The Accidental Peacemaker

China now finds itself on the side of peace in a brewing border conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. But is it really committed to stopping its old buddy, Bashir?

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.

It has been instructive watching Beijing try to avoid taking responsibility. Soon after partition, Khartoum began a savage campaign of aerial bombardment against civilians in the border area of South Kordofan. Sudan claimed that the region fell within its territory, and China obligingly blocked all attempts to raise the issue in the Security Council. Sudan was in fact using violence, as well as the threat of further violence, to improve its position in negotiations with South Sudan on issues over disputed borders and the sharing of oil revenues. Then Khartoum tried to blackmail South Sudan by refusing to deliver oil pumped in South Sudan to its intended customers, bringing talks over revenue-sharing to a sudden halt. This finally provoked a visit from a Chinese envoy, who tried to encourage the two sides to reach a deal. It was too late though; South Sudanese officials didn't trust Khartoum or Beijing. This year, South Sudan simply stopped pumping oil and then demonstrated its impatience with Chinese support for Khartoum by booting a leading Chinese oil company executive out of the country.

That finally got China's attention. As one Chinese official told a researcher from the International Crisis Group, "We cannot just be bystanders; we need to be a player. Can you imagine how any Western country would engage if they had all these interests?" China didn't change its view of its own interests, but, rather, recognized that it could not defend its narrow mercantile interests through narrow mercantile means. China had become too central a player to let others deal with the mess of conflict. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was dispatched to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to meet with, and mollify, Kiir; in March, a new special envoy for Africa came to Juba, the South Sudanese capital, and made a point of meeting with the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Princeton Lyman. In late March, U.S. President Barack Obama discussed Sudan with Chinese President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the nonproliferation summit in Seoul. In his official statement Hu said, "China and the United States should continue to exert their own influence [and] encourage Sudan and South Sudan to resolve their outstanding issues through negotiation."

At a very perilous moment for U.S.-China relations, Sudan is the rare diplomatic issue on which the two can work constructively together -- an odd prospect given the history of intense disagreement. Lyman accompanied Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Beijing for this week's U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and he has been meeting with his Chinese counterparts, presumably not only from the Foreign Ministry -- an increasingly marginal player -- but also from the military and the Commerce Ministry. Lyman is said to be seeking to enlist China in a Sudan "contact group" that would also include Britain, Norway, and perhaps Ethiopia, Qatar, and Turkey. He may also be asking Beijing to apply pressure on Khartoum to comply with the terms of the Security Council resolution.

China is the key to any possible solution of the crisis. The United States can exert pressure on Juba, but Khartoum is by far the more recalcitrant party. Additionally, Sudan is profoundly dependent on China -- diplomatically, economically, and even militarily -- because China is the country's chief arms supplier. The one thing that might get Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to call off his militias and his warplanes is the fear that failing to do so would damage relations with China. For this reason, this week a group of 150 African and Middle Eastern human rights organizations sent a joint letter to Chinese and U.S. authorities asking them to use their influence to bring the violence to an end. The letter points out that over 140,000 people have already fled from Blue Nile state and South Kordofan. It does not say that the number of Sudanese who have died in the violence almost certainly exceeds the 10,000-plus who have been killed in Syria to this point. The authors may have recognized that China would not be moved by the comparison.

In fact, Bashir is much like his Syrian near-namesake Bashar al-Assad, but worse -- more brutal, more cynical. He and his predecessors fought a civil war with the south that took the lives of 2 million people. Bashir seems to now regret that he allowed South Sudan to declare independence without a fight. He has lately taken to calling the South Sudanese "insects," and he recently said, "We will not negotiate with the South's government because they don't understand anything but the language of the gun and ammunition." That sounds frighteningly like the prelude to a new civil war. Even if that's not Bashir's plan, it could be the result of his actions.

How resolute will China be in the face of such a catastrophe? Not very, in all likelihood. Thabo Mbeki, chair of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan, is to report back to the Security Council within 15 days on compliance with the new resolution. Even if he says that Sudan has refused to withdraw its forces from the disputed areas, China is very unlikely to vote for a new resolution spelling out sanctions. And because Russia, still in a rage over the intervention in Libya, is virtually certain to veto such a move, China won't have to lift a finger. Beijing might be happy to accept credit for playing a mature role in conflict prevention without having to actually confront its recalcitrant ally.

But as an increasingly confident China engages ever more deeply with the world, the contradiction between its sloganeering "win-win" foreign policy and the complex tangle of its own interests will become increasingly glaring. Beijing has now put a toe in the murky waters of conflict resolution; soon it will find itself wading in much deeper.

Kazuhiro Ibuki - Pool/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Our Man in Baghdad

Don't look now, but the greatest threat to Middle East stability might just be the "democracy" we created in Iraq.

Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, has a remarkable ability to make enemies. As Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group puts it, "Personal relations between everyone and Maliki are terrible." This gift was vividly displayed in March, when the annual meeting of the Arab League was held in Baghdad. Although the event was meant to signal Iraq's re-emergence as a respectable country after decades of tyranny and bloodshed, leaders of 10 of the 22 states, including virtually the entire Gulf, refused to attend out of pique at Maliki's perceived hostility to Sunnis both at home and abroad, turning the summit into a vapid ritual. The only friend Iraq has left in the neighborhood is Shiite Iran, which seems intent on reducing its neighbor to a state of subservience.

It's true that Iraq is no longer a threat to its neighbors, as it was under Saddam Hussein. In that narrow respect, the U.S. invasion has made the Middle East a safer place, though at an unspeakable cost in Iraqi and American lives. But the hopes that Bush administration officials once entertained -- that a post-Saddam Iraq, perhaps guided by a secular figure like the émigré opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi, would serve as a stabilizing, pro-American force for the region -- now look patently absurd. Maliki never had much interest in being a friend of the United States, and the departure of U.S. troops has allowed him to forget about it altogether.

What Iraq looks like today is an Iranian cat's paw. At the Arab League meeting, Iraqi diplomats blocked any effort to take robust action against Syria or even use tough language, thus advancing Iran's agenda at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which advocate arming the rebels seeking to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Immediately after the meeting ended, Maliki dashed to Tehran to confer with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Almost every Iraq expert I've ever talked to agrees that Maliki is an Iraqi nationalist who squirms under the Iranian thumb. But that's where he finds himself today. The question is why.

The most favorable interpretation of Maliki's foreign policy is what I call the Sonofabitch Hypothesis, put forward by Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Alterman argues that Maliki makes enemies because he pursues Iraqi national interests and "isn't afraid to communicate his dislike for people in a region where people prize politeness and solicitude." Alterman thinks that Maliki is in fact navigating a careful course among foes and false friends. An alternate theory is that Maliki is deeply paranoid, as another analyst who knows him and his circle well puts it, and is convinced that rivals at home and abroad are out to get him. Yet another view is that Maliki is a Shiite supremacist who views Sunnis as the enemy (and might also be consumed by conspiracy theories).

But one can be agnostic about Maliki's motivations and still conclude that he is doing harm to Iraq's own interests. No sensible Iraqi leader would pick a fight with Turkey, as he has done. Back in January, when Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suggested that Maliki should not be waging war against the Sunni opposition at home, Maliki accused Turkey of "unjustified interferences in Iraqi internal affairs," adding for good measure that Erdogan was seeking to restore Turkey's Ottoman hegemony over the region. This in turn led to another escalating round of insults and a mutual summoning of ambassadors.

Iraq needs Turkey more than it needs Iran. Turkey has twice Iran's GDP, and the gap is going to grow rapidly as Turkey continues to expand and Iran contracts under Western sanctions. Turkey has sought to play a mediating role among Iraqi factions, but Maliki persists in seeing his neighbor as a Sunni power seeking to restore Sunni, or Ottoman, control over Iraq. Turkish diplomats probably didn't help matters in the 2010 elections when they supported Maliki's rival, Iraqiya -- including allegedly encouraging Qatar to provide financing for the group -- because they saw the party as a relatively nonsectarian alternative to Maliki's overtly Shiite State of Law coalition. But the underlying problem was Maliki's unwillingness to compromise with his domestic rivals.

Indeed, what really seems to be happening is that Iraq's roiling domestic tensions, driven by the unwillingness of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds to accept the legitimacy of one another's aspirations, is spilling over the country's borders and exacerbating the sectarian tensions that already beset the region. Thus, to take one example, this February Maliki's security forces sought to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a leading member of Iraqiya, on what sounded like wildly trumped-up charges (though in Iraq you never know) that he had used his security forces as a Sunni death squad. Hashemi fled to Kurdistan, leading to a standoff between authorities in Baghdad and Erbil, and then moved on to Turkey, where he was very publicly received by Erdogan, leading to the exchange of playground abuse between Iraqi and Turkish leaders. Hashemi recently popped up in Qatar, which of course provoked an angry exchange between the two countries.

The breakdown of talks between Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which are fighting over oil revenue and borders, has also raised the regional temperature. After Erdogan reached out to the KRG in 2007, the Kurdish region has been increasingly integrated into the Turkish economy. This could serve as a model for Turkey-Iraq relations, but instead it has become yet another irritant. The Kurds, frustrated at the lack of progress in talks -- for which they, to be sure, are partly responsible -- have threatened to sell oil to Turkey without approval from Baghdad and to build a pipeline between the two regions. Turkey has become a pawn in the struggle between Iraq and the KRG.

Finally, Maliki's relentless marginalization of his Sunni rivals, as well as moderate Shiites like Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister and founder of Iraqiya, has thrown him into the arms of Iran, which alone can adjudicate among Iraq's Shiite groups. It was Iran that broke the deadlock after the 2010 elections by insisting that the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr accept Maliki as prime minister. Maliki knows that he owes his job to Iran; consequently, when he has a problem, he runs to Tehran. Iran's rivals in the Gulf thus inevitably, even if unfairly, view him as an Iranian puppet.

There is a larger, and even more troubling, picture here. One of the effects of the tumult inside Arab countries over the past 16 months has been the rise of sectarian differences to the surface, just as happened with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This, in turn, has further fractured regional relations. Demonstrations in Bahrain by the Shiite majority, and the violent response by that country's Sunni leaders, provoked Saudi Arabia to send troops to Bahrain to guard against what it claimed was an Iranian-inspired insurgency. And the burgeoning civil war in Syria, in which a Sunni majority has risen up against a ruler from the Shiite Alawite sect, has pitted Turkey and the Gulf states against Iran -- and now Iraq. The longer the conflict drags on, the more it is likely to deepen that split.

The long-term interests of the United States in the Middle East are the same as those of Arab peoples: the replacement of autocratic regimes with democratic ones, and the replacement of a sectarian narrative with a nonsectarian -- or less sectarian -- one. George W. Bush's administration imagined that Iraq would serve as the pivot for that regional transformation. Instead, Iraq under Maliki has become a deeply fragmented state with superficial democratic characteristics, and a net exporter of sectarianism. It offers yet another lesson for American policymakers -- in case they needed it -- in the unintended consequences of regime change.