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News Update
08-12-04, 00:39
The Beijing, Khartoum Connection
by Ellen Bork

New York Sun
August 12, 2004

News stories seem to travel in packs. Stories about China's energy demands and the diverse places Beijing is going to satisfy them have made up one of the larger such herds of the last few months.

Until fairly recently a net oil exporter, China is now the world's second largest oil consumer. Only America consumes more. For now. China's population is nearly five times larger than America's. Its demand for energy is skyrocketing while domestic resources dwindle.

Stories carrying these interesting facts have touched on, but not fully developed, a link to another more urgent story much in the news: the Sudanese government's war against its own people in the Darfur region.

There is a connection. On July 31, the United Nations Security Council adopted a weak resolution criticizing Khartoum and giving the government there 30 days to stop the killing, marauding, and raping of people in the Darfur region by Janjaweed militias the government supports. The relationship between the government and the militias was disclosed by Human Rights Watch. Given Khartoum's role, and the pace of atrocities, the 30-day reprieve seems lenient, or foolhardy.

Yet two countries abstained from even this tentative threat. Pakistan was one; China was the other.

China's uncooperative behavior in the Security Council is so routine that it has become nearly unremarkable. While France came in for criticism for watering down the resolution, at least it voted for it. By contrast, it is generally accepted that, fearing precedents that might one day be applied to Tibet, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, Beijing blocks or resists U.N. approval for sanctions and forceful intervention - even to stop atrocities against civilians.

But in the case of Sudan, it should be understood that U.N. action would bump up against not only China's self-serving principle of noninterference but also its financial interests.

At a time when Western oil companies have backed away from Sudan over human rights concerns, China is a major customer for and leading investor in Sudan's oil industry. Since the 1990s, Chinese state-owned companies have been deeply involved, building wells, a refinery, and a pipeline nearly 1,000 miles long. Ten thousand Chinese workers were brought in to get the job done on schedule. A company official bragged to the Wall Street Journal that the work was done at no profit.

Although deeply involved in Sudan, China has not used its considerable stake in Sudan to pressure Khartoum to stop the civil war in the south, stop forcible relocations of Sudanese from oil-rich areas, or now, to stop atrocities in Darfur.

The growth of Chinese interests throughout Africa causes concern that indifference may be repeated in other trouble spots. Since 2000, China's trade with Africa has skyrocketed. The general secretary of China's Communist Party, Hu Jintao, has visited Africa twice this year, and his itinerary is revealing. He chose, for example, to visit autocratic, oil-rich Gabon, rather than Benin, a former communist dictatorship that has made the transition to democracy. A Beninois official complained to the South China Morning Post that China's formerly close relationship with Benin was now a thing of the past. "They bypassed us to go to Gabon," he said, "This tells me that China has no friends but rather only interests."

Those interests aren't confined to oil, or even to business, for that matter. An article by David Hale in the summer issue of the National Interest argues that China's hunger for commodities of all kinds will be a major factor determining China's foreign and security policy. China's future dependency on raw materials from overseas, Mr. Hale writes, may lead it to "develop the forces necessary - most importantly a blue-water navy - to protect its interest in these strategically vital areas." Mr. Hale claims that China has sent 4,000 troops to protect the oil pipeline its workers built. And he asks whether China's activities in Sudan are "only the first step to a much larger Chinese military role all over the Third World?"

Mr. Hale is not an alarmist. He urges a "management" rather than "rejectionist" response to the phenomenon he has identified. But it is clear that China has a new justification for obstructionism. A peek behind the curtain of its "principled" objection to interference in the behavior of sovereign countries shows Beijing's economic and strategic interests in places far away from home. Today the problem is Sudan. Tomorrow, perhaps somewhere else.