The Darfur Question at a Time of Increasing U.S.-China Competition

Posted in Africa | 03-Jun-05 | Author: Federico Bordonaro

In the last two months, Sudan has once again graced the pages of international news due to intense political and academic debate over the Darfur question. Darfur is the south-western Sudanese region where Khartoum's troops are still in conflict with "rebels," causing a "humanitarian crisis" frequently described as genocide. On April 27, the African Union (A.U.) officially asked N.A.T.O. for logistic help in Darfur, although on December 31, 2004, Sudan's central government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/ Army (S.P.L.M./A.) signed a permanent cease-fire agreement. [See: "Sudan's Changing Map"]

Two days later, on April 29, Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Silverstein published a controversial article in which he reported that the Bush administration and the C.I.A. are forging closer ties with Lieutenant General Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, the head of Sudan's government, who is accused of being responsible for genocide. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Sudan"] The Darfur question is thoroughly comprehensible only from a power and interest perspective, taking into consideration the broader context of China's rise and U.S. goals in the "Greater Middle East."

U.S. Relationship with Sudan and Recent Allegations of New Intelligence Ties

Khartoum has often been considered part of an informal anti-American "axis," extending from Tripoli to Tehran, and passing through Khartoum, Sana'a and, until 2003, Baghdad. Washington has explicitly accused Sudan of harboring international terrorists and members of the al-Qaeda network. After the August 7, 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, former U.S. President Bill Clinton ordered a retaliatory strike against Sudan's El Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries factory -- which U.S. officials said was housing chemical weapons.

On October 21, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law H.R. 5531, the "Sudan Peace Act," which should "facilitate a comprehensive solution to the war in Sudan" by calling for "multilateralization of economic and diplomatic tools to compel Sudan to enter into a good faith peace process," while supporting "democratic development" of regions out of the central government's control and condemning human rights violations.

In the background of post-9/11 "war on terrorism" policies, Washington's choice in coping with Sudan's geopolitical stakes has in fact been geared toward "multilateralism" from the start, opening the way for the planned N.A.T.O. engagement in Darfur. What is important for the Sudanese question is that one of the Iraq intervention's consequences has been the reshaping of the geopolitical landscape in the area extending from Sudan to Central Asia -- with a geographical pivot in Iraq, and whose label is the "Greater Middle East." This is a strategic and energetic key area for all powers involved in the struggle for influence in the Eurasian continent: the U.S., the main powers of the E.U., Russia, and China.

For instance, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has stepped toward a less hostile, more cooperative stance with Washington and its allies, while other important political developments are taking place in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Not all of them are favorable to U.S. geopolitical goals, though. Hezbollah's political role in Beirut is growing stronger, and the anti-U.S. guerrilla campaign by Iraqi insurgents has not weakened.

However, in a changing regional political environment, Khartoum's turn toward more friendly ties with Washington, caused by augmented U.S. pressure, should not be ignored. The problem for the Bush administration is that increased intelligence cooperation with one of the world's more detested regimes would inevitably clash (when known by the public) with neoconservative claims of a U.S. crusade against evil and against all dictatorships on the globe. It would also make matters worse for the public opinion's support of a N.A.T.O. mission in Darfur.

Why Darfur and Sudan Matter

The Sudanese territory (the widest of all African countries) connects four different geopolitical sub-systems: those of the Red Sea, the Maghreb, the Central African region and the African Horn. It also is, from Egypt's perspective, the natural continuation of Cairo's push towards the Nile's southern sources. Its arabization began in the 16th century at the expense of some Christian kingdoms. An almost permanent geopolitical struggle has existed for the past 30 years between the northern regions and the south -- as the latter maintains some pre-Islamic characteristics.

The south, however, has always served as a tool for foreign powers aiming at destabilizing Sudan: in the 1970s and 80s, for example, Ethiopian pro-Soviet leaders exploited the conflict to weaken Khartoum's pro-Western stance. Since 1989, the new Ethiopian post-communist elites acted similarly, by supporting southern rebels to weaken Sudan's Islamic turn. This fact is of outmost importance for a genuinely realist interpretation based on power and interest.

Today's American and Western attention for the Darfur question has much to do with Khartoum's new commercial and political ties with Iran and -- especially -- China. Beijing's attempt to gain influence in Africa is in fact one of our age's geopolitical novelties. Its main goal is to acquire African oil and gas at favorable conditions, in regions where Western oil majors must still compete for total control. Beijing's new African policy has been focused on Gabon, Nigeria and Sudan. It must be said, for the sake of accuracy, that Sino-Sudanese relations are not entirely new, for the arms trade between the two countries has been in place since the late sixties.

Control over oil reserves is at the top of China's wishes -- and Sudanese diffidence for the U.S. seems to be a good set up for Chinese penetration as a powerbroker. In 2003, China's National Petroleum Corp. planned to invest one billion dollars to create Sudan's largest oil refinery. Moreover, as recent declarations from Sudanese Minister of Energy and Mining Awad Ahmed Al-Jazz confirmed, a newly-discovered oil field expected to produce 500,000 barrels per day of crude oil is located in the Darfur region. This latter is also the way to Chad, a country well-known for its natural gas reserves.

At a time of growing strategic partnership between U.S. geopolitical adversaries such as Iran and China, Sudan's importance is understandable in light of its energy assets and strategic position to securitize the "Greater Middle East."

N.A.T.O.'s Role in Sudan and Alleged French Hesitations

This framework is made even more complex by the European countries' different perceptions of U.S. Middle East policies and China's rise as a great power. As N.A.T.O. is a transatlantic organization, a lack of a common geopolitical concept, shared by its major components, would be immediately reflected in political terms. After the 2003 dramatic rift in transatlantic and intra-European relations concerning the Iraq war, many have continuously called for a new U.S.-E.U. common security policy. The Darfur crisis and the African Union official request for help seemed to be an opportunity to extend the tight security cooperation between Washington and the E.U.'s main powers via N.A.T.O.

However, some analysts correctly remarked how the E.U. and N.A.T.O. seemed to have both become involved in the Sudanese theater of operations without a clear definition of their mutual relations in the mission. The dilemma is that either the E.U. relies on N.A.T.O.'s assets to project its power out of the European region, thus accepting the Atlantic political lead, or the two organizations enter into competition -- which is to be read as another chapter of the Franco-American conflict for influence over the European Security and Defence Policy (E.S.D.P.).

The French daily newspaper Le Figaro reported on April 27 that N.A.T.O.'s intervention in Darfur was a "historical event" in that for the first time the transatlantic organization was planning a humanitarian mission in Africa. However, sources of French diplomacy, quoted by the press in February, said that Paris was opposed to N.A.T.O.'s mission in Sudan because it would reduce the E.S.D.P.'s role and visibility in a geopolitical area considered vital for European interests.

Another constant in the transatlantic relationship appears here: it is Paris that more vigorously insists for a greater European weight in security policy, for France's goal is to transform the transatlantic relationship in such a way that it becomes a partnership much more than American control over Europe. [See: "An Assessment of the Franco-German Axis and the United States"] At present, this evolution appears unlikely for two reasons. The first reason is that U.S. foreign policy -- perceived not only by Paris as unilateral and hegemonic -- is more often than not considered a threat to great and medium powers' geopolitical goals, although not directly in military terms. The second reason is that Germany seems to pursue a more independent agenda than it has in the past.


The geopolitical framework of N.A.T.O.'s and the E.U.'s interventions in Sudan is a fairly complex one. However, events seem to be running in the direction of these organizations' actual involvement. Washington's enthusiasm toward a direct intervention in the Darfur crisis appears to have been cooled down by Khartoum's new role in intelligence sharing with the U.S. This fact could clear the way for a stronger E.U., rather than N.A.T.O., political role in supporting the A.U.'s peacekeeping mission. At the same time, in the light of rising Chinese ambitions in the African political and economic landscape, it will also make things more puzzling for the future stabilization of an increasingly delicate region.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of [email protected]. All comments should be directed to [email protected].