There are signs that China’s previously rock-solid support for Khartoum might be softening. In a recent interview with Qatar’s al-Raya newspaper, Bashir complained that Beijing had cancelled a loan to his government for a big agricultural development project. China pulled out, the Sudanese president said, because Khartoum was due to repay the money with oil shipments, which had been disrupted by the south’s independence.
Even so, it is unlikely, analysts said, that China would jilt Khartoum for Juba — that would probably alarm other repressive and corrupt regimes, such as those in Angola and Equatorial Guinea, where China has forged highly profitable oil relationships.
“The Chinese are not going to throw away old friends,” Vertin said. “They won’t abandon Sudan. That would be a bad precedent for them.”
Sudan also has some powerful and so far loyal friends in Beijing, though how long this lasts may depend as much on the labyrinthine internal politics of the Communist Party as events in Africa. One of Khartoum’s biggest backers in Beijing for years has been Zhou Yongkang, a member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee responsible for security. In recent days, however, rumors — all unconfirmed — have swirled in Beijing that Zhou is in deep political trouble after the purge last week of a senior party official with whom he is thought to have been allied.
Zhou used to be the head of CNPC, the state oil company, and led its push into Sudan’s oil sector in the 1990s after American and other Western companies pulled out. He has visited Khartoum repeatedly.
Amid mounting anger in Juba over China’s continuing coziness with Khartoum, South Sudan on Feb. 20 expelled Liu Yingcai, the head of Petrodar, a consortium that is majority owned by CNPC.
In a letter, the Juba government accused Liu of colluding with Khartoum to steal South Sudan’s oil and of not fully cooperating with orders to shut down oil production. Petrodar, in a statement, denied the allegations. The consortium said it had ordered staff members “not to comply with the forced lifting” of oil, which it said was done by members of Sudan’s national security forces.
Now, South Sudan has launched an investigation of Petrodar to determine the extent of its role in the oil theft. Juba is also probing the actions of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co., an oil consortium that is 40 percent owned by China and that also may have helped Khartoum steal oil. If the consortiums are found sufficiently guilty, Amum said, their contracts could be terminated.
“It will be an opportunity for others, with possibly even better technology, to come in,” Amum said. “If the Chinese are not with us, we will have another very good story, too. With the Chinese or with others, we will prosper.”
As tensions between the two Sudans grow, China’s predicament becomes more precarious. Last month, Sudan allegedly bombed an oil field at El Nar in South Sudan, nine miles from the jagged, contested border between the two countries, sending Chinese and other foreign workers maintaining the oil wells scrambling for their lives.
“They bombed this place because of the oil,” said Miakol Lual, a local tribal chief. The attack destroyed portions of the oil infrastructure.
“It’s a message to all foreigners: ‘You deal with us, not the other side,’ ” said a foreign supervisor who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the media. Khartoum has denied attacking the field.
In Juba, Chinese expatriates are growing anxious. In January, rebels linked to South Sudan kidnapped 29 Chinese workers in Sudan, releasing them last month. The Chinese Embassy has ordered all its nationals to stay in at night and not discuss anything sensitive with locals.
“Everyone is worried about the situation,” said a Chinese telecommunications worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared he would get fired. “If things get worse, we have made preparations to move out of here.”