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Sudanese leader's visit emphasizes China's African agenda

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
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Sudan's pres warmly welcomed in China
  • Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir arrives in China for controversial four-day visit
  • President al-Bashir wanted by International Court on charges relating to Darfur conflict
  • Chinese diplomats say China is merely keeping normal state relations with Sudan
  • Sudan is China's third largest trading partner in Africa, while China is Sudan's largest

Beijing (CNN) -- Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir finally kicked off his state visit to China Tuesday, receiving a red carpet welcome as the guest of Chinese president Hu Jintao.

Al-Bashir arrived in Beijing Tuesday, one day later than scheduled. It is not clear what prompted the delay.

The African leader's four-day visit stirred controversy even before his arrival.

Human rights groups had criticized China for inviting the Sudanese president because he is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war atrocities during the civil war in Sudan -- allegations al-Bashir denies.

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"If China welcomes al-Bashir, it will become a safe haven for alleged perpetrators of genocide," said Amnesty International's Catherine Baber.

But China does not see the ICC's indictment as a reason to block al-Bashir's visit. "China is not a party to the Rome Convention, is not a member of the ICC, and is not legally bound to implement the ICC's decision," said Liu Guijin, China's special envoy to Africa.

The two leaders will discuss ways to expand China-Sudan cooperation, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on the eve of the visit.

Chinese diplomats say China is merely keeping normal state relations with Sudan. "Whatever we are doing now is aimed at stability and peace in the region," Chinese vice foreign minister Cui Tiankai told CNN a week before al-Bashir's visit.

"This is a very important moment, because we have the south going independent very soon. So we hope the transition will be peaceful, and that the region will maintain stability."

Al-Bashir's regime is bracing up for a split of the country along its north-south border on July 9. That is the backdrop to al-Bashir's trip.

"The south of Sudan is going to become its own country in less than two weeks, taking with it over two-thirds of the oil of the entire country -- meaning that the north, Bashir's regime, is going to suffer much less oil revenue," said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, China and North East Asia Project Director of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

For al-Bashir, that could spell a budget crisis, spiraling inflation, and further political instability.

China is certainly much more important to Sudan than Sudan is to China.
--Stephanie Klein-Ahlbrandt, International Crisis Group
  • China
  • Sudan
  • Southern Sudan
  • Omar al-Bashir

For China, it could mean more unrest and uncertainty in Sudan. "China has an interest in ensuring that its investments and people in Sudan are safe," said ICG's Kleine-Ahlbrandt.

Sudan is China's third-largest trading partner in Africa, while China is Sudan's largest trading partner. Experts estimate that more than 60% of Sudanese oil output is purchased by China and accounts for more than 6% of Chinese imported oil.

Many Chinese companies operate actively in Sudan, engaged in trade, commerce and in the construction of oil pipelines, power-generation facilities and other infrastructure projects.

"China is already Sudan's top economic partner," says Kleine-Ahlbrandt. "In this context, they are going to become even more important. China is certainly much more important to Sudan than Sudan is to China."

Hosting al-Bashir's controversial visit, experts say, is driven by China's pragmatic and strategic concerns.

China has been a net importer of oil since the early 1990s, when its energy needs first began to outstrip domestic production. Demand for more oil continues to race ahead as China's economy grows at close to double-digit rates.

Beijing is determined to secure access to energy resources wherever it may find them. That is why, observers say, the Chinese are willing keep its relations with controversial but oil-rich nations like Sudan, even if it is subjected to criticism from Western governments and human rights groups.

"China is very keen to ensure that there's not another outbreak of the civil war in Sudan that tore the country apart for 21 years with two million people dead," said Kleine-Ahlbrandt. "And there's real risk of that right now because of the Abyei conflict."

Abyei, a sparsely populated region that straddles Sudan's north-south border, has long been at the center of a series of violent disputes. Caught between the north and south both ethnically and politically, it is home to the Ngok Dinka, who are closely allied with the south, and Misseriya nomads, who migrate through the territory to graze their cattle during the dry season and are aligned with the north.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended the Sudan's second civil war accorded Abyei special status, which required troops from the north and south to remain outside the region until inhabitants voted on its destiny.

But in May this year, troops from northern Sudan took control of Abyei in retaliation for what they claim was an attack by southern Sudanese forces on a U.N. convoy carrying northern troops.

Observers say China can play a crucial role this time as it did in resolving the Darfur conflict.

"Beijing essentially arm-twisted al-Bashir," explained Kleine-Ahlbrandt. "He had no interest whatsoever in accepting any kind of a peacekeeping operation. So China's support for Kofi Annan's Three-Step plan to deal with the situation was absolutely instrumental in getting a peacekeeping operation there."

She added that China is already pushing al-Bashir to desist from hostile action towards the south and instead negotiate with the south.

According to Liu Guijin, China is using its good relations with the north and the south to encourage engagement.

"No matter how much outside pressure there is, one can not make the decisions on behalf of the Sudanese parties," he said. "Negotiations and dialogue is the only way to solve the issue."

China will continue to work with the international community to push for the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, he added.

But China can do more, said Kleine-Ahlbrandt. "What we'd like to see is China to push a little bit further, to try and get the north to come up with a viable, long-standing agreement with the south and Abyei," she said.