Relations between Sudan and China have historically been very secretive. This was recently displayed when President Omar al-Bashir and Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a ‘far-reaching’ agreement in 2007, the details of which remain undisclosed. However, Chinese influence and investment in Sudan is clear to see. The infrastructure of the oil industry in Sudan has been substantially developed. For example a Chinese-built pipeline, 930 miles long, connecting the oilfields in the south to Port Sudan, where the oil is shipped. The Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, or GNPOC, was the first joint venture oil partnership in the country, set up in 1999. By 2003, they were producing an estimated 300,000 barrels per day. In the consortium, China National Petroleum Corporation owns a 40% stake, with the Malaysian-owned Petronas owning 30%.
It is not just the creation of infrastructure surrounding the oil business that the Chinese have helped to fund. There has been up to an alleged $20 billion of Chinese development in Sudan, in agricultural projects, power stations, bridges and roads. One example of this is the Merowe Dam, about 200 miles north of Khartoum, which was Sudan’s largest construction project. It cost up to $2 billion, and was also partially funded and built by the Chinese. Whilst the dam was intended to benefit the entire country, it currently only provides for its surrounding area.
Similarly, the GIAD industrial complex, 25 miles south of the capital, was set up in the mid-1990s, again with substantial help from the Chinese and could be Sudan’s largest single employer. As well as producing cars and trucks, GIAD supplies a huge amount of military vehicles, weaponry and ammunition to the government, including the country’s first domestically made military tank, named the ‘Bashir’. It is likely that weapons made in the complex were used during the Darfur conflict, and as a result GIAD was placed under U.S. sanctions in May 2007. Sudan is now the third largest weapons manufacturer in Africa, after Egypt and South Africa.
Despite all of this investment and development, it is questionable how far the relationship is actually benefiting the people of Sudan. The country’s GDP is an estimated $100 billion, but 40% of the population live below the poverty line. The mean wage is a purported $1.39 per man-hour, with almost 20% unemployment, 40% illiteracy, and a median age of less than 19. The limited nature of the country’s development becomes clearer as there is approximately 4,500km of paved road in a country of almost 2 million square kilometres. This can be compared to Nigeria’s approximately 30,000km of paved road in 1 million square kilometres. Furthermore most Sudanese cannot afford cars and so the new bridges or roads provided by the Chinese are of little benefit to them.
Such a large proportion of the country’s wealth is directed towards the capital that Richard Cockett describes Sudan as a “one-city state”. This is epitomised by the recent addition to the Khartoum skyline of the eighteen floor Burj al-Fateh hotel, known locally as ‘Gaddafi’s Egg’ after its owner and its curvaceous shape. Built by the Libyan colonel for approximately $80 million, room prices start at around $300 and rise to $3,000 or more. Due to Sudan’s lacklustre tourism industry it caters solely for businessmen. Similarly, in 2007 the Chinese promised to build a new presidential palace worth $12 million. This disparity of wealth between the ruling and private sectors and the average Sudanese displays the focus of the government and foreign investors: profitable business.
In an appropriate illustration of the development of Sudan, the Grand Holiday Villa, with room names such as the ‘Grand Ballroom’ and the ‘Churchill Room’, was built by the British in a colonial, Victorian style. It has now been taken over by a Malaysian hotel chain.
The benefactors of Chinese investment in Sudan have by and large been the government and private investors. It is thus accurate to describe the connection between Sudan and China as a commercial relationship. This is further displayed by the Chinese policy of ‘non-interference’ in Sudan. Despite having such a powerful presence in the country, the Chinese have consistently maintained an apolitical stance, refraining from any involvement in Sudanese politics. This is clear in examples such as during the Darfur crisis, or more recently during the negotiations and conflict surrounding the secession of South Sudan. Instead, for instance, with its own interests in mind, China has abstained from voting on most resolutions in the United Nations concerning the issue of human rights in Sudan.
Chinese involvement in Sudan is commercial, and is based predominantly in oil. 60% of all Sudanese exports go to China, and 22% of imports are from China. Clearly there is a strong economic link between the countries, and in terms of business it is mutually beneficial. However, the Chinese policy of ‘non-interference’ reveals clearly that their concern is only with business and not at all with the welfare of the Sudanese. It is, therefore, fair to say that both the Chinese and the Sudanese government are mutually exploiting the country of Sudan and its people.
A crucial question that remains, though, is how the relationship will change after Sudan’s oil reserves have run out.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East