Sudan’s Use of Chinese Arms Shows Beijing’s Balancing Act

Sudanese jets fired rockets bearing Chinese characters during an air strike inside South Sudan just a week before that country’s president travelled to Beijing to strengthen ties and drum up economic support.

Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group, analyzed fragments from the explosives and said they probably were from a Chinese-made 80-mm rocket fired by a jet in an April 15 air strike on Bentiu, the capital of Sudan’s oil-rich Unity state.

“They have Chinese characters and have a dark green paint that is typical among Chinese rockets,” Jonah Leff, the survey’s Sudan project coordinator, said in an April 25 response to e-mailed questions. “China is Khartoum’s principal supplier of weapons, and the two countries have enjoyed an arms-for-oil relationship for several years.”

Sudan’s use of the rocket highlights the diplomatic tightrope China is walking as it deals with Sudan since the south seceded in July and took with it three-quarters of the formerly united country’s oil production. China is the biggest purchaser of Sudanese crude and China National Petroleum Corp. is among the largest producers in the two countries.

China is handling the weapons issue “prudently” and its “cooperation with Sudan does not violate” United Nations Security Council resolutions, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters April 27 in Beijing.

Sudan said it doesn’t use Chinese weapons.

‘Declared War’

“We don’t use any weapons from China,” Foreign Ministry spokesman al-Obeid Murawih said today by phone from Khartoum. “We have our own Sudanese weapons that we use to defend our territory.”

While the authorities in Khartoum routinely deny their forces are responsible for air strikes on South Sudan, the United Nations and the U.S. have condemned them.

Months of border skirmishes and allegations of support for insurgents by both countries escalated on April 10 when South Sudan occupied the disputed oil-rich area of Heglig. Ten days later, it said it was withdrawing to comply with a Security Council request.

Sudan said it drove the southern army out. It also carried out a series of bombing raids inside South Sudan, including one that killed two people in a market in Bentiu.

The south’s information minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, said that while his government is aware that Sudan is using Chinese-made weapons, it considers China an important partner.

Weapons Sales

“If they sell weapons to Khartoum to fight with us they must also sell us weapons,” he said in an April 25 phone interview from Juba, South Sudan’s capital, as President Salva Kiir was visiting China. During the trip, he said Sudan had “declared war” on his country.

Beijing is working with the U.S. in the Security Council to help solve the Sudan-South Sudan dispute, Liu said.

“China and the U.S. will continue to use their influence so as to ease the tension between the two sides so they can sit down and negotiate with each other to solve their disputes,” he said.

The conflict has forced China to undertake a “delicate dance” as it seeks to maintain its relationship with Sudan, while deepening ties with South Sudan, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in an April 4 report.

“As with government, party, and commercial ties, continued military engagement is part of a signal that they won’t abandon old friends in Khartoum,” Zach Vertin, a senior researcher at International Crisis Group, said April 27 in an e-mailed response to questions.

Military Ties

China plans to strengthen military ties with Sudan, the official Xinhua news agency reported on Nov. 21, citing the vice chairman of China’s central military commission, Xu Caihou.

China was key to developing Sudan’s oil industry in the 1990s during the north-south civil war when Western nations imposed economic sanctions. Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd., known as Petronas, and India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd. are also major producers.

Now much of the infrastructure that it helped to build is dormant.

In January, South Sudan halted its oil production after accusing Sudan of stealing its oil. Sudan said it confiscated the crude to make up for unpaid fees.

The shutdown deprived China of about 260,000 barrels a day, New York-based Eurasia Group said in February. Facilities in Heglig were damaged during the fighting and those fields, which supply about half of Sudan’s 115,000 barrels per day of production, are closed.

Chinese Diplomacy

Since the beginning of the dispute, Chinese diplomats have visited both countries, urging them to find a solution to their disagreements. Li Yuanchao, the Communist Party’s Organization Department head, led a delegation to Juba in January that discussed loans and pledged aid and capacity building in the oil industry.

“They still own and operate the majority of that infrastructure, which represents billions of dollars in investment, not all of which has been recovered,” Vertin said.

(Updates with comment from Sudan Foreign Ministry starting in sixth paragraph.)
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