On Our Watch

The China Connection

The Sudan-China relationship is an important factor in any possible solution to Darfur's humanitarian crisis. That's why activists have targeted it.

James Traub
The New York Times

Explain to me why is China such a friend of Sudan in the Security Council.

China is not a friend only of Sudan. It is a friend of Sudan and of other African countries with whom it has a special relationship. So first, there's a very important mercantile aspect to it. China recognizes that it has a bottomless need for resources, and that it's going around the world securing resources. The Chinese apparently are not comfortable just knowing they can buy oil and other precious commodities on the open market; they reach agreements to have guaranteed access to those things.

So China has been developing strong relations with all the oil-producing countries in Africa, of which Sudan is one. It still has quite a small -- it only produces a few hundred thousand barrels a year, but there's certainly scope for growth. China actually has quite a large population in Sudan. It has security officials at oil installations everywhere; it has oil industry officials; it has private companies and so on. It's a big Chinese presence there. It supplies weapons to Sudan as well. So China is Sudan's key supplier. Sudan, for China, is one of a growing network of resource suppliers, so they're not going to do anything to jeopardize that relationship.

In addition to that, China has a deep-seated view, which is rooted in the history of a country which felt vulnerable to outside invasion for centuries, that sovereignty should be inviolable. Now, this puts it on a regular collision course with other member states in the U.N. and with the U.N. as an institution, because one of the fundamental changes in the U.N. over the last I would say decade or so, and certainly in Kofi Annan's time there, has been that the U.N. sees itself not merely as a club of countries advancing the self-interest of those countries, but as an institution designed to protect the interests of the people in those countries sometimes against the government of those countries, the high point of which is the idea that there is a Responsibility to Protect, a responsibility to protect your own citizens, and a responsibility on the part of neighbors in the case of gross violations to actually intervene to protect those citizens.

China actually signed a document in September of 2005 at the U.N. General Assembly saying that yes, it accepted this. But it doesn't really. It accepted it in theory. The fact is that the Chinese think that almost any form of infringement of sovereignty is unacceptable. So I would say in this case, history, ideology and commercial self-interest all converged to give China all the arguments it felt it needed to protect Sudan.

Alex de Waal
Co-author, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War

In recent years China has been a main partner, financier, diplomatic ally of the Sudan government and as such a counterweight to the U.S. The U.S. can no longer dictate its terms as it did, really, with regard to the North-South peace in 2001-2002.

Having said that, China's influence is limited. The Chinese have tried to push Sudan toward accepting an expedited hybrid force in Darfur. The Sudan government is quite capable of saying no to China, so it would be a mistake to see the solution entirely in China's hands. If China, the U.S. and France were to converge on a common position, then I think the Sudan government would have much less leverage. It would be really required to go along with that position.

But I think China has other things at stake here, too. China's eye is on long-term stability, and it wants a long-term political settlement for Sudan as a whole, both because of its specific investments in Sudan in the oil industry and also as a matter of principle.

It sees political stability as one of its main aims in its new engagement in Africa, and it doesn't want to be drawn into what it sees as a dangerous precedent of what it would characterize as rash U.N. Security Council resolutions authorizing, for example, nonconsensual deployment of troops.

If the U.S. is to come to a common position with China on Sudan, the U.S. also needs to adjust its position. It also perhaps needs to refocus on the longer-term political future of Sudan, the real center of gravity of the Sudanese problems.

What do you make of the activists who have [launched the] "Genocide Olympics" campaign?

I think the Genocide Olympics campaign has been extraordinarily successful in getting China to take notice. The U.S. administration had already made some progress in that regard, but this campaign has gone much, much further and much, much faster than anyone would have anticipated.

I think it's very important for the activists to define success. What is it exactly that they want China to do? Because China is going to be around for a long time in Sudan and in Africa, and China has to be a strategic partner. If the activists are asking China to support the deployment of U.N. troops in Darfur, then if China does that, then the activists should say, "Well done, thank you very much," and then they gain some political capital. And next time they want the Chinese to act on an issue, China may well comply.

If, however, the campaign starts moving the goalposts, if China does comply and then the activists make additional demands because they think, "Aha, China has leverage," that may backfire, because the Chinese would say, "Forget these people; they're unreliable; we can't do business with them," and then the leverage that China has might be lost.

Eric Reeves
Darfur activist

photo of Reeves

We need to convince China that there will be an enormous price to pay if they don't change their diplomatic posture, if they don't start pressuring Khartoum to allow in authorized U.N. peace-support personnel and civilian police. And we can do that, I think, by means of China's hosting of the 2008 summer Olympic Games. This is China's post-Tiananmen Square coming out party. China looks at this as an opportunity to reassert itself on the international stage as a legitimate world power. ...

What I am determined to do, and now what a great many other people are determined to do, is to make these Olympics the "Genocide Olympics." Now, I'd put a question mark after that and call it the "Genocide Olympics?" campaign. But the message to China is clear: ... We will highlight in a campaign of shame that is unprecedented in history, we will highlight that complicity, and we will ensure that your hosting of the Olympics will go down in history along with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as an occasion of international infamy. ...

Now, you are not calling for a boycott?

Definitely not calling for a boycott. A boycott would be self-destructive and ultimately purposeless. A boycott is little more than a referendum: You vote to boycott, you vote not to boycott. Most nations would not boycott; you give China an easy victory. ...

A boycott is also hugely punitive to athletes who have devoted their entire lives to preparing for the Olympics. And I also think it's much less effective. If you really want to move China, the way to do it is to shame them and to make it clear that the shame will rise in pitch and volume and scope. And that's what we are doing, and that's what we've already done.

I published a piece in the Sunday Boston Globe in the middle of December of 2006 trying to start this campaign. And it's like a pebble in a pond: You throw in the first pebble and there are ripples and you throw in a slightly larger rock, and soon it became what it is now. It's already dominating the discussion of the Olympics.

Sixteen months in advance of the Olympics, we're getting a huge amount of press coverage of the Genocide Olympics. Sports Illustrated is covering it. There's an NBA, National Basketball Association "dream team of conscience" which is sending an open letter declaring their concerns about Darfur to the president of the People's Republic of China [Hu Jintao]. The International Olympic Committee is terrified of what's going to happen.

Steven Spielberg is going to be forced to resign from his position as artistic director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. He doesn't realize that perhaps yet, but he will soon, that he is going to be the poster child for this campaign until he reconsiders what was, in fact, an exceedingly ill-conceived decision to serve as artistic director. ...

You seem very confident that he'll have to change his mind.

I feel very confident that he will have to change his mind. This is a career-destroying move on his part, and I think in the end he'll come to his senses. He's surrounded by a bubble of advisors and an entourage that wants to believe that he never makes mistakes and that he is impervious to criticism, but he's not. He's beginning to discover just why that is.

Update: On Feb. 12, 2008, filmmaker Steven Spielberg withdrew as artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics. Activists had pressured him to resign over China's economic and diplomatic support of the Sudanese government. "At this point, my time and energy must be spent not on Olympic ceremonies, but on doing all I can to help bring an end to the unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Darfur," Spielberg said in a statement.

Abdelmahmood Abdelhaleem
Sudanese ambassador to the U.N.

How important has China been ... to the development of Sudan?

In fact, our relations with China are very old. It is an old relationship based on respect, noninterference in the other's affairs. [The relationship] has always been cordial and friendly, and we share a lot in common vis-à-vis international developments.

So the discovery of oil and the coming of Chinese companies in the Sudan for that purpose was part of a chain of this ongoing relationship. It did not start with the oil at all, but prior to that, long before the oil discoveries. Chinese played a very important role in helping us also discover our oil, as well as the many social services also performed by the Chinese companies in Sudan. So it's not only oil, but they are helping social services in the areas -- the communities where oil is discovered....

... How has China responded to this? Because they are now being brought into the political turmoil.

We are very much surprised why they involve China. ... China is a partner of Sudan, like United States is partner to many other countries in the world. But the issue of politicizing oil industry is very bad. Not only that, they are also politicizing sports. If you ask Mr. [Sepp] Blatter, [the president of FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football], or the chief of the International Olympic [Committee], [Jacques Rogge], he would certainly be very upset about these moves to politicize Olympic sports, because their charter is politics-free charter or organization.

Do you have any sense of how upset the Chinese are by this?

No, we don't want at all to speak on behalf of the Chinese, but it is very irritating for any observer to see the amount of pressure on China, on maybe Russia. They want really to isolate us from our friends in the international community. ... We enjoy the support of all the Nonaligned Movement, of all OIC [Organization of the Islamic Conference] countries, of the Arab League, of the Africa[n] Union, so we are not alone.

But the media has really tainted the picture of Sudan and tarnished the image of the country. It's very difficult to counter them just by our meager resources and means. And it's a very huge media, very well calculated. It also works in [an] orchestrated manner with all the organs you said, like ICC, Amnesty International. It is a media war.

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posted november 20, 2007

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