The Crisis in the Sudans: The Urgency of U.S.-China Cooperation

The nexus of oil, war and humanitarian catastrophe is an opportunity for the powers involved (increasingly Beijing) to come together to press for a solution

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Hannah McNeish / AFP / Getty Images

A photograph taken March 3, 2012 shows environmental damages caused by bombs which hit El Nar oil field in Unity State, South Sudan on February 29.

On the surface, our recent trip to the rebel-held areas of Sudan’s Nuba Mountains hauntingly echoed earlier visits to Darfur and South Sudan. A huge group of people—targeted by their government in Khartoum because of their ethnicity, the rich land they live on, and their resistance to dictatorship — are being serially bombarded, raped, abducted, and starved in this case for the second time in the last two decades. The culprit remains the same as well: the Khartoum regime led by General Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. This human rights catastrophe within Sudan is unfolding alongside a virtual state of war between Sudan and South Sudan, playing itself out in the border oilfields not far from the Nuba Mountains.

A closer look, however, reveals three startlingly new dynamics that together provide an unprecedented opportunity for peacemaking in the region, even as wider war threatens. If this chance is missed, and conflict between Sudan and South Sudan intensifies, the result will undoubtedly be the deadliest conventional war on the face of the earth.

(MORE: Famine as a Weapon: It’s Time to Stop Starvation in Sudan)

First, the South Sudan government in Juba has shut off the oil wells providing both governments with most of their income, as the bulk of the oil flows from South Sudan’s oil wells through Sudan’s pipeline. Both countries face economic catastrophe as a result, with collapsed currencies, hyper-inflation, and massive food deficits likely as state treasuries are emptied. This introduces new urgency for a comprehensive peace deal that addresses the outstanding issues between the two states as well as creating a process to resolve the parallel civil war within Sudan taking place in the Nuba Mountains, Darfur and other restive regions. As President Salva Kiir told us, “We didn’t shut down the oil indefinitely. We want a solution.”

Second, China’s interests are evolving. Before South Sudan gained its independence last year, China reflexively defended its commercial partner in Khartoum, frustrating international efforts to press the Sudanese regime for peace or human rights compromises. Since the bulk of the oil now lies south of Sudan’s new border, China must deal with both countries to secure a continuing return on its $20 billion oil sector investment. Peace is very much in China’s national interest.

Third, the ongoing crisis in Sudan and South Sudan has historically been a humanitarian concern. But the shutoff of South Sudan’s production has an impact on global energy supplies, and thus, as both President Barack Obama and Senator Richard Lugar pointed out recently, on the price of gas at U.S. pumps. China was reliant on over 6% of its daily imports from the Sudans, but now has to dip into global markets to meet that shortfall. Getting Sudanese supply back on the market is even more imperative due to intensifying U.S. efforts to sanction Iran’s oil exports. Suddenly it is in the national interest of the U.S. and other major oil importers to help secure a deal to counter energy price inflation.

(PHOTOS: George Clooney Arrested in Washington While Protesting at Sudan Embassy)

We hope Khartoum can be pressured to stop using starvation as a war weapon by opening aid access to the Nuba Mountains and other areas in extreme need. We also heard repeatedly from Nuba civilians hiding in caves that their most urgent need is to end the Sudan regime’s bombing of their villages and farms.

The above three new dynamics provide a chance to end the bombing and starvation once and for all. The nature of Chinese engagement may hold the key. As the two largest energy consumers in the world, China and the U.S. share a common interest in Sudanese peace. Beijing has more influence than anyone in both Juba and Khartoum. In the aftermath of their meeting in South Korea, Presidents Obama and Hu have a golden opportunity to deepen strategic cooperation to buttress foundering African Union mediation. More visible efforts are required in the form of a joint task force or shared leadership of a small group of influential countries that throw their collective weight behind specific African proposals. Such proposals need to more comprehensively address the interlocking economic and political issues that fuel instability within and between Sudan and South Sudan. Beijing and Washington need to quickly formalize their partnership. Lasting peace in that region will not come easily or quickly.

African mediation lacks hardball leverage. In addition to deeper Sino-American cooperation, further influence could be created if the U.S. and interested allies initiate a hard target search for the assets of Sudanese war criminals and their commercial interests. If those assets can’t be frozen, they should be publicized so that those most responsible for continuing cycles of conflict can be exposed to their own publics for how much oil money they have stolen over the years in the war economy they created.

Missing this window of opportunity for peace may result in a few more pennies at the pump in the U.S. and Europe, but for the Sudans it could cost millions of lives.

George Clooney and John Prendergast are co-founders of the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), a partnership between the Enough Project, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and DigitalGlobe. The SSP has documented evidence that forces with the government of Sudan razed five towns and villages and bombarded civilians in the border areas of Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile state.

VIDEO: Villages Caught in the Crossfire of Sudan’s Ongoing Battles