Sudan and South Sudan's slow yet deadly war of blood for oil reserves has ensnared Africa's slyest empire builder: Communist China.
The two Sudans' complex background helps illustrate China's emerging diplomatic quandaries in resource-rich but politically fractured sub-Saharan Africa. In July 2011, South Sudan separated from Sudan. Independence, the result of a legitimate southern plebiscite (guaranteed by the 2005 peace agreement that ended the north-south civil war), left South Sudan with 75 percent of the former united Sudan's oil fields. Southern independence cost the (northern) Sudan government in Khartoum millions in royalty revenue. It could also cost Khartoum clout with China. China is a major buyer of Sudanese oil -- north, south, wherever. And more on that in a moment.
The 2005 peace deal did not fully demarcate the Sudan-South Sudan border. In May 2011, Khartoum's forces, backed by tanks and heavy artillery, attacked the disputed Abyei region. That attack purposefully threatened the south's oil fields. Tens of thousands of pro-south Abyei residents fled south.
Since independence, the slow war between the Sudans has continued, with Sudan, the stronger military power, bullying and bloodying its oil-rich but geographically isolated southern neighbor. Both sides accuse the other of supporting rebel groups. South Sudan accuses the north of fomenting cattle raiding wars among southern tribes; there's reason to believe the charge. The north says the south supports rebels in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, two border states where many tribespeople definitely prefer Black African South Sudan to Arabized, Muslim Khartoum. The south says it does not support the anti-Khartoum rebels.
Khartoum controls the pipeline and seaport through which South Sudan exports its oil and has charged such high transport fees that in January the south said it would quit producing oil.
Oil-buying China has urged the Sudans to end their dispute -- and keep pumping. China's domestic political stability depends on expanding wealth; its economy needs African oil and ore. So China's African empire builders have an operating plan. As Chinese politburo member Jia Qinglin recently told a meeting of the African Union, "China will firmly support African countries in their efforts to uphold sovereignty and independence and resolve African issues on their own."
The savvy 21st century Chinese oil and ore buyers, taking a trick from Mao Zedong's Cold War appeal to Third World nations, portray themselves as being different from 19th century European imperialists who colonized Africa. Beijing's empire builders are hands-off fellows, and their doctrine is "non-interference." Local politics aren't their problem. They are pure customers. Oh, Beijing will help the sovereigns and independents build infrastructure to mine and ship the resources, though (to ensure quality of course) they want Chinese companies to do the work, not locals. That's the gist of a $10 billion deal China cut with the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the chagrin of many Congolese workers. China will also sell the sovereigns weapons, to deal with rebels who threaten resources, even if the sovereigns are genocidal thugs.
Remember Sudan's Darfur war, that genocidal conflict? Darfur's fitful struggle continues, despite U.N. peacekeepers. China's presence on the U.N. Security Council gives Sudan political cover for prosecuting its Darfur war. Beijing's "non-interference" policy also indirectly protects Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who faces an International Criminal Court warrant for war crimes committed in Darfur. Losing control of the southern oil fields means Khartoum's (and Bashir's) influence with China's cash-and-carry communists could diminish.
Cash buys politicians and police in Khartoum and in Juba, capital of South Sudan, but among Sudan's disenchanted tribes, it cannot buy peace. Last week, rebels in Sudan's South Kordofan state kidnapped 29 Chinese road construction workers. As I write this column, a spokesman for the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) just assured Beijing that the hostages are stashed in a "safe area."
The phrase "safe area," however, does not apply to South Kordofan or any other state along the disputed Sudan-South Sudan border. Several tribes in South Kordofan see Khartoum as Muslim imperialists who've been trying to crush them for a millennium. Many tribespeople see both governments as hopelessly corrupt, and the non-interfering Chinese deal with those governments. In their eyes, the Chinese have chosen sides -- which, in fact, they have.