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Oil-hungry China welcomes alleged war criminal al-Bashir

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BEIJING — If there’s one thing that gets discussed a lot regarding China’s relationship with Sudan, it’s the oil interest.

As the world’s largest energy consumer and one of the fastest-growing economies, China needs oil.  Since 1995, it has invested heavily in Sudan’s oil infrastructure via the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

“We cannot exaggerate the importance of Sudan oil to the whole of China’s oil input,” said Dr. He Wenping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Sudan isn't China's leading supplier in Africa; that honor more recently has gone to Angola.  But Sudan does supply roughly seven per cent of the mainland's oil needs.

In return, Beijing has provided military support — most visibly in the form of weaponry — to Khartoum.

The oil-for-arms relationship provoked a huge international outcry in relation to the Darfur conflict.  Western governments and human rights groups called on China to stop supplying small arms to Sudan (although Russia was just as, if not more, culpable) and to use its leverage with Sudan to end the wholesale mass killings.

But what's more interesting than simply China's oil interests in Sudan is the way in which those interests are affecting Beijing's foreign policy.

Liu Jin / AP

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, center, arrives at Beijing International Airport on Tuesday.

Wither non-interference?
Despite Beijing’s adherence to the non-interference principle (one of five which have guided diplomacy under the People’s Republic of China since 1954), the Chinese leadership has actually taken small steps away from its longstanding standard.

“The global business activities of Chinese firms are heightening domestic and international pressures on the Chinese government to protect Chinese assets and citizens abroad and to help resolve international crises,” writes Erica Downs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

Sudan is a textbook case.  (Libya is another stark example — as our bureau chief, Eric Baculinao, wrote about last week.)

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir embarked on a four-day visit to China on Tuesday, despite global censure.  There are, after all, two international warrants for his arrest on charges of genocide and war crimes.

But the Chinese argue that Bashir's arrest could further destabilize the region and that keeping diplomatic channels — and its doors to the Sudanese president — open is key.  “If you couldn’t even have any dialogue with the sitting president of this country, how can you guarantee peaceful transition, especially now the south Sudan is going to get its independence,” said He.

Beijing has good reason to want a lasting peace between north and south following the latter’s secession on July 9.  Much of the oil lies in the impoverished, underdeveloped south.

But transporting the oil out requires the use of what little infrastructure exits in the north, including a key pipeline.  Not to mention the fact that China has invested so much in the north and in its relations with Bashir, who's expected to brief Chinese President Hu Jintao Wednesday on the latest situation. 

Although his arrival to Beijing was inexplicably delayed by a day, Bashir told the state-run Xinhua news agency that relations between the two sides would not be weakened by the south’s imminent independence.

Perhaps another indication of “pragmatism” at play, the Chinese government is sanguine about its apparent reversal on the non-interference principle. 

Last week, its special representative for African Affairs, Liu Guijin told reporters that China was using “a new form of diplomatic engagement” to work with north and south Sudan.