Bashir to Visit China, US endorses it: But What Does it Mean?

Chinese President Hu Jintao with Bashir

While Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir won’t be visiting Malaysia due to “other engagements,” it looks very likely that he will, in fact, be visiting China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has confirmed that Bashir, wanted by the ICC for his role in the crisis in Dafur, would visit later this month. The US has implicitly supported the decision.

That Bashir is seeking to make an official visit to another country, despite the ICC arrest warrant against him is, of course, nothing new. But, for a number of reasons, his upcoming China visit is much different than his foreign forays to Kenya, Chad, Djibouti and so on.

This post is an attempt to examine this potential trip in the context of the relations between all four key actors involved: China, Sudan, the ICC and the US.

China and Sudan

If Bashir visits China, it will be the first time since the warrants were issued that he has visited a member-state of the UN Security Council. Implicit in this is the fact that this will also be the first time he visits a state with international power of this magnitude . He will also be visiting one of the single largest investors in Sudan, especially when it comes to oil (see also here). There is a general trend – little analyzed and rarely considered in mainstream coverage of Chinese relations in Africa – that China often increases its dealings with states that the West has deemed illegitimate economic and political partners. China does not face such pressure. This is, at least in part, due to China’s repression of domestic human rights groups combined with the fact that its human rights advocates, understandably, focus on domestic respect for human rights. In short, this means that little focus is left for questionable international dealings by China. As such, it appears that every time the “West” closes up shop in states which fail to protect their own people, China sees an opportunity. This reality and the economic relationship between China and Sudan is central to any informed discussion on Bashir visiting China and future peace in Sudan – both in Darfur and between the South and North.

Bashir and Jintao

For China, the calculus seems pretty simple. It wants to protect its investments in China. To do so it needs two things. First of all, it needs good relations with the government. Second, and something rarely conceded by critics of Chinese foreign policy, it needs peace. With the exception of war economies, it is never good to do business while bullets fly and bombs fall. As the US State Department spokesperson rightly noted with regards to the visit and China’s privileging of economic interests over peace:

“it’s hard to have money and oil when there’s no peace.”

In a statement a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that:

“China would like to play a positive role in promoting Sudan’s peace and reconciliation, boosting the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and safeguarding regional peace and stability”

This is very much true but omits: “…because our investments depend on it.”

China’s role in the international community is at a cross-roads. Its ventures into Africa, impressively chronicled by Chris Alden, have brought its traditional principles of national sovereignty and non-intervention into conflict with its increasingly overt political role. While the country’s advocacy of these principles may have always been more “myth than reality”, China will not be able to escape questions as to its increasingly frequent and ever-more politically intrusive international forays.

China and the ICC

The common view in the West is that China is a country to be weary of. There are uninformed undertones of paranoia that China will take over the world and destroy the liberal, democratic and human rights-respecting international system the West has painstakingly built following WWII. Much of this comes from a displacement of attitudes following the Cold War. The West, especially the US, no longer had an arch-enemy. Little understood and ever-growing, China presented – and continues to present – a perfect target for the politics of fear.

Drawing on these conceptions of China, there is a prevailing view that China is fundamentally opposed to the International Criminal Court. This popular presumption of China’s attitude feeds on the mainstream accounts of human rights violations in China, of which there are undoubtedly many, and on China’s consistent declarations that it holds the principles of national sovereignty and non-intervention as golden rules in the game of international politics. However, as I have explained before, China’s relationship with the ICC has at times been productive and positive.

China, of course, is not a member state of the ICC and it was one of only four states to vote against the Rome Statute in 1998. China has had significant disagreements with the Court over various issues, including the definitions of crimes under its mandate, the role of the UN Security Council, the powers of the Court’s Prosecutor, as well as its jurisdiction. Many of China’s dissenting views have been reconciled with the notable exception of its fear that the Court could become a political tool, something that – perhaps ironically – the Court’s greatest advocates also fear. During the Rome Statute negotiations in 1998, China participated actively. Since then, it has been an engaged partner in the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties and has, on occasion, voiced impressive political support for the Court. China has stated that it believes that the Court should play a role in contributing to international peace and security. In this contest, it’s important to keep in mind that China voted in support of referring the situation in Libya to the ICC. While this may come as a surprise to many, China has even suggested that its accession to member-state status is a realistic possibility.

Jintao and Bashir (plus some other guys)

In fact, China’s relationship with the ICC has historically been much more engaged and positive than that of the US. At the same time, in 2002, when the Bush administration, eager to prove its opposition to the Court, ‘unsigned’ the Rome Statute, China declared that:

“If the operation of the court could bring to justice all those individuals who have perpetrated most serious international crimes, this would not only help build confidence in international justice, but will also ultimately contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security. This is the outcome we fervently hope for.”

It appears that, like so many other states, China would prefer to support the Court on a case-by-case basis. One of the cases it prefers not to support, is that of Darfur. China abstained from the vote on UN Security Council Resolution 1593, which referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC, allowing the vote to pass, but without any overt expression of support for it. Since then, China has been a vehement supporter of deferring the arrest warrants against Bashir and has actively stifled attempts by the Security Council to pressure Khartoum over crimes committed in Darfur. However, it is important to remember that China has never criticized the aims of the Court in its support for a deferral of the arrest warrants against Bashir. Instead, China’s public statements have always concerned the effects of the ICC on peace in Sudan. In reaction to the arrest warrants, for example, China reacted by saying:

“China is opposed to any action that could interfere with the peaceful situation in Darfur and Sudan.”

The private, leaked cables describing a discussion between a US official, Alberto Fernandez, and the Chinese Ambassador,  Li Cheng Wen, illustrate a similar story line:

“Li stated that the GOC is extremely worried about how the ICC indictment will affect stability in Darfur…[Li]  stated that “whoever had a role in creating this problem will bear responsibility” if Sudan descends into chaos as a result of the ICC indictment, adding that such an outcome could have been easily forecast. He declared that destabilization of Sudan is in no one’s interest, adding that “to help Sudan is to help ourselves. I hope the British and French understand this philosophy.” He observed that French companies have oil interests in Sudan as well as in Chad. CDA Fernandez agreed that an ICC indictment will present great challenges to achieving peace in Darfur, but commented that the decision to indict President Bashir may bave been made by an overzealous prosecutor and is not the result of “high politics” or a conspiracy by the West.”

It is in this very political context that Bashir is visiting China and that China will welcome him with open arms. Indeed, it should not come as a surprise. As Wikileak cables illustrate, ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreono-Ocampo had no illusions that China would work with the Court on the case of Darfur:

“China, as long as it keeps its oil concessions, does not care what happens to Bashir.”

Jintao and…B..Obama!

Unfortunately for advocates of the ICC who have impressively and persuasively contributed to Bashir changing his travel plans, it is unlikely to happen with China. This is not to sound defeatist or to discourage anyone from trying, but China is perhaps the best country at ignoring the international human rights community. The long time situation with the Dalai Lama and Tibetans as well as, more recently, the detention of Ai Wei Wei are a testament to this unfortunate fact.

China, Sudan, the ICC and the US

Just as distressing for advocates of international criminal justice, is the American response to Bashir’s potential visit to China: implicit endorsement. US State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, dodged questions regarding the Court saying:

“We hope that Beijing takes this opportunity to reaffirm the importance of stopping the violence, of getting back to the [peace agreement], and of full accountability for past issues…China shares our interest in peace in Sudan. So it is our hope that, in welcoming Bashir, they are going to make the same points that the international community have been making to both sides, frankly…Well, our position on Bashir is clear. China makes its own national decisions. We just hope that they use the opportunity of having him in town to make strong points to him about the future of his country and the importance of peace.”

If Bashir visits China, it would be a significant defeat for advocates of the ICC, and not only for those who imagine the Court as existing in some type of dreamy political vacuum. The US is clearly trying to stake out a realpolitik approach to Bashir’s visit. They recognize that, in this instance, Chinese and American interests converge. China and the US, in the case of Sudan, are awkward bed fellows. Where China has invested economically in Sudan, the US has invested politically in ensuring the peaceful division of the North and South as well as a resolution to the crisis in Darfur. It would have been incredibly unlikely, if not simply impossible, for South Sudan to be celebrating independence had it not been for the role of the US in negotiating with Khartoum. With recent violence in Abyei and Unity State, however, the North-South peace in Sudan seems more fragile than ever, prompting emergency peace talks last week. Both China and the US need peace in Sudan.

Back to it. Bashir and Jintao

Of course, the question remains as to why the Obama administration is so explicit in its support for Bashir’s visit to China. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone if they had chastised China publicly while providing approval through back-channels. Indeed, the administration’s position will almost surely alienate a significant section of the human rights community in the US, which is particularly forceful on the question of Darfur. This community, rightly or wrongly, will disagree with the US position based on their doctrinal rejection of “peace before justice” in Darfur.


It is still possible – although seemingly unlikely – that Bashir will cancel his visit his trip to China. It would be no less than a political coup for him to visit. He also has the implicit support of the US. Many hope that one of these days, Bashir will be arrested and brought to The Hague for trial. If Bashir visits China, however, he will have won a significant battle in his quest to demonstrate that the Court is impotent. Advocates of bringing him to justice, however, can remind themselves of the old adage: “you may have won the battle, but you haven’t won the war.”

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in China, Darfur, ICC Prosecutor, International Criminal Court (ICC), Sudan, United States. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Bashir to Visit China, US endorses it: But What Does it Mean?

  1. Pingback: Anton’s Weekly Digest of International Law, Vol. 2, No. 24 (23 June 2011) | Anton's Weekly Digest of International Law

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s