Since 2003 an estimated 400,000 people have died as a result of the campaign of ethnic cleansing being waged against the people of the Darfur region of Sudan by the military regime of General Omar al-Bashir. As many as 2.5 million people have been made into refugees.
The so-called janjaweed militia, armed and trained by the Sudanese army, has waged a campaign of murder, torture, rape and plunder across the Darfur region, often openly assisted by the army and air force. The groups under attack in Darfur -- mainly the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit peoples -- are Sunni Muslims, just like those running the regime in Khartoum, but they are ethnically African rather than Arab.
Sudan has always been a frontier zone between the Arab and African worlds -- the word "Sudan" means "land of the Blacks" in Arabic. Encouraged by pan-Arabist and Islamist ideologists from Egypt and Libya, the Bashir regime, which seized power from an elected government in 1989, has sought to gain popular support from the Arab majority by launching an ethnic war against the African minorities.
Efforts by the African Union (AU) and the UN either to negotiate an end to the conflict or to put an international peacekeeping force into Sudan have been consistently thwarted by the Sudanese regime. Sudan has tried to paint the issue as one of Sudanese sovereignty versus interfering Westerners. It sadly has been supported by its fellow members of the Arab League. It was pleasing last month to see the AU reject Bashir's bid to be elected as the organization's president for this year.
Sudan's main ally, however, has been China, which has consistently blocked efforts at the UN to have Sudan's actions classed as genocide, to have effective sanctions put in place, or to have a peacekeeping force with the power to protect the people of Darfur put into Sudan.
What does China care about a squalid ethnic conflict in central Africa? Why is one of the world's greatest powers indifferent to the genocides in Darfur and the effect on China's reputation of its sponsorship of Khartoum.
The answer is partly economic self-interest, and partly geopolitics. Sudan's economy has been a disaster for decades, mainly as a result of mismanagement by successive military regimes. In the 1990s it was the world's largest debtor to the World Bank and the IMF.
But since 2000 major oil discoveries have been made in south and central Sudan. Most major oil companies regard the country as too unstable for investment, but the gap has been filled by China, along with companies from Canada and Malaysia.
Today oil is Sudan's major export, indeed its only major export, and 80 percent of its oil exports go to China -- currently worth more than US$2 billion a year. Beijing is also investing millions in infrastructure, including the pipeline from the oilfields to the tanker terminal at Port Sudan. Chinese laborers are building roads and airfields in oil-producing regions. Some of these airfields are used by the Sudanese air force to launch air attacks on undefended villages in Darfur.
This oil bonanza for Sudan pays not only for vital food imports, but also for new Chinese military hardware including tanks, fighters, helicopters, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
China is Sudan's largest supplier of arms. It is thus a knowing and willing accomplice in the Bashir regime's genocide in Darfur.
Chinese President Hu Jintao (
But since the end of the Cold War, the Western view of sovereignty has grown increasingly contingent. If a nation slaughters its civilians (think Rwanda, Kosovo), harbors terrorists (Afghanistan) or refuses to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors (Iraq), it forfeits its right to sovereignty. It may not be invaded, but it certainly can expect to face sanctions.
Part of China's motivation is an increasingly desperate need for new oil suppliers. Twenty years ago China supplied 90 percent of its own oil. Now, with domestic consumption surging, China can supply only 40 percent of its needs from domestic sources. China invested heavily in Iraq under late president Saddam Hussein, but since the US-led invasion, China can no longer count on favorable treatment. In Russia, Japanese companies with deeper pockets have outbid CNPC for access to new Siberian oilfields. Sudan is the answer to China's energy prayers -- poor, but oil-rich and in need of friends.
China is also playing a deeper game, following a longer term geopolitical strategy. What Beijing's authoritarian leadership fear more than anything else is the spread of Western democratic ideals -- what they call "bourgeois liberalism."
They saw what happened to their old comrades in the Soviet Union, and they are determined that no such thing will happen to them. To curb the spread of liberal democratic politics, they are forming new geopolitical alliances, giving diplomatic and economic aid to other regimes which also fear democratic ideas.
Today any country that is in trouble at the UN over abuses of human rights can always rely on a Chinese veto in the Security Council. China is the best friend of the military regime in Myanmar -- one of the world's most oppressive regimes -- and of President Robert Mugabe's bankrupt dictatorship in Zimbabwe.
On a broader canvas, a la George Orwell, China is trying to form a "Eurasian bloc" with Russia, Iran and the states of former Soviet Central Asia. It has formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with these countries, the goal of which is to control much of the world's energy supplies, and link these to China's huge population and dynamic economy.
Australia has done very well out of China's growth and its hunger for energy, selling huge quantities of coal, iron ore and natural gas. Much of our current prosperity has been built on this new China trade boom. This has led the Howard government to adopt a policy of craven silence in the face of the gross abuses of human rights in China, and also to Beijing's role in propping up nasty regimes in Myanmar, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. It's hard to imagine, however, that any Australian government can turn a blind eye to what is now going in Darfur.
It may be said that Sudan is a faraway country about which we can do very little. But there is something we can do.
Recently I learned that there are hundreds of Darfur refugees stranded in Cairo, unable to return home and unable to find a country willing to accept them. The Egyptian government, an ally of Sudan, will not allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to process them. Australia has an embassy in Cairo, and its people and parliament are sympathetic to the Darfurians.
Indeed many policymakers think that many of the increased number of humanitarian visas from Sudan are for people from the conflict zone. They are not. Most Sudanese coming to Australia are from the south, not from the conflict zone, which should be given priority. Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer should tell his diplomats to do something to help these unfortunate people find new homes. It's the least we can do.
Michael Danby is the member for Melbourne Ports in the Australian parliament.
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