UNITED NATIONS — The United States may have midwifed the birth of South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation. But China has quickly become among its most important patrons, building its roads and pumping its oil.
Now, more than a year after South Sudan’s leaders plunged their country into a nasty civil war, the nation has become something of a test of diplomacy between the United States and China, raising the question: Can Washington and Beijing turn their mutual interests in South Sudan into a shared strategy to stop the bloodshed?
To pressure the warring sides toward peace, the United States has circulated a draft Security Council resolution, dangling the threat of sanctions and setting up the possibility of an arms embargo somewhere down the road. The measure could come up for a vote as early as Tuesday.
China, which has long espoused a policy of not interfering in its partners’ domestic affairs, has not revealed its hand. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, signaled to diplomats here last week that his government could be persuaded to back appropriate punitive measures against South Sudan. The Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Liu Jieyi, then publicly questioned the “logic” of proposing sanctions while the two sides are talking. China could abstain from voting on Tuesday and let the measure pass.
Peace talks — funded by both Beijing and Washington — are underway in Ethiopia this week between factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and his rival, former Vice President Riek Machar. Yet prospects for a breakthrough by a Thursday deadline set by the mediators appear slim. Mr. Kiir, for his part, has refused to show up.
So far, neither Washington nor Beijing has advanced a comprehensive strategy to stop the civil war. Both nations have been hesitant to substantially defang the kingpins of the war, including imposing an arms embargo or limiting how oil revenues might be used to fund the conflict. Both measures are among the recommendations of a recent International Crisis Group report on South Sudan.
“The ability of the United States and China to work toward a common strategy for peace in South Sudan is a test case for their ability to work together on the continent and beyond,” said Casie Copeland, the Crisis Group’s South Sudan expert. She described both countries as “sort of walking in a circle.”
That is not for a lack of interest — or even because of opposing interests.
Although China and the United States have stubbornly been on opposing sides of the issue of Darfur, the long-suffering Sudanese region, the two superpowers share a lot of common ground on South Sudan.
China has strong economic stakes in the country; the United States is heavily invested politically. They both have an interest in restoring stability to the country and avoiding disruptions to its oil flow. Both capitals have also opted to go slowly.
Obama administration officials have deep emotional ties to South Sudan, and so far they have resisted taking any steps, like an arms embargo, that would weaken the government in Juba. As the administration’s former South Sudan envoy, Princeton Lyman, put it this week, “The position is hardening in the administration, but it has taken a while.”
All the while, fighting between forces loyal to Mr. Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and Mr. Machar, an ethnic Nuer, has killed tens of thousands, displaced two million people, brought the country to brink of famine and left a trail of rape and killing. The United Nations children’s agency last week said school children had been conscripted by a militia loyal to Mr. Kiir’s forces.
The United States and China have vastly different histories there. The United States championed its independence from Sudan, whose president, Omar al-Bashir, it loathed, and whom it referred to the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur.
China, by contrast, was one of Mr. Bashir’s most important allies — and still is. But when South Sudan split off, it took vast amounts of oil with it, so China soon courted the new government in Juba and kept its stake in the oil fields.
That helps explains why China has taken an unusually active role, considering its traditional policy of noninterference.
It has dispatched its own soldiers to the United Nations peacekeeping mission there and persuaded the Security Council to include a most unusual mandate for the mission: Peacekeepers there are tasked with protecting not just civilians, but also the country’s oil installations, which have been attacked. China has also stopped shipping arms to the government in Juba.
The American-drafted resolution would impose travel bans and asset freezes on individuals who threaten the peace and security of South Sudan, including those who are accused of committing serious rights abuses, using child soldiers, and attacking United Nations personnel. It would set up a committee to evaluate who should fall on the sanctions list. The measure would raise the possibility of an arms embargo further in the future.
Crucial to the effectiveness of these measures are South Sudan’s neighbors, including Uganda and Ethiopia, which have ties to the rival parties. Only if the countries in the region agree to punitive measures, like sanctions and an arms embargo, Mr. Lyman pointed out, will China give its consent on the Council.
Asked why it has taken so long to propose a draft resolution on the Security Council, an American official said: “There are a lot of actors in this situation. We’ve been waiting for the right moment.”
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic protocol. “Everyone is sort of rowing in the same direction,” he added.
A wild card is what to do about the potential war crimes committed by both sides in the conflict. The African Union has completed its own investigation into human rights abuses, but refused to make it public while peace talks are continuing. The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has urged the organization to release it.
United Nations investigators have chronicled a litany of horrors since fighting broke out in December 2013. “In Juba, I met people whose whole families have been executed, primarily due to their ethnicity, and women and girls who were taken as sex slaves after their husbands were killed,” the United Nations assistant secretary general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, told the Council last week, urging the panel to ensure accountability for the victims.
The next question will be whether China or the United States agrees to send its friends to the dock.
By: Somini Sengupta for The New York Times, March 2, 2015
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