Will the new president focus on the Sudanese government’s actions in the region? Will China’s ties to the Khartoum government affect its relations with the U.S.?
“In Kenya, a holiday, song and dance for Obama.”
Headlines from The Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper, summed up the excitement Kenyans felt at President-elect Barack Obama’s election. The country’s government declared December 5th a national holiday to mark the election of a Kenyan’s son as president of the world’s most powerful country.
For many at home and abroad, Obama’s election affirms American ideals of equality and opportunity. In Africa, leaders expect the new president to pay greater attention to African affairs and they are wondering what that may mean for them and their countries. While the American military readies its African command, the major players throughout the continent are eyeing exactly how Obama’s leadership affects the regional game.
The rising player in Africa today? China. The pressing issue at hand? Sudan.
As ethnic conflict rages on in Darfur, many international observers have expressed outrage at the apparent closeness of Beijing with the Khartoum government. China is Sudan’s largest trade partner, with over 40% of Sudanese oil being pumped by Chinese companies. Human rights groups argue that this economic link makes Beijing complicit in the violence. Although the situation in Darfur has not been declared genocide by the United Nations, the extent of human rights violations there indicates the term applies. UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes has said over 300,000 have been slain and another 2 million have been displaced by the fighting.
“After Rwanda it’s very hard for the world to sit back and to just say these are internal affairs [in Sudan] and not the responsibility of the world, when thousands of people get killed all the time,” said David Zweig, director of the Center on China’s Transnational Relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “Organizations such as the United Nations exist for the purpose of resolving these problems. It would be very nice to get [more] UN troops in on the ground and start to protect the camps better.”
From celebrities to politicians, condemnation for Chinese state and business links to the Khartoum government has been loud. In early 2008, film director Steven Spielberg withdrew as an artistic advisor for the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics, accusing the Chinese government of not doing enough to pressure the Sudanese government in two letters written directly to President Hu Jintao. Actress Mia Farrow visited Darfur as a UN Goodwill Ambassador. She subsequently helped initiate a campaign to label the 2008 Games the “Genocide Olympics.” Farrow, George Clooney and other celebrities tried many ways to focus media attention on Darfur and on China’s links to Sudan. For example, a BBC special in July 2008 provided evidence that Chinese army lorries were sent to Sudan in 2005 and used in fighting in Darfur. The network further said that China provided Sudanese military pilots with training to fly Chinese A5 Fantan fighter jets in Darfur.
China’s government justifies its unwillingness to put pressure on Khartoum by saying it never interferes in the domestic affairs of others, fearing that yielding on Darfur will set a precedent. Beyond this, Sudan is the one place in Africa where Chinese oil firms have preferred fields, with China National Petroleum Corporation the largest foreign oil operator in the country. In the run-up to the Olympics, however, the Chinese government did try to send signals that it was doing something to address the crisis. In August 2008, the government sent senior official Zhai Jun to Sudan for discussions.
Zweig said that with the new U.S. president-elect, even more attention on the Sudan conflict is expected, with China’s support for action an increasingly likely possibility.
“If China wants to pursue its economic activities in Sudan, then it has the responsibility to try to use those economic relationships to help with the human rights violations and I think that China is also aware of that,” Zweig said. “With the U.S. as the hegemonic power and given what seems to be a situation that is continuous…whether it is genocide or not may not be the issue. If the U.S. can bring pressure [on China] and solve the problem, that would be terrific.”
In a statement released in April 2008, Obama made his views on the conflict clear.
“All the proclamations, the ‘Never Again’ speeches and the efforts of many around the world have as yet failed to stop the five-year-long genocide in Darfur,” it said. “The indiscriminate killing, raping and displacement continue and are escalating. Only decisive and concerted action can end this genocide.”
The Obama-Biden campaign website also details the incoming administration’s understanding of the U.S.-China relationship, and how it might play out in discussions about Africa.
“[Obama and Biden] will not demonize China because they understand both the magnitude of the challenges facing a developing China and the importance of a constructive relationship to foster continued peace and prosperity,” it said. “[Both] believe that the best way to manage our relationship with China is to draw it further into the international system and to work with China on shared political, economic, environmental, and security objectives.”
The statement continues on, however, to note their attitudes toward China’s involvement in Sudan. “In Sudan, China is supporting one of the most reprehensible regimes in the world,” it said. “Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe that we must use all available tools to demand that China use its influence to prevent Sudan and other regimes from acting contrary to international law and peace and security.”
While evidence of China’s close relationship with the pariah Sudanese government is not small, many say that the country is aware of actions that need to be taken regarding the human rights violations in the region.
Steven Lamy, dean of the School for International Relations at the University of Southern California, believes that China’s approach to Africa does not differ significantly from that taken by other nations.
“It’s quite clear that China’s acting like any other great power,” Lamy said. “Sure, they want a sphere of influence, but China’s mostly influenced by economic ties, especially with resource-rich countries, because it fuels their economic growth. They’re not acting any differently from Western powers.”
Lamy explained that for China’s leaders, the country’s economic needs have repeatedly trumped any human rights sensitivities.
Instead of viewing China’s efforts in Africa as a threat to American interests, however, some experts suggest that it is more useful to see the situation as a healthy competition. To keep its economic engines going, Chinese firms have worked to secure energy supplies. China’s 2005 bid for UNOCAL, a major American petroleum company, was a notable example. Many in Congress immediately went on the defensive, portraying China’s bid as threatening American energy security.
“China was trying to send out a feeler to the Americans by asking ‘are you willing to work with us cooperatively’ in energy development or will we compete,” said Daniel Lynch, professor of international relations at USC. “The response of the U.S. was, ‘We’re going to compete and we’re not going to cooperate.’”
Zweig suggests, however, that the Obama administration is more interested in forging cooperative ties around the world than the outgoing administration is, and may be able to move beyond straight competition with the Chinese.
“[Obama’s] strategy would be much more inclined to figure out a cooperative effort with China and the UN instead of telling others what to do,” Zweig said. He noted that a soft-power approach concerning diplomatic relations rather than outright opposition would allow for progress on both sides as diplomatic engagement would enable a more cooperative relationship.
In his statement, “Protecting US Interests and Advancing American Values in Our Relationship With China”, Obama said he believes “that we must use all available tools to demand that China use its influence to prevent Sudan and other regimes from acting contrary to international law and peace and security.”
Several prominent members of the new administration have similarly called for increased action in Darfur. Susan Rice, whom Obama intends to nominate as U.S. ambassador to the UN, co-authored a 2006 op-ed in the Washington Post, demanding military intervention in the region. Rice, a vocal critic of what she calls the international community’s negligence in Darfur, noted that, “History demonstrates that there is one language Khartoum understands: the credible threat or use of force.” The opinion piece, authored with Anthony Lake and Tony Payne, called for the U.S. and NATO to strike Sudanese military posts and blockade local ports, cutting off the country’s oil exports.
Hillary Clinton, Obama’s choice for Secretary of State, called on President George W. Bush in 2006 to increase demands for NATO intervention in the conflict. In her statement, Clinton’s first request was a meeting of world leaders at the United Nations, during which China’s relationship with the country would be on full display. She later urged Bush to boycott the 2008 Olympic Games in protest of the country’s involvement in Sudan.
In February 2007, Clinton pressured Defense Secretary Robert Gates over military operations in Darfur, stating that the world is “facing once again the repeated and blatant violations of numerous cease-fires, peace agreements and UN obligations by the government of [Sudanese] President Bashir.” Clinton called for a no-fly zone over the region to be enforced by the U.S. military. Gates has been asked by Obama to stay on as Defense Secretary. He has been a strong supporter of a resolution to the Darfur conflict, but has noted limits on America’s ability to apply military pressure. He noted in November 2007 that, “American forces and equipment are stretched thin with Afghanistan and Iraq engagements,” highlighting the importance of UN or NATO participation in any new action.
Incoming Secretary of Commerce Bill Richardson led a delegation of policymakers and activists to Khartoum in early 2007. The former U.S. Ambassador to the UN stated that the “the U.S. has an opportunity to use leadership and diplomacy to help, and if I can play even a small part in that effort I am ready to do it. This is a bipartisan, humanitarian effort by both Democrats and Republicans to help find a resolution to this ongoing tragedy.”
With both outspoken members of Congress, like California Representative Nancy Pelosi, and his cabinet demanding action, the Darfur question may be pressed to the forefront of Obama’s first months in office. The new president’s image as a source for “change” by millions of Americans and internationals may go a long way in assessing the new philosophies surrounding the U.S.’s future approach to Africa. Intervention may be pushed even further by the demands of his socially active young supporters, a group that was critical in his November election.
“Obama is taking advantage of young people and they want action,” Lamy said. “That might be a constituency that forces him to act. The youth are extremely powerful because he knows that [their] vote got him elected. There will have to be some sort of effort but I think Obama will try to frame it as a human rights issue and not as a U.S. vs. China issue.”
Chinese President Hu Jintao would then be placed in a position of balancing China’s economic ties to Sudan with the U.S’s increased demands for action. Should Obama renew the U.S.’s focus on Darfur, the president could potentially pressure Hu to work out an agreement regarding the Sudanese government’s backing of international intervention.
“[President Hu] would try and make sure the Chinese were very supportive of multilateral strategies and the UN,” Zweig said.
Lynch, however, notes that Obama is likely to be more cautious in confronting China over Darfur.
“Obama doesn’t want a public showdown with China,” he said. “But he has enough tenacity in that if China was unresponsive or evasive, then he might try a public showdown.”
In June 2008, Thomas Christensen and James Swan, then Deputy Assistant Secretaries for East Asian & Pacific Affairs and for African Affairs, issued a statement before the Subcommittee on African Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding China’s involvement on the continent. Both noted that, “in general, we see China’s growing activity on the continent as a potentially positive force for economic development there, which is a goal we share with China and many others.”
Christensen and Swan, however, believe that China must be more forthright and transparent with its activities in Africa.
“We remain concerned with a general lack of transparency regarding China’s foreign assistance practices in Africa, and are encouraging Beijing to more fully engage with other major bilateral and multilateral actors to ensure that aid supports the efforts of responsible African governments to be responsive to their people’s needs,” they said. Christensen and Swan also noted China’s increased willingness to cooperate over Darfur. “After years of acting primarily to protect Khartoum from international pressure, since late 2006 China has shown an increased willingness to engage with the international community on Darfur, and has applied diplomatic pressure on the Government of Sudan to change its behavior, as well as to engage in a political process for a peaceful negotiation to the Darfur conflict.”
Echoing the concerns voiced by Gates, Lamy sees the support of the UN and other international organizations as critical for effective action.
“We have limited resources, especially because we’re constrained at home,” Lamy said. “You have to have money to do these things and we are really hurting now. I think there will be a much more symbolic foreign policy. Obama is much more likely to focus on multilateralism.” The U.S. economy is clearly a priority for the new administration, while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dominate foreign policy. Enlisting the help of international organizations would be a necessity.
How the Chinese government might respond toward international action on Darfur is unclear. The kidnapping and killing of Chinese oil workers by rebels in Sudan may cause the regime to become less flexible in discussing the situation there at the UN or in other settings. The Chinese government would be expected to exercise its veto power on the UN Security Council, but there is the possibility it can be coaxed into supporting or at least acquiescing to international action.
“If the UN was planning a full scale invasion of Sudan and wanted to mobilize a military force led by the U.S. maybe they would [exercise a veto],” Zweig said. “But then again, they accepted the invasion of Iraq.”
Tracy Oppenheimer is a sophomore majoring in Broadcast Journalism and International Relations at the University of Southern California.