The dispute has cut off a significant source of oil to fuel China’s booming economy and imperiled billions of dollars in Chinese investments. It has also threatened Beijing’s diplomatic and economic relations with both the countries and strained the boundaries of a long-standing Chinese policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other nations.
“This new reality has left China uncomfortably stuck in the middle of a tug of war,” said Zach Vertin, a Sudan analyst with the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit think tank. “Both sides have attempted to leverage the Chinese oil interest and draw them in line with their own interests.”
The saga playing out in one of the world’s poorest regions highlights the troubles an increasingly prosperous China faces as it tries to adjust to tumultuous change: from Sudan to Libya, Syria and Burma, Beijing has resisted what it portrays as Western-style meddling. But by staying on the sidelines, China has jeopardized its interests and image as a friend of the developing world. Many Arab nations, for example, were furious when China joined Russia in blocking United Nations action on Syria.
At the center of the struggle between the two Sudans is oil, which until last summer was controlled by Khartoum but which now lies mostly within the borders of the world’s newest state, the Republic of South Sudan. China is the biggest player in the oil industry on both sides of the frontier: It holds big stakes in the main oil fields in the south and in pipelines and other infrastructure in the north.
After years of providing diplomatic cover and weapons to a regime in Khartoum ostracized by the West, China must face up to a simple fact, said Pagan Amum, the secretary general of South Sudan’s ruling party: “The master has changed. It was Khartoum. Now it is Juba.”
China’s efforts to shift gears in Sudan began in 2005, with the signing of a peace deal between Khartoum and southern rebels. The agreement ended what was Africa’s longest civil war and paved the way for South Sudan’s independence in July. But officials today say that the Chinese have not done enough to erase suspicions rooted in Beijing’s long support for Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, an indicted war-crimes suspect who used Chinese-supplied arms in trying to prevent the south from seceding.
South Sudan, which depends on oil for 98 percent of its revenue, insists that it wants to remain partners with China. But South Sudanese officials warn that if Beijing does not align its interests with their country, they will seek out U.S. and Western oil companies.