The Obama administration on Thursday asked China to use its influence with Sudan's president to press for an end to rising violence that threatens a landmark peace deal and could complicate southern Sudan's planned declaration of independence next month.
U.S. officials said they want China to urge Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to abide by the terms of a 2005 peace agreement that ended Sudan's two-decade north-south civil war and led to a secession vote by the south. Later this month, ahead of southern Sudan's July 9 independence, Bashir is to visit China, which has pull with Bashir's regime in Khartoum because of major investments there.
"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," State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
China has been criticized in the past for either ignoring the deteriorating situation in Sudan or not doing enough to press Khartoum to abide by its commitment to the peace deal so as not to endanger its substantial interests in the country.
Sudan is China's third-largest trading partner in Africa and China is uniquely positioned to exert influence over the north-south conflict, given its efforts to maintain friendly ties with the southern region to protect Chinese oil investments while remaining a key political ally of Sudan's government in the north.
"China shares our interest in peace in Sudan," Nuland said. "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."
She acknowledged that China may believe its economic and commercial interests have more importance but noted wryly that "it's hard to have money and oil when there's no peace."
Her comments came as President Barack Obama met with his special envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, two days after expressing grave concern about the situation in an audio message to the Sudanese people and urging northern and southern leaders "to show the courage and vision that true leadership demands" and "to choose peace."
In his meeting with Lyman, the White House said Obama "expressed deep concern over the violence and the lack of humanitarian access, and he underscored the urgent need to get back to cooperative negotiations" fully implement the 2005 accord, including resolution of the status of disputed regions of Abyei and South Kordofan.
New fighting was reported on Wednesday in Abyei, the latest in a series of clashes that have occurred since the north's military invaded the region in May. And, aid workers and a U.N. report said fighting has erupted in South Kordofan, leaving at least 25 people dead.
On Tuesday, Lyman and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, meeting with African Union negotiators trying to forge a deal between the north and south governments that would see Ethiopian peacekeepers deployed to Abyei. An agreement in principle has been reached, but a final deal has proven elusive.
Nuland said the U.S. was optimistic that an agreement on a ceasefire and peacekeepers could be done but stressed that the situation was fluid and still developing.
The White House said Lyman would be returning to the region this month to continue his efforts.
Meanwhile, the Enough Project, an advocacy group, called for the U.S. to provide air defense systems to southern Sudan to help the region protect itself and deter escalating violence in the north-south border region, where the north has attacked on multiple fronts.
"War has resumed in Sudan due to the offensive military operations launched by Khartoum," said the Enough Project's John Prendergast, who contended that a U.S. policy of rewards for Khartoum has failed. "President Obama should deploy immediate consequences for Khartoum's escalation and in the absence of international support to protect civilians provide support to south Sudan to deter further air attacks."
Prendergast's group said that former President George W. Bush in 2008 approved a request from southern Sudan to provide air defense capabilities but that the request was never fulfilled. The group said a "rigorous vetting" of southern military units for human rights concerns should be a precondition for providing anti-aircraft weaponry, and that use of the weapons should be closely monitored.
Associated Press writer Jason Straziuso in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.