to end a brutal conflict. China has supported Sudan over the last decade because Sudan supplied China with oil. Last year, however, when South Sudan became independent, Khartoum lost most of its oil-producing territory. China immediately began courting the new country with visits from senior officials and a blizzard of proposed investment deals. Only last week, while South Sudanese President Salva Kiir was in Beijing, China announced an $8 billion loan to the new country to build major infrastructure projects. But though South Sudan has most of the oil, Sudan has the pipelines and the refining equipment. So China needs both countries — and the rising spiral of violence between them, provoked largely though not wholly by Khartoum, has forced China to get off the sidelines.

It has been instructive watching Beijing try to avoid taking responsibility. Soon after partition, Khartoum began a savage campaign of aerial bombardment against civilians in the border area of South Kordofan. Sudan claimed that the region fell within its territory, and China obligingly blocked all attempts to raise the issue in the Security Council. Sudan was in fact using violence, as well as the threat of further violence, to improve its position in negotiations with South Sudan on issues over disputed borders and the sharing of oil revenues. Then Khartoum tried to blackmail South Sudan by refusing to deliver oil pumped in South Sudan to its intended customers, bringing talks over revenue-sharing to a sudden halt. This finally provoked a visit from a Chinese envoy, who tried to encourage the two sides to reach a deal. It was too late though; South Sudanese officials didn’t trust Khartoum or Beijing. This year, South Sudan simply stopped pumping oil and then demonstrated its impatience with Chinese support for Khartoum by booting a leading Chinese oil company executive out of the country.

That finally got China’s attention. As one Chinese official told a researcher from the International Crisis Group, "We cannot just be bystanders; we need to be a player. Can you imagine how any Western country would engage if they had all these interests?" China didn’t change its view of its own interests, but, rather, recognized that it could not defend its narrow mercantile interests through narrow mercantile means. China had become too central a player to let others deal with the mess of conflict. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was dispatched to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to meet with, and mollify, Kiir; in March, a new special envoy for Africa came to Juba, the South Sudanese capital, and made a point of meeting with the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Princeton Lyman. In late March, U.S. President Barack Obama discussed Sudan with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the nonproliferation summit in Seoul. In his official statement Hu said, "China and the United States should continue to exert their own influence [and] encourage Sudan and South Sudan to resolve their outstanding issues through negotiation."

At a very perilous moment for U.S.-China relations, Sudan is the rare diplomatic issue on which the two can work constructively together — an odd prospect given the history of intense disagreement. Lyman accompanied Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Beijing for this week’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and he has been meeting with his Chinese counterparts, presumably not only from the Foreign Ministry — an increasingly marginal player — but also from the military and the Commerce Ministry. Lyman is said to be seeking to enlist China in a Sudan "contact group" that would also include Britain, Norway, and perhaps Ethiopia, Qatar, and Turkey. He may also be asking Beijing to apply pressure on Khartoum to comply with the terms of the Security Council resolution.

China is the key to any possible solution of the crisis. The United States can exert pressure on Juba, but Khartoum is by far the more recalcitrant party. Additionally, Sudan is profoundly dependent on China — diplomatically, economically, and even militarily — because China is the country’s chief arms supplier. The one thing that might get Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to call off his militias and his warplanes is the fear that failing to do so would damage relations with China. For this reason, this week a group of 150 African and Middle Eastern human rights organizations sent a joint letter to Chinese and U.S. authorities asking them to use their influence to bring the violence to an end. The letter points out that over 140,000 people have already fled from Blue Nile state and South Kordofan. It does not say that the number of Sudanese who have died in the violence almost certainly exceeds the 10,000-plus who have been killed in Syria to this point. The authors may have recognized that China would not be moved by the comparison.

In fact, Bashir is much like his Syrian near-namesake Bashar al-Assad, but worse — more brutal, more cynical. He and his predecessors fought a civil war with the south that took the lives of 2 million people. Bashir seems to now regret that he allowed South Sudan to declare independence without a fight. He has lately taken to calling the South Sudanese "insects," and he recently said, "We will not negotiate with the South’s government because they don’t understand anything but the language of the gun and ammunition." That sounds frighteningly like the prelude to a new civil war. Even if that’s not Bashir’s plan, it could be the result of his actions.

How resolute will China be in the face of such a catastrophe? Not very, in all likelihood. Thabo Mbeki, chair of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan, is to report back to the Security Council within 15 days on compliance with the new resolution. Even if he says that Sudan has refused to withdraw its forces from the disputed areas, China is very unlikely to vote for a new resolution spelling out sanctions. And because Russia, still in a rage over the intervention in Libya, is virtually certain to veto such a move, China won’t have to lift a finger. Beijing might be happy to accept credit for playing a mature role in conflict prevention without having to actually confront its recalcitrant ally.

But as an increasingly confident China engages ever more deeply with the world, the contradiction between its sloganeering "win-win" foreign policy and the complex tangle of its own interests will become increasingly glaring. Beijing has now put a toe in the murky waters of conflict resolution; soon it will find itself wading in much deeper.

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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