KHARTOUM, Sudan — Sudan’s oil wealth and soaring energy prices have given President Omar Bashir a powerful ally on the U.N. Security Council — China — as the East African nation battles demands for economic sanctions over atrocities in Darfur.
Largely overlooked by the outside world, China has become the key player in Sudan’s oil industry, as evidenced by the metallic maze of chimneys, pipes and vents that glitters on the horizon outside Khartoum.
The sparkling new oil refinery is a crown jewel for Sudan’s military regime, forming a vital artery for a thriving oil industry that contributed nearly $2 billion to government coffers last year.
Without this windfall — likely to be far larger this year — analysts say it would be difficult for Mr. Bashir to maintain his military machine, let alone wage war against rebels in the western region of Darfur.
Energy-hungry China has invested more than $15 billion in Sudanese oil through the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), a state-owned monolith. The cost of Khartoum’s new refinery alone was about $700 million.
Freshly painted billboards in Khartoum carry pictures of smiling Chinese oil workers and the slogan: “CNPC — Your close friend and faithful partner.”
China’s embassy in Khartoum and its commercial office declined to talk about oil.
“We are a shareholder in a number of operating companies here. We conduct our operations through them. If you want to learn more, you must contact the mines and energy ministry,” a CNPC spokesman said.
CNPC’s annual report discloses that about half of its overseas oil comes from Sudan, and that it deployed 10,000 Chinese workers to build a 900-mile pipeline linking the Heglig oil field in Kordofan province with Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
The report trumpets this achievement, completed in June 1999, as the company’s “first long-distance crude pipeline constructed and operated abroad.”
China rushed construction of the pipeline so it could be finished in time for the 10th anniversary of the coup that brought Mr. Bashir to power.
China is dependent on Sudan for 7 percent of its oil imports.
When the United Nations’ Security Council passed Resolution 1564, threatening Sudan with oil sanctions unless it curbed the violence in Darfur, China rendered the resolution meaningless by pledging to veto any bid to impose an embargo.
China is one of five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, along with the United States, Britain, France and Russia.
Critics accuse China of being Sudan’s chief international protector.
“It’s very clear that’s what is happening,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy director of the Africa desk at Human Rights Watch.
“China is now the largest foreign investor in Sudan, so it has an economic interest in ensuring that the Sudanese government is not penalized too harshly. It has been opposed to sanctions from Day One,” she said.
Beijing needs Sudan because of need for oil to fuel an economic boom that will increase consumption by at least 10 percent every year for the foreseeable future.
Sudan, meanwhile, is happy to have a reliable customer for its oil reserves, officially set at 563 million barrels but thought to be as high as 5 billion barrels.
American investment in Sudan was officially banned in 1997, and European multinationals steer clear of the avalanche of protest that would accompany any dealings with Mr. Bashir’s regime.
“The crisis in Sudan is being fueled by the issue of oil,” said William Ezekiel, of the Khartoum Monitor, Sudan’s leading independent daily newspaper. “The government is ready to ally with Satan if it can protect its own interests.”