Sudan, Africa's biggest country by land area, is a long way from China. Yet in the past decade, the nations have developed a remarkably cosy relationship - one founded on major Chinese commercial interests in the North African nation, chiefly oil.
In recent months, however, these ties have come under increasing international scrutiny, to the point where human rights activists in the United States and Europe are trying to organise a boycott of the summer Olympic Games that China will host next year. Hollywood actress Mia Farrow, who is a UN Children's Fund goodwill ambassador, gave the campaign a publicity boost in March when she branded the Games the 'Genocide Olympics' and urged corporate sponsors to lean on China to do more to halt the conflict in western Sudan's Darfur region.
The groundswell for a boycott was a potential embarrassment for China, which wants to use the Games to showcase its rise in the world. This partly explains why Beijing has shifted its diplomacy on Sudan into higher gear in an effort to show that it supports UN peace initiatives in Darfur, where as many as 450,000 people have died from violence and disease, and about 2.5 million have fled their homes since an armed secessionist revolt began in 2003. Sudan's president, Omar al-Beshir, reacted by arming and unleashing a militia against the rebels.
China - accused by critics of shielding the Sudanese regime from UN sanctions - started to change its approach in October when it voted in favour of a bigger UN peacekeeping presence to buttress a weak African Union force on the ground. Beijing has since offered more than US$10 million in humanitarian aid to Darfur. Earlier this month, it announced that it would send 275 military engineers to help strengthen the international presence.
Last week, China appointed a special representative for African affairs and said his initial focus would be on Darfur. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed the move, calling it 'very helpful' and saying that she expected to see 'a stronger Chinese role' in the region.
If any country has leverage over the Sudanese regime, it is China. While western governments and companies have shunned Sudan, China has stepped into the breach. It has supplied billions of dollars in investment, oil revenue, infrastructure development and arms sales, while providing diplomatic protection to Khartoum in the UN, where China is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, with a right to veto decisions. Sudan reportedly hosts as many as 10,000 Chinese workers, some of them decommissioned military men charged with guarding China's investments, especially oilfields and export facilities - including pipelines.
Oil from Sudan makes up 5 per cent of the rapidly rising amount of crude China must import to meet surging demand. More than half of Sudan's oil exports go to China. Sudanese oil output is rising quickly and is on track to reach 600,000 barrels per day by the end of this year.
China's largest state oil company owns 40 per cent, the biggest single share, of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, a consortium that dominates Sudan's south-central oil fields in partnership with the national energy company and government-linked firms from India and Malaysia.
China bought into the consortium in 1996. As its oil and other economic interests in Sudan grow, so does its concern about the country's chronic instability and the threat this may pose to Chinese assets in the future. No sooner had a peace deal taken hold in Sudan's south in 2005, when serious fighting flared in Darfur where China also has promising oil concessions.
China's claim to be a responsible and increasingly influential global power is on trial in Sudan. An Amnesty International report earlier this month accused both China and Russia of flouting a UN Security Council mandatory ban by sending arms to bolster the Sudanese regime and its Darfur operations. Amnesty said some of the planes and other weapons had been used for indiscriminate attacks in Darfur.
Beijing has denied that its arms supplies breach UN regulations. China is engaged in a balancing act. On the one hand, it wants to avoid international opprobrium. On the other, it wants to protect and expand its valuable interests in Sudan. If Lieutenant-General Beshir continues to obstruct the UN peace initiative in Darfur, this will be a difficult balance to maintain.
Michael Richardson is an energy and security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
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