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.