LEAL, Sudan -- On this parched and dusty African plain, China's largest energy company is pumping crude oil, sending it 1,000 miles upcountry through a Chinese-made pipeline to the Red Sea, where tankers wait to ferry it to China's industrial cities. Chinese laborers based in a camp of prefabricated sheds work the wells and lay highways across the flats to make way for heavy machinery.
Only seven miles south, the rebel army that controls much of southern Sudan marches troops through this sun-baked town of mud huts. For years, the rebels have attacked oil installations, seeking to deprive the Sudan government of the wherewithal to pursue a civil war that has killed more than 2 million people and displaced 4 million from their homes over the past two decades. But the Chinese laborers are protected: They work under the vigilant gaze of Sudanese government troops armed largely with Chinese-made weapons -- a partnership of the world's fastest-growing oil consumer with a pariah state accused of fostering genocide in its western Darfur region.
Stephen Mayang leans against the house he built in Leal, Sudan, after government troops and Arab militias forced him from his previous home.
(Peter S. Goodman -- The Washington Post)
China's transformation from an insular, agrarian society into a key force in the global economy has spawned a voracious appetite for raw materials, sending its companies to distant points of the globe in pursuit -- sometimes to lands shunned by the rest of the world as rogue states. China's relationship with Sudan has become particularly deep, demonstrating that China's commercial relations are intensifying human rights concerns outside its borders while beginning to clash with U.S. policies and interests.
Sudan is China's largest overseas oil project. China is Sudan's largest supplier of arms, according to a former Sudan government minister. Chinese-made tanks, fighter planes, bombers, helicopters, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades have intensified Sudan's two-decade-old north-south civil war. A cease-fire is in effect and a peace agreement is expected to be signed by year-end. But the fighting in Sudan's Darfur region rages on, as government-backed Arab militias push African tribes off their land.
China in October signed a $70 billion oil deal with Iran, and the evolving ties between those two countries could complicate U.S. efforts to isolate Iran diplomatically or pressure it to give up its ambitions for nuclear weapons. China is also pursuing oil in Angola.
In the case of Sudan, Africa's largest country, China is in a lucrative partnership that delivers billions of dollars in investment, oil revenue and weapons -- as well as diplomatic protection -- to a government accused by the United States of genocide in Darfur and cited by human rights groups for systematically massacring civilians and chasing them off ancestral lands to clear oil-producing areas. The country once gave safe haven to Osama bin Laden and is listed by Washington as a state supporter of terrorism. U.S. companies are prohibited from investing there.
Part of a broader push by China to expand trade and influence across the African continent, its relationship with Sudan also demonstrates the intensity of China's quest for energy security and its willingness to do business wherever it must to lock up oil.
From Kazakhstan to the Middle East, past pursuits have ended in failure as Chinese firms have been aced out by the multinational titans that dominate the energy business. Japan appears set to claim Siberian stocks that China once thought were in hand. The U.S.-led war in Iraq has thrown Chinese oil concessions in that country into doubt.
The pressure to find new sources of oil has grown as China has swelled into the world's second-largest consumer and as production at the largest of its domestic fields is declining. According to government statistics, China's imports have grown from about 6 percent of its oil needs a decade ago to roughly one-third today and are forecast to rise to rise to 60 percent by 2020.
"China confronts foreign competition," said Chen Fengying, an expert at the China Contemporary International Relations Institute, which is based in Beijing and affiliated with the state security system. "Chinese companies must go places for oil where American [and] European companies are not present. Sudan represents this strategy put into practice."
China National Petroleum Corp. owns 40 percent -- the largest single share -- of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co., a consortium that dominates Sudan's oil fields in partnership with the national energy company and firms from Malaysia and India.
From its seat on the United Nations Security Council, China has been Sudan's chief diplomatic ally. In recent months, the council has neared votes on a series of resolutions aimed at pressuring Sudan's predominantly Arab government to protect the African tribes under attack in Darfur and stop support for militias by threatening to sanction its oil sales. China has threatened to veto such actions while watering down the threat of oil sanctions.
"China has a long tradition of friendly relations with Sudan," Wang Guangya, China's ambassador to the U.N., said in a recent interview in New York. He confirmed China's veto threats, though he dismissed as "categorically wrong" suggestions that oil interests were a factor, asserting that the resolutions would have eliminated the Sudan government's incentive to cooperate. China -- itself often criticized on human rights issues -- has a philosophical predisposition against outside pressure.
But Chinese diplomatic experts say oil interests clearly played a role in Beijing's actions at the United Nations.