China Struggles to End Hostilities along Oil-Rich Sudan Border

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: China is attempting a delicate balancing act in Africa. It's trying to mediate the explosive border dispute between Sudan and it's now independent neighbor, South Sudan. Others are trying as well. Today, the African Union called for both parties to formally commit to peace within forty eight hours, and the UN Security Council is demanding an end to aerial bombardments by Northern Sudanese forces. But The World's Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing says China is best placed to calm the conflict. She says the Chinese stake in the dispute can be summed up in one word.

Mary Kay Magistad: Oil. China gets five percent of its oil imports from Sudan. Now that's not a huge amount, but it's enough that it matters. It matters even more to Sudan because sixty percent of Sudan's oil that it exports is sold to China. But China also needs very carefully calibrate its diplomacy here. It wants to keep good relation both with North and South Sudan, just like it does with North and South Korea, and it's finding it a little difficult at the moment because South Sudan is saying, "Hey, what would really help is if you would finance an alternative oil pipeline going straight out, so that we don't have to go through Sudan and they don't try to take a huge cut of our profits just because we have a pipeline going through their territory."

Werman: So if there's enough oil in the offing to make China uneasy if it doesn't get it, can it be a mediator between Sudan and South Sudan?

Magistad: Well, for starters the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced today that China's special representative on African affairs, Zhong Jianhua, will be visiting both countries sometime soon to encourage peace talks. In the past, China has been able to make some difference in the region in Sudan, particularly in the run up to the Olympics, but also at other times by saying, "You know, look. We need to be rational. We need to keep this region stable if you want to have profits," and South Sudan certainly wants to profit from its oil industry because it gets most of its revenue from oil, "You need to play a game that's sustainable and what you're doing right now is not."

Werman: I have to note, Mary Kay, I was struck by photos of Chinese President, Hu Jintao, and South Sudan's President, Salva Kiir, this week. We'll link to some of those pictures on our website. The visual contrast between the two men is pretty stark. What did you make of these images?

Magistad: Right. Well, so picture, if you will, Hu Jintao who is a very buttoned up Chinese leader, a little bit pale in this particular photo. His body in the photo is straight on, not facing Salva Kiir as he's shaking his hand. Salva Kiir, on the other hand, looks almost wraithish. He's got this black cowboy hat. He's easily a whole head taller than Hu Jantao and he has this sort of smirk on his face. He looks a little like the Old Spice guy.

Werman: And how does that contrast with any body language you've seen recently between President Omar al-Bashir from Sudan and his Chinese interlocutors?

Magistad: Well, a warm hello and usually some sort of an embrace. He's an old friend, and, you know, China and Bashir, China and Sudan have done business for many years. In fact, the planes that have been strafing South Sudan, not just this week, but for a while, some of them, you know, were bought with money that came from profits from selling oil to China and are Chinese supplied. Interestingly, in one of the Chinese English language newspapers today, The Global Times, which is usually a pretty nationalistic newspaper, they ran an editorial by a South Sudanese freelancer which was extremely critical of Sudan and of this strafing of South Sudanese territory. So it seems like while at the official level the government is trying not to show any favoritism, it's letting it be known through alternative channels that it doesn't think that [??] behavior is something to be praised.

Werman: You know, China is mulling over this consequential issue in Africa. At the same time, it has got several other fires to put out at the moment. Break those fires down for us briefly, and is the pressure throwing a curve ball at China right now?

Magistad: Right. So there's the one we're talking about which is the conflict in the Sudan. There is the conflicting claims in the South China Sea, China and the Philippines going at it over a shoal that both of them claim and every little bit of territory is something worth fighting over as far as both sides are concerned because it means access to oil in that area ultimately. And then there's North Korea, which has become rather threatening all over again since its rocket didn't put a satellite into space as it had hoped. So there have been threats about turning Seoul in ash and possibly even striking the United States, and China is just kind of hoping this is another case of bravado that will pass.

Werman: But it sounds like it's undue pressure on China right now. Are they dealing with it OK?

Magistad: It's a lot of balls to keep in the air, juggling. This is a country that has become a major international power and it has a say in what happens in different parts of the world where it has interests. Not so long ago, maybe a decade ago, China really tried not to get involved in other countries' internal affairs. Now, it looks at something like Sudan and South Sudan and says, "OK. So this is a war, or at least a conflict, but, you know, we do have an interest here and we do have to get involved. So you guys need to sort this out, but you need to protect our interests while you're doing it.

Werman: The World's Asia correspondent, Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing. Thank you very much for the update, Mary Kay.

Magistad: Thank you, Marco.