China, Sudan, and Oil

Before I get to what I want to say, two caveats:

First, Sudan-China relations are more complicated than one often hears. China’s positions on political issues in Sudan, such as Darfur, have not been static. Moreover, links between China and Sudan are not just economic and political, but cultural. I don’t want to justify or condemn China’s actions in Sudan, rather I want to point out that the two countries interact on levels and in ways that shouldn’t be classified as just exploitation.

South Kordofan, Sudan

Second, oil politics in Sudan are not simple. Just this week, a British human rights group called for a new audit of oil revenues in Sudan, arguing that inaccurate reporting could stoke tensions between the North and the South. The discrepancy in the figures came to light, interestingly enough, because of different numbers put forth by the Sudanese government and the Chinese National Petroleum Company. Tensions surrounding the distribution of oil revenues, both between North and South and within the South, pose a threat to the stability of Sudan. Throw Chinese investment into the mix and matters become even more complex.

With those two caveats in mind (and a third: I am no expert on the international politics of Sudan’s oil), I was struck today by a story on the execution of two Sudanese prisoners accused of killing two Chinese oil workers around 2004. This is not the only incident of its kind:

Foreign interest in Sudanese oil has pushed workers into some of the country’s most remote and insecure corners.

Three Sudanese working with the Yemeni HTC oil company were killed after they were ambushed while travelling between Heglig and Mayom County in South Sudan’s Unity State in October 2008.

Earlier the same month, gunmen abducted nine Chinese oil workers from South Kordofan and later killed four after what China said was a failed rescue attempt.

To put this into historical context, Chinese companies have been involved in Sudanese oil production since 1996. The oil connection has fostered a military relationship, with China providing arms to the Sudanese government and Khartoum sometimes deploying troops to protect Chinese workers.

In geographical context, Sudan may be “China’s largest overseas oil project” (as of 2004, so that statement may be out of date), but China’s presence in Africa is larger than just Sudan. Chinese involvement in Africa has a lot to do with oil and other resources, and these ventures expose them to backlash. For that reason this story about the killing of Chinese oil workers reminds me of other incidents where Africans have targeted Chinese: in Algeria, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Angola, to take a few examples.

Sudan has carried out other executions in recent years, and at least one execution was connected with an incident where foreigners were targeted. So I don’t want to read too much into the execution this week. But it does raise questions for me about how African governments, and China, will manage African backlash against China when it occurs. If the past gives us any indication, more attacks on Chinese workers will happen, especially when contested resources are at stake. I’m not saying that China should or will leave Africa, but it seems that all the players in this equation – African governments, African communities, the Chinese government, and Chinese workers – will, in the years to come, have to deal with complex and sometimes violent politics stemming from their encounters with each other.

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