China a force for peace in Sudan?

outh Sudan gained its independence on the 9th of July. A week earlier President al-Bashir of Northern Sudan was in China meeting with senior party figures. China has been Sudan’s most valued ally over the past 5 years as Beijing has shielded the North Sudanese leadership from criticism over conflict in Darfur, and has been a close partner in developing the oil industry.

Despite ongoing tension between the North and the South, China has managed to maintain a relationship with both sides. Sudanese oil is vital to China’s strategic interests. With South Sudan holding 75% of the known resources in the former unified Sudan, Beijing has been keen to develop a relationship. China took in 79% of South Sudan’s total oil exports last year.

“Although China and the Republic of South Sudan are separated by thousands of miles, the two peoples have a deep traditional friendship and common wish to enhance friendly exchanges,” Hu Jintao told South Sudanese President Salva Kiir in a telephone call.

Meanwhile North Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti accompanying al-Bashir in China said, “We are now in need of Chinese support because the West instead of supporting us is now doing what I can describe as a challenge”. Beijing has managed to position itself as a key ally to both markets at the expense of Western powers. While the efforts of the ICC in prosecuting leaders who commit war crimes are undoubtedly noble, they have had little clear positive on influencing al-Bashir a year later.

Despite the intention to indict war criminals irrespective of nationality, it is unlikely that the ICC will investigate calls by Human RIghts Watch to investigate torture under the most recent Bush regime. Nor is it likely that the US would cooperate with charges if they were levelled.

In a region scarred by continuing conflict, the dual relationship China holds with the North and South could be a powerful force for peace. China’s interests on both sides of the border and its power in the affairs of both countries mean it will lobby hard for peaceful relations between President Kir and President al-Bashir. Having worked for a long time to build oil security through these relationships China has a very strong interest in preventing conflict.

In interviews with official Chinese media, al-Bashir combined reassurances about his commitment to a peaceful secession of the south, with a warning that the division could still go wrong.

While other Western powers largely ignored the fledgling government in Juba, China has been active in constructing government buildings, and building relationships. The Sudanese oil resource is so important to China that Beijing has also been engaged in a long running battle to build and operate the planned Lamu port and infrastructure corridor through Kenya and Uganda.

While the country has only recently gained full independence, regional and international powers have for a long while been planning for South Sudan’s debut. Currently all of Sudan’s oil infrastructure runs north to refineries in Port Sudan, but understandably the South is keen to diversify its outlets. Kenya is only too willing to oblige.

The Lamu corridor has long been mooted in order to carry Sudanese crude to a modern port on the East African coast. The competition to build this port has largely been between Japan and China, as investors have brought nearly $5bn to secure infrastructure in the region. This includes an oil refinery, a sea port and a 1,400 kilometre oil pipeline that will link Juba to Lamu. An accompanying train line has also been discussed.

The root of the South Sudanese succession is in the country’s isolation and sidelining, brought about by the dominant national interest in Khartoum. Opening up an alternative trade corridor to the South will break Juba’s reliance on the north and allow it more control over the receipts from its oil wealth. For China, a new port at Lamu will also avoid funneling Chinese shipping through the Gulf of Aden, while for Kenya it will open an easy and reliable new fuel supply, and new markets for its manufacturing industries.

There has also been a great deal of investment in the 1,130 kilometre road that links Nairobi to Juba to cut down journey times which currently take up to 26 hours. Business Daily quotes the combined cost of the projects at an estimated $10 billion (Sh750 billion) or 34 per cent of Kenya’s Sh2.2 trillion gross domestic product (GDP).

The succession of South Sudan was inevitable considering the former Sudan’s fractious political past. While Western attempts to effect improvements in the Sudanese situation through the ICC are worthy, China’s carefully built trade relationships may in reality prove more effective at maintaining peace.