China: Obama's Test

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As President Obama travels to China this week, he unquestionably has a full plate of priorities to discuss with the Chinese government. The economy, trade wars, nuclear proliferation, and security cooperation will all receive significant amounts of attention, as well they should. Some commentators are describing the president's trip to China as a test of his foreign policy prowess; it will also serve as a test of his dedication to resolving one of the thorniest problems currently plaguing the international community: Sudan.

On October 19th, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and Special Envoy for Sudan Scott Gration unveiled the administration's long-awaited Sudan policy review. In it, the administration asserted that "sustained political will to address Sudan's tough challenges in the international community is sometimes lacking. American leadership is essential to a more effective multilateral approach."

President Obama can make good on that promise of American leadership in Beijing. China has a key role to play in bringing peace to Darfur and full implementation of the North-South Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). No nation holds more leverage over Sudan than does China. Sudan exports 70 percent of its oil (its main source of hard currency) to China, has an extensive military relationship with the Chinese government, and counts on China to veto tough multilateral sanctions at the United Nations on Sudan's behalf. Yet China has mostly played the role of Khartoum's "heat shield," protecting it from international pressures.

If President Obama is serious about his administration's dedication to building a multilateral coalition to address the crises in Darfur, he could do no better than by starting in Beijing and convincing his hosts that they need to play a more constructive role in building a stable, peaceful Sudan, instead of continuing to blindly stand by a regime headed by an indicted war criminal. But why should China listen? It has always craved greater international respect and an enhanced role for its leadership. Sudan provides an opportunity for China to act as a responsible world power.

But President Obama has a strong argument to make to President Hu Jintao that even China's narrower self-interests should motivate it to work in concert with the U.S. in Sudan. The reason is clear: China has come to count on access to Sudan's oil, much of which is in South Sudan, and has invested billions. If the North-South conflict is reignited, as is all too plausible, China could lose access to those oil fields. Even if conflict does not reignite between the North and South, the South will hold a referendum on its independence in January 2011, at which point the world may be dealing with the new republic of South Sudan. It behooves China to have a seat at the table during the run-up to this process so that its oil concessions can be adequately protected during any process of state separation. In short, President Obama has set viable terms for engaging the Khartoum regime, and he should encourage his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao, to join the effort.

When the Chinese recognize that peace in Sudan serves their interests, there are ways in which China can begin to demonstrate to the Sudanese and the world that it is serious. For example, the president should encourage China to condition any debt write-off owed to it by the Government of Sudan or its proxies on concrete and lasting progress on the ground in Darfur and throughout Sudan. The Government of Sudan has accrued $36 billion in debt, owed mostly to multilateral, Western, Chinese, and Arab creditors. Securing debt-relief has become a major priority for the Sudanese government. Darfur activists inside and outside Sudan support debt cancellation as a long-term incentive for Khartoum's implementation of the CPA, respect for democracy and human rights, and an end to violence in Darfur. But to cancel this odious debt pre-emptively, before the regime has changed its behavior, would not only relinquish an important source of leverage over Khartoum, it would throw good money after bad. China should also refrain from granting any new loans to the Government of Sudan until it meets such conditions as fully cooperating with the peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID), faithfully implementing the CPA, and cooperating with the International Criminal Court.

There is no substitute for President Obama's leadership if the situation in Sudan is to be successfully resolved. But, as the president's own policy outlines, it will take an international coalition to prod the Government of Sudan into taking the steps toward peace that the international community has called for, time and time again. If President Obama is serious about creating that coalition, he must start in Beijing, and he must start now. China's economic leverage in Sudan, used in the right way, is a necessary ingredient to creating a safe and secure Sudan. The afflicted people of Darfur and other disaffected Sudanese will be watching closely to see if President Obama backs his policy pronouncement with action and passes his test in Beijing.

Jerry Fowler is the president of the Save Darfur Coalition, an alliance of more than 180 faith-based, advocacy and human rights organizations committed to raising public awareness about the genocide in Darfur.

Cross posted on Save Darfur's blog.