April 9, 2007
The death, destruction and human misery in Sudan's western region of Darfur may now be worse than at any time since the conflict started four years ago - if that's possible.
As the world struggles to end the bloodshed in Darfur, one of the biggest stumbling blocks is China's support of Sudanese President Omar al Bashir's Islamist government.
Beijing runs interference for Sudan's repressive regime, whose armed forces and Arab-Muslim Janjaweed militias are responsible for more than 200,000 deaths and for creating 2 million refugees.
If Beijing doesn't use its influence to curb Khartoum's "ethnic cleansing" of Darfur's African Muslims, there may be little others, including the United Nations, can do to end what many are calling the 21st century's first genocide.
So what's China's interest in far-off Sudan? One word: oil.
Since 2005, Beijing has been the world's No. 2 energy consumer and importer of foreign oil. China now buys 70 percent of Sudan's liquid gold, accounting for 10 percent of its oil imports.
Over the last decade, Beijing's energy firms have invested between $3 billion and $10 billion in the Sudanese energy sector, stuffing at least $250 million a year into Khartoum's pockets.
To protect its investment, Beijing provides diplomatic cover for Khartoum at the U.N. Security Council, where it has veto power - preventing the likes of Washington and London from passing tougher, punitive economic sanctions that might interfere with Chinese energy investments.
China is also dragging its feet on the deployment of a more robust U.N. peacekeeping force to Darfur - which Sudan opposes - to augment the 7,000 (largely ineffective) African Union troops there.
To further ingratiate itself to the repressive Bashir regime, China cancelled over $100 million in Sudanese loan debt. It's also building roads, bridges, an oil refinery and a hydroelectric dam - not to mention government offices and a new $20 million presidential palace.
Beijing also helps arm Khartoum. As a result of its energy profits, Sudan has doubled its defense budget in recent years, spending 60 percent to 80 percent of its oil revenue on weapons - arms mostly made in China.
Moreover, with Chinese assistance, the Sudanese government may have built a number of weapons factories - further frustrating any efforts at a reasonably air-tight arms embargo.
Naturally, the Chinese have denied that they've been arming Bashir's government, saying it's lived within the letter and the spirit of U.N. arms bans.
That's odd. Just last week, Sudan's armed-forces chief made an official weeklong visit to China - and was greeted with Beijing's offer to increase military exchanges and cooperation.
Increased military interaction isn't likely to help stop Sudanese or Janjaweed attacks in Darfur - raids that have now crossed Sudan's borders into neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic.
Beijing insists that it's trying to influence Khartoum to work toward a political settlement with the as many as a dozen Darfuri rebel groups, which are demanding more power and wealth-sharing with the Arab-dominated government.
Chinese President Hu Jintao did visit Khartoum in February on a swing through eight African states in 12 days. But even the most generous China hands say the pressure was mild - and the results lackluster.
A former Chinese deputy foreign minister probably sums up Beijing's view toward Sudan cogently: "Business is business. We try to separate politics from business... the situation in Sudan is an internal affair, and we are not in a position to impose upon them."
Oddly enough, perhaps the best recent idea for getting China to abandon this cut-throat attitude in Sudan comes from France.
The centrist candidate in this year's presidential race, Francois Bayrou, recently suggested that France should boycott China's coming-out party - the 2008 Beijing Olympics - over its support for Sudan and the resulting orgy of violence in Darfur.
Of course, Beijing lashed out, rejecting the idea of any sort of Olympic boycott as "totally wrong."
While it's a long shot, perhaps the mere threat of a major country like France skipping China's vanity games will send Beijing a much-needed wake up call - helping it to realize its continued support for Sudan is "totally wrong," too.
Peter Brookes is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in New York Post