Strategic Dialogue on the Beijing Olympics

In their contributions to the Foreign Policy In Focus strategic dialogue on the Beijing Olympics, James Nolt argues in Counterproductive Olympic Protests that protesters are not spurring change in China only an upsurge in patriotism. Eric Reeves, in On Boycotting the Beijing Olympics, makes a case for the international community to send a signal to China over its Sudan policy by boycotting the opening ceremonies. Here they respond to each other by focusing on the question of Darfur.

Eric Reeves

In responding to James Nolt, I’ll focus on concerns related to China’s underwriting of genocide in Darfur, and Beijing’s longtime involvement in massively destructive oil development projects throughout southern Sudan. But first let me briefly list some of the broader, less related beliefs Nolt invites us to entertain.

First, he writes that “China’s trade with Sudan, China’s suppression of protests in Tibet, and the general human rights situation in China…are all serious issues, but none of them is of sufficient gravity to incense the Chinese people as a whole by protesting around Olympic events.” Nolt notes the case of Afghanistan in 1980 and the Olympic boycott of that year, but concludes that “the issues at stake here are not so direct and serious.” One wonders what kind of scale guides Nolt’s characterizations here (“none of them is of sufficient gravity” or “so direct and serious”). Many will find it cruelly parochial.

Second, Nolt asserts that “the whole word recognizes that Tibet is part of China.” Perhaps he should inquire a bit further before making such an unqualified generalization.

Third, he writes that “any remaining censorship [in China] is so limited as to be largely ineffective.” One needn’t be a student of China to recognize this as a preposterous claim, daily belied by a wealth of information about the obstacles to news publication and Internet access. Here one can only wish that Nolt would spend some serious time researching the archives of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, or scores of other sources providing abundant and highly authoritative research on this critical issue.

Finally, he writes that “protests are not encouraged, but many are nonetheless tolerated.” Which protests are tolerated? And which are not? Do you see a pattern? Do you recall Tiananmen Square? Do you follow the fate of human rights activists in China and their fate when they “protest”?

But it is in characterizing the Chinese relationship with Khartoum that Nolt outdoes himself. In his ignorance, he becomes little more than a propagandist, echoing the very line of the People’s Republic of China foreign ministry. Indeed, he is either a propagandist or a spectacular victim of the very news censorship he declares does not exist in China.

Although acknowledging that genocide is occurring in Darfur, Nolt asserts that, “to blame China for [the Darfur genocide] is grossly hypocritical. China did not put the government of Sudan in power. The government of Sudan is not a puppet of China. China merely has normal trading relations with it. The protestors wish to criminalize normal trading relations.”

According to Nolt, then, massive and continuing arms sales to the National Islamic Front (National Congress Party) regime in Khartoum entail no more than “normal trading relations.” Yet a UN Panel of Experts on Darfur and Amnesty International have determined that Chinese weapons continue to be introduced into Darfur, by Khartoum, in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 1591 (2005) imposing a comprehensive arms embargo on Darfur. Recently imported Chinese weapons continue to be directly involved in genocidal destruction. China has been the leading supplier of weapons to the Khartoum regime for over a decade.

“Normal trading relations” includes what is very widely acknowledged to be Beijing’s unstinting diplomatic protection of Khartoum from the consequences of its many violations of UN demands and its obdurate defiance of Security Council resolutions.

It was also China’s abstention on Resolution 1706 (2006) that did most to prevent an earlier deployment of desperately needed UN security to protect civilians and humanitarians. Many tens of thousands of civilians have died, and many hundreds of thousands have been displaced, since China cast its supremely callous vote.

“Normal trading relations” evidently also include China’s participation in massive scorched-earth clearances in the oil regions of southern Sudan, beginning in 1998 and continuing even today. Many hundreds of thousands of human beings were killed or displaced to make way for Chinese-dominated production consortia. Oil development also wrought havoc on the ecosystems and thus the economy of the cattle-based agricultural economy of the south (e.g., elevated oil roads built by the Chinese do not have culverts, producing serious flooding in the rainy season, and permit no passage of cattle during the migration seasons).

There is, of course, a great deal more to say about how China’s “normal trading relations” have emboldened Khartoum to defy the international community’s efforts to protect civilians in Darfur as well as the world’s largest humanitarian operation. But Nolt is just as perversely ignorant of the effects of the “Genocide Olympics” campaign I help to lead (“the effect is largely counterproductive”). Although China has been guilty in all the ways I describe, and continues to be the major diplomatic impediment to bringing additional pressure on Khartoum, there are signs of our campaign’s success, and thus reasons for continuing even more urgently. It is hard to be certain when assessing the actions of a totalitarian regime, but since our campaign began over a year ago China has:

  • appointed a special Darfur envoy and pressured Khartoum to accept the terms embodied in Resolution 1769 (which authorized the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID));
  • voted for Resolution 1769 and its Chapter 7 mandate, which is significant because China had abstained in previous key votes on Darfur and had vowed it would allow for no further Chapter 7 resolutions on the issue;
  • publicly criticized Khartoum for not “showing more flexibility” on the terms of UNAMID deployment;
  • engaged publicly on Darfur, with the Xinhua news service and PRC foreign ministry energies devoted to Darfur increasing by roughly a factor of ten since the emergence of the “Genocide Olympics” campaign.

These results may be partly public relations, but they certainly mark a significant shift in China’s policy since the outbreak of genocidal violence in early 2003. It is not enough, however, and Beijing remains the number one diplomatic obstacle at the UN to further progress in deploying UNAMID. In any event, the burden of proof lies with those would deny that the “Genocide Olympics” campaign is largely responsible for these conspicuous changes in PRC policy.

James Nolt

Eric Reeves makes an impassioned and well-reasoned case for protests regarding the Chinese government’s role in Sudan/Darfur. Our debate is actually an instance of a long-running dispute within international politics that goes back at least to the British parliamentary debate over the so-called “Eastern Question” during the 1820s. There are two main issues at stake: whether entire nations should be sanctioned for the repressive actions of their governments and whether foreign military forces should intervene to redress human rights abuses or civil disorder in particular countries.

I am more cautious, I suspect, than Reeves on both of these issues because I know how frequently claims of abuse and disorder have been used to justify crippling sanctions (often punishing everyone but the actual perpetrators) and destructive military invasions. Although I am not cynical about Reeve’s own humanitarian intentions, I am more dubious about the efficacy of foreign force as a solution to humanitarian problems. Thus I will focus my rejoinder on the second issue.

The “Eastern Question” in Britain was whether to support Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire, given Turkish massacres and abuses of Greek civilians. British Liberals argued for such intervention on both humanitarian and commercial grounds (new trading opportunities with an independent Greece). British Conservatives argued against such intervention based on power politics (the Ottoman Empire was a necessary British ally against expansionist Russia) and commercial grounds (the Ottoman Empire was a major customer of British banks). Modern concepts of liberalism in international relations derive in part from the arguments advanced then by Liberal British parliamentarians and propagandists.

Since this 1820s debate, many if not most wars have been justified by appeal to humanitarian concerns. Some of these claims we are justifiably cynical about: Hitler of course claimed to be acting on behalf of oppressed Germans when he dismembered Czechoslovakia in 1938 and when he invaded Poland in 1939. Japan claimed its 1931 invasion of northeastern China (Manchuria) was justified to suppress terroristic bandits and restore order. Of course, the League of Nations ultimately rejected Japan’s claims, but quite a few major American newspapers actually accepted Japan’s excuses in the first instance and defended the Japanese invasion of China on humanitarian grounds. No matter how cynical, humanitarian appeals are often persuasive. We should be cautious to accept them as the basis for violent action.

There are a great many other cases of “humanitarian interventions” that are more debatable or ambiguous, even in retrospect. For example, both the United States and China condemned Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978-79, but in retrospect it may have saved Cambodia from one of the worst genocides in human history. At the end of World War I, British and French troops intervened to protect Greeks from Turkish massacres, but in that instance there were massacres by both sides and the Franco-British interventions were imperialist in their aims: grabbing territory from the Turks and opening the Turkish Straits to facilitate their intervention in the Russian civil war. The United States was supporting Iraq’s Saddam Hussein against Iran when he was massacring helpless Kurds, but later the United States claimed humanitarian credentials in supporting the Kurds to help overthrow Saddam.

Perhaps more pertinent to the Darfur case, the U.S. humanitarian intervention in Somalia to protect refugees and food distributions degenerated (almost necessarily) into an attempt to pick sides in a civil war in which none of the parties had clean hands. Somalia has never recovered from that misguided attempt at humanitarian intervention. Introduction of foreign armed force into any country is a highly problematic. Reeves underestimates the dangers of foreign military intervention in Darfur when he condemns Chinese reticence to vote for it at the United Nations.

I believe that China’s unwillingness to authorize foreign military intervention in Sudan has little to do with Sudan per se, but originates with China’s own long and sordid experience with foreign invasion justified on humanitarian grounds. China’s general policy is to lean heavily on the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. This may or may not be the right policy in the particular case of Sudan, but in the overall history of “humanitarian” interventions, it has much to recommend it. The UN should be cautious about whether invasion of a sovereign state is the best means to solve a human rights problem. Reeves would be well advised to learn more about the nature and dangers of war, whatever its original justification. China may well have the better moral argument in this case.

Any UN intervention in Darfur without the cooperation of the Sudanese government is indeed an act of war, justified or not. The UN forces must be prepared in that instance not merely to protect refugees but to fight a potentially endless guerrilla war against Sudanese resistance. If the intervention is small-scale and defensive, it may never end. Sudan’s government and various militia forces will be able to wage a war of attrition until, as in Somalia, the humanitarian forces give up and go home. Refugees might get some temporary protection, but the overall scale and intensity of violence may well increase.

On the other hand, if the UN intervention is large enough to overcome Sudanese government resistance and actually depose the government of Sudan, then the UN will have a task much like that now faced by the United States in Iraq: how to govern a nation fragmented by violent ethnic divisions using foreign officials and troops with little knowledge of or cultural sensitivity to local cultures and conditions. Many countries in the Arab world will have little sympathy and might aid resistance to UN rule and whatever transitional government is imposed. The United States is already stretched to the limit by two endless “nation building” wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Do we really want to add a third one in Sudan? Who else would join us and fight on to the bitter end? Would any such foreign military intervention convince Sudanese to live in peace with each other or merely exacerbate ethnic violence? The record of foreign military intervention, from Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, to mention only a few of the most prominent Middle Eastern examples, is not good. Reeves can only view Chinese government policy against intervention as aiding and abetting genocide. It may in fact be prudent advice to the world community.

Eric Reeves is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide. James H. Nolt is campus dean at NYIT Nanjing (China) and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. They are both contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.og).