President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao soon, and activist groups in America and members of Congress are urging him to join the international campaign to pressure the Government of Sudan to end human rights abuses in Darfur. China, now Sudan’s biggest foreign trading partner, has struck a bargain with that government in which Sudan has access to Sudan’s oil supplies, and China provides cover in the United Nations Security Council against effective international sanctions on the Khartoum government.
In a congressional letter to President Obama, Representatives Frank Wolf and Michael Capuano referred to the Administration’s newly expressed Sudan policy and called on the President to make Sudan a focal point of his discussions with the Chinese government. “Failure to exert sufficient public pressure on China regarding its relationship with Khartoum will send a signal to the rest of the world that the United States places other interests ahead of achieving peace in Sudan. If that happens, the talk of an American multilateral effort to bring peace and justice to this war-ravaged land will have been mere words,” the letter states.
But when President Obama visits China a little over a week from now, his main focus will be on what the Administration calls “rebalancing” of China-U.S. trade. Jeffrey Bader, the Administration’s top National Security Council official on East Asia said in a speech this week at the Brookings Institution that China, as well as other Asian nations, had been “achieving prosperity based on the profligacy of the America consumer.” U.S.-China trade dropped 19.4% between the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009 when compared to the same period a year earlier. In recent months, Chinese exports to the U.S. have picked up, but Bader cautions that the previous model of a wave of Chinese exports to America and limited U.S. exports to China was not sustainable.
According to U.S. Census Bureau trade figures, the trade balance between the United States and China exceeded US$143 billion in China’s favor near the end of the third quarter of this year. U.S. officials have complained that China is keeping its currency, the yuan, undervalued to gain trade advantages. Moreover, the U.S. and China may be about to engage in a trade war over export dumping practices. China is complaining loudly that the United States has unfairly imposed duties on Chinese-made steel pipes, which U.S. Department of Commerce officials say are being sold at artificially low prices to gain market share, a practice known as dumping. In response, China is now examining their import of U.S. automobiles for potential tariffs in retaliation. A U.S.-China trade war is seen as endangering a wide range of issues on which cooperation between the two nations is essential, such as the global economic crisis, North Korea and climate change. Sudan is not high on the priority list for the Administration’s engagement with China.
China invests more than US$10 billion in Sudan and buys as much as 70% of its oil. Consequently, those who have campaigned to end human rights abuses in Darfur have seen China as a potentially key player in pressuring the government in Khartoum to finally bring to an end abuses once called genocide in the three Darfur provinces of Sudan. China has been moving toward a position on Sudan more in concert with much of the world community. Still, it has been difficult to achieve significant movement in China’s traditional hands-off position on human rights in other countries.
First of all, China is more concerned about its economic advancement and fulfilling its commercial needs than it is in defending international human rights. Chinese officials have consistently said that it is not their policy to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. Pressure on China through world opinion has slowly moved them to recognize the need to respond to human rights concerns in the countries with which they do business. The Leon H. Sullivan Foundation led a tripartite series of discussions with U.S., Chinese and African notables in 2007-08 to discuss corporate social responsibility in Africa, and the Chinese seem only now to begin to understand the need to make human rights and community involvement important concerns in their international commercial dealings.
The second constraint in dealing with China for the United States is that this Asian giant is America’s largest foreign creditor and second leading trading partner. Among China’s strongest defenders in the world are U.S. businesses eager to tap into China’s vast consumer market. This Administration is trying to be nuanced in its approach to China. President Obama’s refusal recently to meet with the Dalai Lama of Tibet was intended to not aggravate the increasingly tense situation between China and America at this point. Given the many global issues to be raised in Beijing next week, one hopes President Obama will bring up the need for China to join the international pressure on Khartoum – not only on Darfur but also on compliance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the North-South civil war.
Nuance in diplomacy is a skill to be admired when it works, but nuance without results seems more self-serving. As the nation that has taken the lead in resolving Sudan’s various crises, America cannot afford to fail to be bold in seeking a lasting resolution to Darfur.