Why China Won’t Save Darfur

Frustrated by the West’s failure to halt the slaughter in Sudan, Darfur advocacy groups are pinning their hopes on a country they see as genocide’s enabler in chief: China. But in pressuring an indifferent Beijing, activists are merely helping Western governments evade responsibility for a humanitarian crisis that they could do far more to stop.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty ImagesCan this man save Darfur? Not by pinning his hopes on China, he cant.

After four years of tireless efforts, Darfur advocacy groups have had little success in pressuring the Bush administration or any other Western government to move decisively against the Sudanese government for its atrocities in Darfur. These groups are right to dismiss the Bush administrations latest sanctions initiative as mere posturing; like all of the presidents efforts to date, its too limited in scope and lacks a wider, more holistic diplomatic strategy. These groups are focusing instead on the two Cs of humanitarian advocacyChina and celebritiesas a remedy for a crisis that has killed over 200,000 people and displaced more than 2.5 million. But in pointing the finger at China, proponents of stronger action on Darfur are merely helping the White House evade moral responsibility for a humanitarian disaster that it labels a genocide.

With its oil ties to the Sudanese regime and its resistance to U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Khartoum, China is a convenient whipping boy, and a cast of celebrities has signed on eagerly to lead the whipping. Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Mia Farrow, and George Clooney have come out in recent weeks to criticize the Chinese government for not responding to the cries of Darfurs people, zeroing in on the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Earnest editorial writers have joined them enthusiastically.

The campaign has had some results. Beijings usual foreign policy approachnon-interference in Sudans domestic affairshas been evolving under the pressure. China has become more active in trying to persuade the Khartoum regime to cooperate with the international community. China is willing to pursue a peace settlement, and indeed President Hu Jintao pressured Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on this issue and duly urged cooperation with the United Nations on his visit to Khartoum in February. Beijing has also appointed a full-time envoy tasked with assisting in resolving the Darfur crisis.

But threatening a Genocide Olympics alone will not bring peace (or peacekeepers) to that troubled region. No amount of criticism will convince Beijing to pursue a coercive strategy and a nonconsensual deployment of U.N. peacekeepers that Khartoum rejects. Yes, China has the economic leverage to gain the ear of President Bashir, but that hardly means it has the abilityor, more to the point, the willto bully him into accepting a large U.N. peacekeeping contingent in Darfur. Chinas multibillion dollar investments in Sudans petroleum industry are a much-needed source of energy for its mushrooming economy. Beijing may make tactical moves to pressure Sudan, but it will not choose human rights over oil, a matter of paramount national interest.

And, even if China were capable of delivering Bashir, the Sudanese government is not the only impediment to an effective peace process. Nowadays, more people may well be dying from tribal clashes than from marauding janjaweed or government forces. The infighting of fractured rebel groups and the sheer number of displaced people with no homes to return to are also immediate and significant obstacles to peace. But China has little influence over the rebel movements and is ill-positioned to act as a mediator between them.

Nor is China a good choice to be our moral compass. The West embraces human rights and international humanitarian law, but China emphatically does not. The continuing crisis not only threatens the lives of millions, but the weak Western response undermines those grandiose principles such as the responsibility to protecthallmarks of our international moral code. Moreover, it is the U.S. government, not Beijing (nor the U.N., for that matter), that has invoked the label genocide to describe the Darfur crisis. Morally and legally, the responsibility to lead is Americas.

Ending the Darfur conflict requires much more than what China alone can offer. Rhetorical flourishes from world leaders, limited Western unilateral sanctions, and promises of firmer action at some indeterminate time in the future are also patently insufficient. Only a top-level, sustained, and aggressive multilateral mediation effort backed by the United States, the European Union, and African, Arab, and Chinese governments can stop the violence and reverse the massive displacement of people.

Advocacy groups deserve praise for bringing Darfur into the worlds collective consciousness and generating funds to care for millions of dislocated civilians. But their latest campaign lets the U.S. and others off the hook. Highlighting Chinas woeful human rights record is important, but does little to resolve the conflict in Darfur. China is not going to do what the United States and Europe have been unwilling to do for the past four years.

Morton Abramowitz is senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research.