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Oil interests push China into Sudanese mire

At a restaurant along the River Nile offering crocodile and ostrich meat, officials of the world’s newest — and desperately destitute — nation hosted a lunch this month for Liu Guijin, China’s visiting envoy for African affairs.

world Updated: Dec 25, 2011 23:41 IST
Andrew Higgins

At a restaurant along the River Nile offering crocodile and ostrich meat, officials of the world’s newest — and desperately destitute — nation hosted a lunch this month for Liu Guijin, China’s visiting envoy for African affairs.

Liu’s visit to Juba, the dirt-track capital of South Sudan, which split from Sudan in July, came at a tense time: Sudan had just bombed a refugee camp, armed militias were mining roads, and troops were clashing in disputed border areas. The Chinese envoy, however, came here mainly to talk about oil.

The Chinese “are very worried,” said Stephen Dhieu Dau, South Sudan’s minister of petroleum and mining. “Their wish is to see the continuation of production and the flow of the crude. This is their ­concern.”

China, which gets nearly a third of its imported crude oil from Africa, has invested billions of dollars in the past 15 years to pump crude from this war-scarred land. But the division of what until five months ago was a united country has pushed Beijing into a political minefield in defense of its assets, straining China’s “just business” insistence that it doesn’t get involved in the internal affairs of foreign lands.

China’s involvement revolves largely around the interests of a single company, the China National Petroleum Corp., or CNPC, a state-owned giant that, in its quest to match the global reach of Western oil majors and to feed China’s appetite for fuel, has dragged usually-averse Chinese diplomats into Africa’s most ­poisonous feuds.

China’s entanglement in foreign nations’ quarrels is perhaps deepest in the desert and bush that flank the Nile. Here, CNPC straddles both sides of a murderously volatile fault line: between Muslim Arabs in the north and black, often Christian Africans who inhabit the south.

Most of the oil lies in the landlocked south, but the only way to get it to market is through Chinese-built pipelines that pass through the north to a Chinese-built terminal on the Red Sea.

In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post.

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