Oil interests tie China to Sudan leader Bashir, even as he faces genocide charges

June 22, 2011

Venturing outside Africa on his first official journey since the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on genocide charges, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir will visit China next week confident of one thing: He won’t get arrested.

Bashir sorted that out two months ago when he sent a trusted aide to Beijing for a meeting with Zhou Yongkang, the Chinese Politburo member responsible for law and order — and the former head of the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), an enormous state oil company with billions of dollars invested in Sudan.

Oil has for years been the bedrock of China’s warm relations with Bashir, who was first indicted by the ICC in 2008, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to murder, rape, torture, ethnic cleansing and other actions in Darfur. On a visit to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, in 2009, shortly after the ICC issued an initial warrant for Bashir’s arrest, Zhou toured a Chinese-funded refinery and declared himself “an old friend of the Sudanese president.” A second arrest warrant for Bashir on three counts of genocide followed a few months later.

Today, however, China’s once axiomatic belief that Bashir offers the best guarantee of its oil interests in Sudan is being undermined by a new reality: Roughly 75 percent of Sudan’s oil wealth lies in the south of the country, an area that on July 9 will officially become a separate state.

This, said Yin Gang, a researcher at the Institute of West Asia and African Studies, means that China has to balance its previously wholehearted support for Bashir — the only sitting head of state indicted by the ICC — with a “close relationship with the south,” a region “very abundant in natural resources.” China has sent diplomats to the southern capital of Juba and, as part of its outreach to a secessionist movement it long shunned, recently funded a hospital in the southern town of Bentiu.

The shift is part of a broader trend in Chinese diplomacy as its oft-stated but increasingly frayed doctrine of “noninterference” in the internal affairs of other states clashes with China’s determination to protect growing economic interests around the world.

On Wednesday, for example, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met in Beijing with Mahmoud Jibril, the visiting leader of Libya’s opposition, a departure from China’s custom of dealing only with governments, not their foes. China, Yang said, views the opposition Transitional National Council as “an important dialogue participant,” noting that it “has become more representative by the day.”

China evacuated more than 30,000 Chinese workers from Libya when fighting erupted, and its outreach to Moammar Gaddafi’s enemies is motivated in part by Beijing’s concern over the future of dozens of suspended but potentially lucrative projects in the oil-rich nation.

Not good for business

China isn’t about to ditch Bashir, with whom it has far closer relations than it has with Gaddafi. It still needs access to a pipeline that runs through the north of Sudan and carries oil pumped by CNPC in the south to Chinese and other markets. (China helped build the pipeline.) And some of the oil fields operated by CNPC and others lie in territory that will remain under the control of Khartoum.

But Bashir “is now starting to threaten Chinese investment,” said Douglas H. Johnson, a British expert on Sudan who served on a boundary commission for the disputed, oil-producing Abyei region.

In May, Sudanese troops seized Abyei, which both north and south Sudan claim, and then began attacking supporters of soon-to-be-independent Southern Sudan in the border region of South Kordofan, which also has oil.

The surge in fighting and severe strains on a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war, Johnson said, could prod Beijing to “tell Bashir they don’t like what he is doing, because it threatens their investment and could shut down the oil industry.”

Washington, which has not protested Bashir’s China trip, is hoping economic self-interest will prompt Beijing to lean on the Sudanese leader to curb fighting.

“It’s hard to have money and oil when there’s no peace,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. “We hope that Beijing takes this opportunity to reaffirm the importance of stopping the violence.”

China, which used to be self-sufficient when it came to oil, is now the biggest importer of petroleum after the United States and relies on foreign oil for more than half its needs. The proportion of imports, the International Energy Agency in Paris predicts, will rise to 79 percent by 2030. Sudan and Libya are among China’s top 10 biggest oil suppliers.

According to an April report by the Congressional Research Service, China imports more than 60 percent of Sudan’s oil and is the largest shareholder in the two biggest oil consortiums operating in Sudan, Petrodar and the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co. Petrodar is located entirely in what will be the new state of Southern Sudan; the fields of Greater Nile straddle the border.

China is also Sudan’s main supplier of arms and has big interests in railways and other Sudanese ventures. China’s economic interests in Sudan are so substantial that, according to a 2008 State Department cable published by WikiLeaks, ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told the United States that they trump Beijing’s loyalty to Bashir. China “does not care what happens to Bashir, and would not oppose his arrest if its revenues were not interrupted,” Ocampo was cited as saying in a cable under the heading “China only wants oil, it doesn’t care about Bashir.”

A friend for now

So far, however, Beijing is standing by Bashir, at least in public, and human rights groups, skeptical that China will use its influence to rein in his armed forces and Khartoum-backed gangs, have reacted with outrage to his upcoming trip.

“China should not be rolling out the red carpet for suspected war criminals,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. Beijing “will likely reiterate its standard lines about stability, negotiations and protecting economic development, but this is what they’ve said for quite some time — detached from tougher language or other steps that might help abate the violence.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei on Tuesday defended China’s decision to host Bashir, describing the Monday-to-Thursday visit by a wanted war crimes suspect as “quite reasonable.” He noted that Beijing — like the United States — is not party to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC. Bashir, he added, has been “warmly welcomed” by other countries.

Since the 2008 indictment by the ICC, Bashir has traveled in Africa and the Middle East, mostly for summits, but has been shunned elsewhere. Before heading to China, he was due to visit Malaysia — whose national oil company works with CNPC in Sudan — but he canceled after a senior Malaysian official described him as an “embarrassment.” He will now go instead to Iran, Iranian media reported, and attend the Global Fight Against Terrorism International Summit.

Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

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