Chinese Energy Investment Clouds Sudan Diplomacy

As fighting escalates in Sudan, attention is focusing on the country propping up the Khartoum government by purchasing most of its oil: China. Sudan is the home to China's largest overseas energy investment. And despite its public disavowals, China now has a vested interest in the outcome of the fighting there.

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Just north of Congo, the violence in Sudan continues. That's where rebels are battling government forces in the Darfur region. As it happens, China purchases most of Sudan's oil. And the Chinese government has come under pressure to use its influence to help end the violence in Darfur.

From Beijing, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN: The U.S. and other governments hope that China will persuade Khartoum to accept 22,500 U.N. peacekeeping troops to take over from the African Union Forces currently in the Darfur region. The African Union says its forces can't stem the violence that has claimed some 200,000 lives in the past three years.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao says China is in favor of U.N. peacekeeping forces taking over, but he adds that other nations must address Khartoum objections.

Mr. LIU JIANCHAO (Spokesman, Chinese Foreign Ministry): (Through translator) We have channels of communication with the Sudanese government, and on various occasions, including at the U.N., we've been working to persuade them. We hope they'll take a flexible stance on this issue.

KUHN: In Washington, D.C., Erica Downs is a Brookings Institute Fellow who researches China's energy policy. She notes that China had previously shielded Sudan from U.N. sanctions.

Ms. ERICA DOWNS (Brookings Institute): It seems to me that protecting their oil interests in Sudan appears to be the dominant driver and that if we look at China's behavior in the U.N., they've worked to undermine - or in many cases at least not support - what some of the other members, what the United States, for example, has wanted to do in the U.N. Security Council.

KUHN: China buys roughly 70 percent of Sudan's oil output. It's invested billions of dollars in oil rigs, a pipeline and a refinery. It's China's largest overseas oil facility. Critics say that China is also selling arms to the Sudanese government.

Chinese oil interests in Sudan are seldom discussed in the Chinese media. But they have caused some discomfort among Chinese who study their country's energy policies.

Professor Wu Lei is director of the Center for Energy Security and Strategy at Yunnan University in southwest China. He says China's energy needs are increasingly coming into conflict with its diplomatic goals.

Professor WU LEI (Yunnan University): (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: On one hand, he says, China must maintain its long-term policy goal of not interfering in other countries' affairs. On the other, it must look after its energy security interests. So China needs to adjust its foreign policy.

Professor Wu says that these policy goals are part of larger debate about where China should get the energy resources it needs for rapid economic growth. Will it extract them from countries like Sudan or just buy them on international markets? Professor Wu says China's behavior is influenced by what it sees other countries doing.

Prof. WU LEI: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: America, he says, always emphasizes reliance on energy markets to enhance energy security. In fact, its policies are hardly free market ones. If this weren't so, there would be no Iraq war, no Gulf war, and no cheap oil at home. So, he adds, China's view of the situation is not necessarily wrong.

Again, Brookings Institute Fellow Erica Downs.

Ms. DOWNS: I have noticed, you know, an increasing number of articles that have come out and said, look, you know, it's fine for Chinese oil companies to go abroad, but at the end of the day is just really going to enhance the security of China's oil supply? No.

KUHN: Once again, the international community is asking China to use its leverage in a diplomatic crisis. China recently reversed its policy by supporting U.N. sanctions on North Korea. But the two issues are vastly different. And China can tell that Sudan ranks way below North Korea on America's list of priorities.

Observers still hope China will go to work on Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir. He'll be joining some 40 African heads of state attending a China-African forum here next week.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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