BEIJING/KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan’s war crime-indicted president will seek to soothe his most powerful ally’s worries about its investments when he visits China next week, days before Sudan’s oil-rich south splits from the north.
That July 9 secession is the outcome of a January referendum that will see President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his government in the northern capital Khartoum lose three-quarters of the country’s current oil output, roughly 500,000 barrels per day.
Sudan is one of China’s largest foreign supplier of crude oil, making Beijing all the more keen to ensure a smooth transition along the volatile north-south border and that supplies are not interrupted.
“Everyone knows the elephant in the room is China’s investment in Sudan. The security of its interests is a big concern for China,” said He Wenping, an Africa expert at top government think tank the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Khartoum seized the main town in the north-south border region of Abyei on May 21, raising fears the two sides could return to conflict. But Sudan’s military and the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army agreed this week to withdraw forces in favour of Ethiopian peacekeepers.
China has made a general policy of not getting involved in other countries’ domestic affairs, but with the security of its oil imports on the line, China says it has already been a force for stability in Sudan.
China’s special envoy for Africa Affairs and former envoy to Sudan’s conflict-torn Darfur region, Liu Guijin, told reporters on Thursday that China had “done a lot of work to persuade” the north to implement the peace agreement and referendum.
Issues concerning Sudan’s security would certainly be on the agenda during Bashir’s trip, which begins on Monday, he added.
“But no matter how strong the outside pressure, no one can replace the Sudanese parties in making a decision,” Liu said.
Fouad Hikmat, a Sudan analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Khartoum was eager to ensure that its relations with China were solid after the split and would likely seek to reassure Beijing that its investments were safe.
“He’s going to have to go and tell China that these investments are not going to be thrown out. They need to maintain friends at the international level, and therefore China is extremely important,” Hikmat said.
The north and south have yet to come to terms on how to manage the oil industry after the split, but China has been increasingly engaging with leaders from south Sudan, where it has opened a consulate and jumped into several projects.
Much of the oil comes from the south, but most of the refineries, pipelines and ports are in the north.
“China has a half a dozen projects in the south of Sudan, and as it is fully capable of playing on both sides of the street,” said Barry Sautman, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and an expert on China’s role in Africa.
China — Khartoum’s top arms supplier — has been criticised by human rights groups ahead of the visit, who have called on Beijing to arrest Bashir for outstanding war crimes charges against him.
China has shrugged off these concerns, saying it has every right to invite the head of a state with which it has diplomatic relations.
China is in any case not a signatory of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Rome Statute under which Bashir faces an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.
Roger Middleton, a researcher at London’s Chatham House think tank, said Bashir’s connections with major powers like China were all the more important because of the charges. “Politically, it’s very important for Bashir to go abroad to visit a major power. This is certainly more important for Bashir than it is for the Chinese,” he said of the trip when Bashir will meet his counterpart, President Hu Jintao.
Middleton said there was evidence China had in the past pressed Khartoum to “behave differently,” but it was unlikely Bashir would get a dressing-down by Chinese officials.
The charges against Bashir have not stopped him from crossing borders in the past and other counties, such as India, have oil interests in Sudan, making him far from a pariah.
Still, China is an obvious ally for Sudan as a buffer against international pressure because of its U.N. Security Council veto power and its role as Sudan’s top trade partner.
Western powers may be less inclined to look the other way over the ICC arrest warrant, but analysts say the United States, also not party to the Rome Statute, and other countries have eased pressure in hopes the secession will go peacefully.
“China is not a member of the ICC and has no legal obligation to implement an ICC decision,” envoy Liu said.
(This story corrects June 23 story to include missed word in headline)
Editing by Robert Birsel