Foreign Policy | The Accidental Peacemaker
China did something very unusual in the United Nations this week: It did not abstain from, much less veto, a resolution threatening to impose sanctions unless Sudan stopped killing civilians in South Sudan. China has long treated Sudan as a client state, and it stood by Khartoum during the long years when Western powers tried to stop the atrocities the regime was committing in Darfur. Yet, after a discussion that a Security Council diplomat described as “substantive but not acrimonious,” China voted for Resolution 2046, which demands that both Sudan and South Sudan put an end to cross-border attacks and return to negotiations.
China has not, of course, become a convert to human rights, as the current standoff over activist Chen Guangcheng proves all too vividly. Nor is it having second thoughts about its foundational foreign-policy doctrine of “nonintervention,” which has made China the defender of authoritarian regimes the world over. A recent report on Chinese foreign policy by the British group Saferworld concludes that “At least for now, non-interference, stable regimes and stable relations that are conducive to maintaining China’s global economic engagement, will retain precedence in guiding Beijing’s diplomatic relations with conflict-affected states.”
But something important has happened: Facing a situation in which the principle of nonintervention doesn’t tell it what to do, China has been forced to join the United States and other countries, as well as the African Union, in actively trying to end a brutal conflict. China has supported Sudan over the last decade because Sudan supplied China with oil. Last year, however, when South Sudan became independent, Khartoum lost most of its oil-producing territory. China immediately began courting the new country with visits from senior officials and a blizzard of proposed investment deals. Only last week, while South Sudanese President Salva Kiir was in Beijing, China announced an $8 billion loan to the new country to build major infrastructure projects. But though South Sudan has most of the oil, Sudan has the pipelines and the refining equipment. So China needs both countries — and the rising spiral of violence between them, provoked largely though not wholly by Khartoum, has forced China to get off the sidelines.