Darfur has almost become a household word, and with good reason. The first human-made catastrophe of the 21st century, its death count combined with the huge humanitarian crisis staggers the imagination. Whether it’s the 400,000 claimed by some or the 70,000 suggested by the UN in March, the human toll combined with rapes, burned villages and destroyed lives has torn a gaping hole in the fabric of humanity.

A few years ago none other than George Bush, joined by Colin Powell, dared call it genocide, a term the UN along with the African leadership has declined, preferring “crimes against humanity” instead. However in light of the widespread “ethnic cleansing” and systematic violence directed at the African population by Arabic-speaking vigilantes tied to the Bashir government, the difference seems only semantic.

In its outrage, the world community has offered various remedies: intervention, sanctions against the Bashir regime, and UN peacekeeping forces. In the U.S., community and religious organizations have formed powerful coalitions most recently targeting China, a large purchaser of oil and seller of arms to the Sudanese government. Some have launched a divestment campaign aimed at U.S. finance companies that own stock in China’s oil industry. Others have called for actions directed at China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics, suggesting boycotts and protests at the games themselves.

Needless to say, the positions taken by the African Union and other continental players on Darfur must be given careful consideration, an element that seems not to be given much of a hearing in the U.S. Africans, acutely aware of the unfolding tragedy, have been loathe, with good reason, to approve of boycotts, sanctions, pressure on third parties and Western military intervention, viewing them as ill-conceived and harmful. Sanctions and boycotts, in their view, would only strengthen Bashir’s hand, prolonging his rule. In addition, there is a strong feeling that agreement in this case would open the door for similar actions in other difficult areas of the continent. From this point of view, Darfur is one of a number of continental crises. Over the last several years, for example, the death toll in the Congo dwarfs that of Darfur. And yet, some point out, there is no call for intervention there.

Cynical though it may sound, many observers suggest that Sudan’s huge oil reserves are a key factor motivating U.S. government and corporate interest. Writing in the UK Guardian, recently, commentator Mandy Turner attributed U.S. interest in the region to its potential as a cheap and reliable alternative to the increasingly volatile Persian Gulf: “West Africa already supplies about 12 percent of U.S. crude oil imports, and America’s National Intelligence Council predicts that this share will rise to 25 percent by 2015.”

On the other hand, China too has a large stake in and need for African oil. According to Turner, “China is now the second largest consumer of crude oil after the U.S., and was responsible for 40 percent of the global increase in demand between 2001 and 2005. It imports 25 percent of its crude oil from Africa.”

News reports indicate that Sudan sells 70 percent of its oil to China, hence the belief it might be in a position to influence Sudan’s internal policies.

U.S. oil companies, it should be remembered, have been prohibited from operating in the Sudan since the 1997 embargo. The fairly recent accord reached in southern Sudan now opens the door for the entry of U.S. oil corporations. The only things standing in the way are Darfur and antipathy to Bashir. And then, of course, there’s China.

The campaign against China’s Sudanese oil investment must be viewed in this context. While the general divestment movement has many positive elements, the new emphasis on China seems a bit curious. It is true that China has a murky African past (in the Sino/Soviet conflict it supported unsavory and pro-imperialist movements). Indeed, for many decades China prioritized state-to-state relations and national development over and above all other considerations. Beijing’s recent abstention in the Security Council on bringing the janjaweed ringleaders of the massacres to justice smacks strongly of this posture. At the same time it’s also true that in recent months China has undertaken a wide range of mutually beneficial trade agreements with several African countries, widely hailed on the continent.

Recent initiatives by China, including charging a new diplomat with responsibility for Darfur, suggest a growing concern for its world reputation and image. China’s recent diplomatic statements, however, suggesting that there is no starvation in refugee camps and that people of Darfur “thanked China for its investment” give reason for pause. The Sudanese left, including the country’s Communist Party, argues that China’s investment only benefits the bank accounts of the Bashir clique running the government. Beijing, they claim, utilizes no Sudanese labor, preferring instead to import Chinese workers.

Still, it should be recalled that while China has had long-term economic ties with Sudan, it also shares little else with the Khartoum regime, and in a broad sense remains a political and ideological opposite.

U.S. solidarity with Darfur draws on the best traditions of humanitarianism and active concern for others. In the past such concern swelled the ranks of civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. It would do well to draw on the experience of past solidarity in support of African liberation, particularly southern Africa. Consultation and common agreement with the Africans themselves would be a vital step in the right direction. The absence of involvement of key African American organizations and figures in the Darfur movement may in part be explained by the trajectory the U.S.-based Darfur movement has taken on how to resolve the crisis.

Joe Sims (joesims @politicalaffairs.net) is editor of Political Affairs magazine.