China has again assumed the Presidency of the U.N. Security Council, a position that it last held in July 2007 when it led the authorization of a U.N. peacekeeping force for Darfur. At that time, Beijing appeared to be responding to a global campaign by activists, in advance of the Olympics, to shame China into using its influence to address human rights crises in locales in which it has significant economic investments. But China's actions have belied its rhetoric, and it has continued to protect its favorite deadly dictators in places like Darfur, Burma, and Zimbabwe. A revised strategy must put greater focus on China's wallet.
China's rapid emergence as a global economic powerhouse has come about in part due to its willingness to do business with despotic regimes. This bad behavior is often considered good business, but China's current policy towards these ticking political time bombs poses a major threat to its longer-term economic interests.
China backs its dictator allies with new investments, weapons sales, and diplomatic cover. Illustratively, with more than $8 billion invested, Chinese companies dominate Sudan's oil sector, and Chinese military assets keep turning up in Darfur. When Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe decided to retain power through rigged elections and state violence, China sent him arms, donated midnight blue tiles for the roof of his palace, and vetoed targeted U.N. sanctions against his cronies. And when Burma cracked down on the peaceful protests of the Saffron Revolution, China steadfastly supported the junta, shipping artillery cannons and running interference for the regime in the Security Council.
To change this pattern, a new administration in Washington and activists around the world need to focus on Beijing's investment strategy, demonstrating how its economic interests are undermined by its present foreign policy and offering China real alternatives. A more sober examination is required in order to ascertain how the Chinese government might be motivated to become a more constructive actor in support of peace and human rights. There are two points of leverage: one positive and one negative.
On the positive side, as China increasingly integrates into the global economy, Beijing must play by the rules if it wants others to do so. China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 was based on the calculation that the economic benefits of globalization outweighed the cost of abiding by international norms. But today an emboldened China skirts the rules on everything from underage gymnasts to product safety and intellectual property rights. The U.S. should remind China that defying basic human rights, environmental and labor standards will rebound negatively on its commercial interests, particularly by using multilateral mechanisms like the W.T.O. to impose a cost on China's errant practices.
On the negative side lurks the greatest threat to China's long-term growth potential. By allying itself with some of the world's worst dictators for the spoils of today's resource grab, the bill will be paid tomorrow by rebels and opposition officials who will remember who kept their enemies in power.
The blowback in Sudan could be explosive. A return to full-scale civil war would directly threaten Chinese oil interests, as rebels there would make their first target the China National Petroleum Company. No less worrisome is the future of Zimbabwe and Burma. Mugabe cannot cling to power indefinitely, and Zimbabwe's economic meltdown provides a preview of Burma's future under the junta. China's support to these regimes has eviscerated the infrastructure, necessary for a healthy business environment, from educational opportunities to property rights. Putting the human suffering aside, none of these countries will remain profitable for long on their present trajectories.
Therein lies the opening. China ultimately has an economic interest in peace in Sudan, and in stable transitions in Zimbabwe and Burma. If China can positively support these outcomes, some of its most egregious sins will be forgiven. The Beijing government should launch such an effort this month, as China literally sets the agenda for the Security Council, by focusing on a peace deal for Darfur that will end the suffering there. Bringing China into a more direct role in peacemaking will require deft diplomacy from Washington and intelligent advocacy from activists, who can help affect Beijing's calculations further by ramping up stock divestment campaigns and calls for arms embargo enforcement and targeted sanctions.
The Chinese government is not entirely a lost human rights cause. We just need to revise the roadmap.