China’s African Balancing Act
Over the past few weeks the Chinese government has done two surprising things: they have met with the rebel leaders in Libya and sent officials to attend the South Sudanese independence celebration. For a government that doesn’t allow domestic dissent, especially not protests with separatist aspirations, these actions seem the opposite of what might be expected. However, what underlies these steps is far more important—a strategic concern about oil.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Sudan is China’s 6th largest provider of oil, while Libya is the 11th. China’s recent actions in Libya and South Sudan highlight just how much these relationships matter. Put simply, China values energy security more than it values the right to self-determination. At the start of the Libyan conflict, China appeared to take no side, and criticized others for getting involved. When massive human rights violations were taking place in Darfur, China took no position. Yet, in the last month, China has taken definitive steps to recognize South Sudan. It is clear that China is weighing its growing energy demand against the support for a movement it would never condone within its own borders. In the end, they’ve decided that oil weighs far heavier in the balance.
It is extraordinarily disappointing but hardly surprising that China, a rising power, refuses to use its leverage to promote human rights. Instead China’s indifference to human rights issues and emphasis on resource security provides a poor model for other developing countries: push human rights to the sidelines and ensure economic development at all costs. So far, China’s unhindered growth shows that this model works and provides few incentives for countries to take an approach that is more friendly to human rights.
At the same time, China’s decisions opens it up to criticism on the international level. The 2008 Olympic Games highlighted the international community’s disappointment and anger at China’s lack of respect for human rights. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister Donald Tusk of Poland, and President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic refused to attend the opening ceremonies. The Olympic torch relay was beset with protesters, especially in Western Europe. China is routinely criticized in publications by international organizations and NGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House.
While the U.S. has done relatively little to encourage China to improve its human rights record, the U.S. cannot afford to truly offend China, since China owns more U.S. debt than any other foreign nation and is also a major U.S. trading partner. Because the U.S. has its own shortcomings, it is far more likely that the EU will take the lead in pressuring China on human rights. The EU has the added advantage of being able to lead by example due to many rights enshrined and protected in their Charter of Fundamental Rights.
By recognizing the Libyan rebels and South Sudan, China makes sure that it is an ally of the new governments and cannot be cut off from its oil supply for political reasons. Yet how can they maintain this delicate balance? So far China’s answer has been to publicly call for both sides in a conflict to come to a solution that safeguards peace and stability, while ensuring that its investments are well protected via good relationships with those who look poised to take power. Regrettably, for now, this strategy seems to be paying off.