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.