Can China Help Avert a Looming War in Sudan?

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Chinese President Hu Jintao (C) and Sudan's leader Omar al-Bashir (L) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 29, 2011. (Photo: Liu Jin / AFP / Getty Images)

When you’re wanted by the International Criminal Court and subject to possible arrest when abroad, travel can be a problem. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Omar Hassan al-Bashir trip to Beijing this week ran into problems from the start. Sudan’s president arrived a day late after his flight from Tehran was forced to turn back on Monday while flying over Turkmenistan, Sudan’s Foreign Ministry said, without specifying why al-Bashir’s flight was blocked. Al-Bashir, who has been accused by the ICC of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in connection with the conflict in the Darfur region, faces arrest if he visits a country that is party to the ICC. Turkmenistan has not ratified the Rome Statute that set up the ICC, nor has China or the U.S. But the U.S. and human rights groups have been critical of China’s decision to host al-Bashir, and Sudanese officials have accused the U.S. of trying to thwart his travel plans.

The international criticism of al-Bashir has been brushed off by the Chinese government, which gave him a presidential welcome in Beijing on Wednesday. “I believe your current trip will consolidate and develop the traditional Chinese-Sudanese friendship and promote substantial cooperation in various fields,” Chinese President Hu Jintao told al-Bashir, according to the state-run Xinhua news service. With South Sudan set to become an independent nation on July 9 following a referendum in January, China has been eager to ensure that its investments aren’t disturbed by the upcoming secession. In 2009 China was the single largest customer of crude oil from Sudan, importing 52% of its production, which made Sudan China’s fifth largest foreign oil supplier, according to the International Energy Agency. “China has many ongoing projects in Sudan, and also imports oil from Sudan,” says Yin Gang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “In terms of politics, Sudan is now set to divide into two countries, so there are some issues that China needs to coordinate with them. I think Bashir’s visit is nothing more than an ordinary state visit.”

But Bashir’s visit comes at an extraordinary time. A dispute over the Abyei region, which lies near the border between north and the south, threatens to push the region back into all-out war. In May the north’s army seized Abyei, which has oil. The south is resource rich but infrastructure poor, holding about 80% of the country’s oil but reliant on refineries and pipelines in the north to bring the supplies to market. The two sides have yet to reach an accord on how to share revenues that were previously split, adding an additional point of tension. While Sudan’s oil is important to China, China is much more important to Sudan as its leading customer of both oil and non-oil exports. That gives China influence with al-Bashir that the U.S. and Europe lack, and puts it in an important position to urge peace, says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the North East Asia director for the International Crisis Group. “China has vital stakes in preventing Africa’s largest country from plunging back into civil war just as South Sudan gains its long-awaited independence,” she says. “The last war between the North and South lasted 22 years and killed more than 2 million. China has unique leverage with the North, and needs to use it. Helping to ensure peace in Sudan would help offset the reputational costs to Beijing of inviting an ICC indictee to visit.”

In 2007 China moved away from its traditional position of non-interference in other nation’s affairs and urged Sudan to find a path to peace in Darfur. Once again, Beijing has the chance to step up. For all the criticism China has taken for al-Bashir’s visit, it may still show there’s some value in welcoming an indicted war criminal to town.

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