June 13, 2011 | World Defense Review

Khartoum’s Partners in Beijing

Last week, some 200 baton-wielding policemen prevented Mia Farrow and members “Dream for Darfur” group from holding a rally near the site of Cambodia's “killing fields” to urge the People's Republic of China (PRC) to use its influence on the Sudanese regime to end the conflict in the African country's Darfur region that no less a figure than former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan characterized as “the world's worst humanitarian crisis.” An aide Cambodian Premier Hun Sen explained that the Hollywood actress was engaged in a “stunt to smear China” since her group, which as part of its international campaign has held similar events in Chad, Rwanda, Armenia, Germany and Bosnia, tried to light an Olympic-style torch (Beijing is hosting this year's Summer Olympics). Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu agreed, telling the audience at a routine January 24 press conference that the actress's action was “of apparent political intention and purpose to link the Darfur with the Olympics,” a tactic which she said “violates the Olympic spirit and principle, and will never succeed.”

While I share the healthy skepticism of the efficacy of celebrity forays into foreign policy evinced in a recent National Interest essay by Professor Daniel Drezner of Tuft's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, in this case I think Ms. Farrow has a point while Ms. Jiang doth protest too much. While Beijing's ties to Sudan are predicated upon a complex series of political and economic considerations, it is nonetheless true that without mainland China, it is rather unlikely that President Umar Hassan al-Bashir would be in any position to pose much of a threat to Darfuris, South Sudanese, or any other of the peoples long-oppressed by his Arab-dominated Islamist regime.

Although with Sino-Sudanese relations go back nearly five decades – in 1959, Sudan became the third African country, after Egypt and Morocco, to recognize China's communist rulers – the close ties between the two countries are of a more recent vintage. 1989 found both Beijing and Khartoum diplomatically isolated, the former for its brutal suppression of student protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4 of that year, the latter for the bloody coup with which the National Islamic Front (NIF; now the National Congress Party, NCP) seized power on June 30. Chinese arms transfers and low-interest loans to Sudan's beleaguered new rulers paved the way for them to issue an invitation to develop the African country's vast oil reserves which, although discovered by Chevron in 1978, went largely unexploited due the pressures on Western companies to boycott the regime – thus opening the way for what has now amounted to a Chinese investment of over $10 billion.

By 1996, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) was pumping oil from Block 6, which straddles Sudan's Kordofan and South Darfur states and whose production it controls almost exclusively (it owns a 95 percent stake). From this beachhead, taking advantage of the fact that conflict and the taint of state sponsorship of terrorism largely kept Western firms out of the country during these years, Chinese firms made considerable inroads. CNPC acquired a 40 percent stake in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, which holds concessions in Blocks 1, 2, and 4, including the Unity and Heglig fields straddling the line between the North and South Sudan, and a 41 percent stake in the Petrodar Operating Company, which has holdings in Blocks 3 and 7 to the southeast (another Chinese firm, the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), holds an additional 6 percent stake in Petrodar). CNPC also owns a one-third share of the Red Sea Petroleum Operating Company, which controls Block 15, offshore to the southeast of Port Sudan. Last year CNPC acquired joint rights – together with the Sudan National Petroleum Corporation (Sudapet), an entity wholly owned by the Sudanese Ministry of Energy and Mining, and Indonesia's State Oil Company (Pertamina) to Block 13, offshore to the northeast of Port Sudan. Perhaps most controversially CNPC has recently begun trial production at an isolated part of its Block 6 concession that is located entirely in southern Darfur.

Moreover, the overseas capital infusion has permitted Sudan to create a significant hydrocarbon infrastructure. CNPC's construction division, the China Petroleum Engineering and Construction Corporation (CPECC), for example, built a 1,600-kilometer-long, 70-centimeter wide pipeline from the Heglig oilfield to the Marsa al-Bashair terminal near Port Sudan over which flows much of Sudan's estimated 500,000 barrels per day worth of exports. In addition, a refinery near Khartoum, renovated by the Chinese two years ago, can handle another 100,000 barrels per day, which are delivered from the Fula oilfields in Western Kordofan via a 740-kilometer-long pipeline installed by CPECC. All this increased production capacity directly benefits China which has been a net petroleum importer since 1993 and which, while it currently accounts for only about 8 percent of worldwide oil consumption is responsible for 30 percent of global growth in demand. The PRC sources about one-third of all its energy needs to Africa, with perhaps one-quarter of its African oil imports originating in Sudan's oilfields, a volume of dependence second only to its reliance on Angola. Conversely, by 2006, China was the destination for some 75 percent of Sudan's total petroleum exports. Although China's share of overall Sudanese production is expected to decline relatively over time as more supply is brought to market, other countries compete for the resource, and the PRC itself diversifies its suppliers, it should be noted that official data released last week showed that the volume of crude exports from Sudan to China in 2007 was 113 percent higher than it was in 2006.

As Sudanese oil production steadily increased under Chinese tutelage, the resources available to the NIF/NCP regime were likewise augmented. Between 1999, when the first barrels of Nile Blend crude began flowing to the Red Sea, and 2001, the regime saw its revenues increase a staggering 875 percent. While other rulers (like the monarchs of the United Arab Emirates who are rapidly transforming their oil-rich statelets into the entrepôt of choice between Europe and Asia) may use a windfall from natural resource extraction to develop their countries or even simply expropriate it for themselves and their kinfolk (like Equatorial Guinea's despicable despot Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasago), Sudan's northern Arab Muslim oligarchs had to contend with the fact that precious little of their wealth came from their part of the country. Currently, about one-quarter of all petroleum produced in Sudan comes from the contested Abyei district (which, as I pointed out in my column last week, explains the reluctance of President Bashir to honor his commitments with respect to the territory), while almost all the rest hails from or borders South Sudan. Thus Khartoum's need to use its wealth to squash any grassroots attempt which even hint at devolution. Officials of the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) have complained repeatedly that, in Abyei and other border, the Khartoum regime is intent on “carving the oil out of South Sudan.”

And the authorities in Beijing, having not only partnered up with those in Khartoum to develop Sudan's hydrocarbon industry, but also paid out billions of dollars for the oil, are only too happy to get back some of their money by selling weapons to the Sudanese military. After all, as I reported here last summer, arms sales abroad – even to questionable regimes – serve a wide array of Chinese foreign and domestic interests.

Chinese sales to Sudan began in the late 1980s, when Beijing sold armament to then-Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, great-grandson of Muhammad Ahmad, the alleged “Mahdi” whose troops besieged Khartoum and killed General Charles “Chinese” Gordon in 1885. The British officer had acquired his moniker by fighting in Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s and 1860s, a historical datum not forgotten by Chinese officials: I once heard one envoy from Beijing, carefully omitting both the fact that Gordon was decorated for his services by the Tongzhi Emperor and that he had tried to end slavery in Sudan, expatiate on how the general's career was illustrative of Sino-Sudanese fellowship in the struggle against European “imperialists.”

The tempo both of Khartoum's procurement program and its military campaigns against restive regions and peoples picked up once Bashir came to power, much to the delight of Sudan's friends in Beijing. According to British researchers, in 1991 alone, for example, the PRC delivered $300 million worth of armaments to Sudan, including consignments of 1,000-pound high-altitude bombs accompanied by a training team from the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to instruct Sudanese pilots on how to use the munitions – which the latter did to deadly effect against both Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and civilian targets in South Sudan during the late 1990s. China subsequently became Sudan's largest arms supplier, selling or trading for oil a full array of goods from ammunition for 122 mm howitzers to armored trucks to T-59 tanks to Shenyang J-8 single-seat fighters and F-7 supersonic fighter jets. More recently, in an evasion of various UN and other international arms embargoes against Sudan, China also provided the technical expertise which enabled the regime to set up a string of weapons factories in the environs of Khartoum. (It should be noted that Chinese leaders do not rely exclusively on their well-armed Sudanese friends to protect the PRC's investment in the African country: a 2006 report prepared for the Congressionally-mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission found that “armed Chinese security personnel are routinely present at key oil facilities in Sudan” which hosts “between 5,000 and 10,000 Chinese workers, some of them decommissioned People's Liberation Army soldiers charged with protecting China's investments”; other sources suggest that the number of these out-of-uniform troops may currently be somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000.)

Oil and arms represent only a part – albeit perhaps the most significant component – of the Sino-Sudanese partnership. Not only do Chinese manufactured goods account for one-fifth of all of Sudan's imports, but Chinese construction companies are landing major contracts to build up the country's infrastructure. Last year, Sudan awarded a subsidiary of the China Railway Engineering Group a $1.15 billion contract for a 762-kilometer rail link between Khartoum and Port Sudan. Of course, not all construction is directly remunerative as the PRC still undertakes “prestige projects” for propaganda value. Just two weeks ago, Sudanese President Bashir literally danced across the Nile during the inauguration of the “Bridge of Chinese-Sudanese Friendship,” a 20-meter-wide, 440-meter-long structure that is the only span across the river between Khartoum and the border with Egypt. According to the Chinese ambassador to Sudan, Li Chengwen, the bridge was a symbol of Beijing's ongoing commitment to Khartoum: “The Chinese government and its people both wish Sudan to continue realizing development and prosperity, and will continue to provide various kinds of assistance to Sudan.” As if to back up the envoy's promise, last Friday the two countries signed a deal for an agricultural technology center to be built on 60 hectares at Al-Qadarif in eastern Sudan and operated by a firm to be designated by Beijing.

Meanwhile, with partial support from the China Export Import (Exim) Bank in the form of some $350 million, the China Water and Electric Engineering Corporation and the China National Water Resources and Hydropower Engineering Corporation landed the largest single overseas construction project that Chinese industry has ever been awarded, the $1.8 billion contract for the construction of the Merowe High Dam at Hamdab, 350 kilometers north of Khartoum at the Nile River's fourth cataract, a little south of the new “Bridge of Chinese-Sudanese Friendship.” When completed, the 9-kilometer dam will create a 174-kilometer-long reservoir and triple Sudan's electric generating capacity. Of course, a project of this scale exacts a considerable toll: at least 60,000 Afro-Arab Manasir tribesmen who have lived for generations along the fertile banks of the Nile are being displaced by the rising waters and being forcibly moved by the Sudanese government to new settlements out in the Nubian Desert. Last August, UN Special Rapporteur Miloon Kothari issued a statement expressing his concern that the “affected people have claimed that they received no warning that water levels would be raised and that no assistance from Government authorities has been forthcoming since their houses were destroyed,” noting he had “received numerous reports of violations of civil and political rights due to the government's response to community protests,” including “the shooting of unarmed demonstrators, arbitrary arrests of activists, and repressive measures against the press when journalists have attempted to cover the events.” Such protests, however, have had little discernible impact on ongoing expansion of the Sino-Sudanese partnership. In fact, as I reported here a year ago, during his February 2007 visit to Khartoum, PRC President Hu Jintao offered an additional aid package to his Sudanese counterpart that included a $13 million interest-free loan for the construction – by a Chinese firm, no doubt – of a new presidential palace.

Given the depth and breadth of these ties, it is no wonder that not only have activists like Mia Farrow have zeroed in on Beijing as Khartoum's enabler, but also that the PRC has hitherto been extremely reluctant to sanction any pressure on its ally, whether over the Darfur conflict or in response to the various breaches of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the South Sudanese. Even were it not the case that it had extensive economic and political investments to protect, China still would have been wary of more vigorous action, if for no other reason its longstanding preference for non-interference in the what it essentially views as the domestic concerns of another sovereign state. After all, with its own restive minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet to think about, how could Beijing not insist on state sovereignty and non-intervention? While the PRC has thus far not had to veto any UN Security Council resolutions affecting its partner, the mere threat of such an action has been sufficient to convince the other members of the decision making body to water down their draft language – and even then, China has abstained on more than one-third of the votes which have been taken since the Darfur conflict began five years ago.

While it is loath to admit that any shifts have occurred, there is evidence that Beijing has taken a more pragmatic approach, motivated less by a change of heart than a need to secure its short-term interests. With the 2008 Summer Olympics envisioned by its organizers as a celebration of Chinese national pride and the mainland regime's legitimacy, nothing is being left to chance. Even the scheduling of the opening ceremonies has a propaganda purpose: the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year being chosen because the number eight is especially auspicious in Chinese numerology. The last thing Beijing wants is for the spectacle to be labeled the “Genocide Olympics” as Mia Farrow and her son Ronan entitled a Wall Street Journal op-ed they penned in March 2007. So last May, the PRC appointed Liu Guijin, former Chinese ambassador to South Africa, as its special representative for African affairs with a mandate to deal with Darfur-related issues. Since then, while still adhering to its traditional stance that international peacekeepers can only deploy with the consent of the host government, China has convinced Sudan to allow the transformation of the moribund African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) into a hybrid African Union/United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) that is – at least theoretically – more robust. In November 2007, the PLA even contributed the first elements of what will be a 315-member military engineering unit to support UNAMID.

While some American officials – like as former special presidential envoy for Darfur Andrew Natsios who claimed in an interview that “China is being constructive, using its leverage with the Sudanese government” – Darfuris and other Sudanese have been less sanguine. Abdel Aziz el-Nur Asher, commander of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the Darfuri rebel forces, declared in an Agence France-Presse interview that “China is complicit in the genocide being carried out in Darfur and the Chinese are here to protect their oil interests in Kordofan.”

The JEM commander's analysis of Chinese motivations is probably closer to the truth than the American diplomat's. Thus it is hard to disagree with the thesis of Nicholas Krystof's New York Times column last week:

    Without his Chinese shield, Mr. Bashir would be more likely to make concessions to Darfur rebels and negotiate seriously with them, and he would no longer have political cover to resume war against South Sudan. That would make long-term peace more likely in Darfur and also in South Sudan…those of us who admire China's accomplishments find it difficult to give credit when Beijing simultaneously underwrites the ultimate crime of genocide. China deserves an international celebration to mark its historic re-emergence as a major power. But so long as China insists on providing arms to sustain a slaughter based on tribe and skin color, this will remain, sadly, The Genocide Olympics.

Fortunately, this is one story that should have a happy ending, especially if the United States exhibits strategic vision and leadership to match the ideals exemplified in its moral outrage at the regime-driven violence in Darfur and other parts of Sudan in recent years. South Sudan has right to secession from the unitary Sudanese state that is enshrined in the CPA and, as I have observed here previously, will likely to be exercised in three years, if not sooner. The nascent state of South Sudan will control vast natural resources. If Juba gets Abyei, as it is entitled to, it will control almost all of Sudan's known oilfields (with an estimated proven reserve of 6.4 billion barrels) except for the unproven offshore blocks on the Red Sea; if it doesn't, it will still hold around three-quarters of them. And if the South Sudanese succeed in striking out on their own on these terms, it will be very hard to convince other peoples of the country to voluntarily remain bound to the NCP regime, especially if they realize that Khartoum will lack the resources to finance its wars of oppression against them. In any event, the communist mandarins in Beijing can look forward to seeing the end of their lucrative and deadly partnership with the murderous thugs in Khartoum. That moment cannot come soon enough, for the peoples of Sudan, for their friends abroad, and for the national interests of the United States.

— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).

In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.

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