South Sudan president visits China over oil dispute with Sudan

It is all about oil, says a Catholic archbishop about the current fighting between Sudan and South Sudan.

The president of South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit began a state visit to Beijing on April 23. The Chinese are major supporters of the Sudanese regime of Omar al-Bashir and are heavily invested in petroleum interests in Sudan. While South Sudan continues to struggle to define its boundaries with the Muslim-dominated Sudan to the north, President Kiir hopes to get China's help to improve relations with Khartoum and especially to obtain funds to build an alternative pipeline to the one currently in the hands of Sudan. India, besides China, is also heavily invested in the north.

South Sudan is rich in oil and natural gas. However, it is landlocked and dependent on Sudan - from which it broke away in July 2011 - for downstream services such as pipelines and refineries. The oil wells are in the Christian majority South, while the refineries and infrastructure necessary for the extraction and transportation of crude oil are in the Muslim majority north. On April 10, South Sudan troops invaded the disputed Heglig oil fields just to the north of the disputed border with Sudan. However, his troops have now retreated following intense bombardment by Sudan's air forces and skirmishes between the two countries armies. Troops from Sudan occupied Heglig, but have since pulled back.

Negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan are now at a standstill, while Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir said that his government will now do its negotiating with bombs and bullets. Both the UN and the African Union have been unsuccessful in getting the two sides to sit down at the negotiating table again. Al-Bashir said  "There will be no negotiations with these people. They are insects that need to be eliminated. Our talks with them are with guns and bullets." In 2011, Al-Bashir announced that he intended to impose Muslim religious law over the whole of Sudan, which he then controlled. Sudan, for decaded rocked by fratricidal warfare, broke apart. Besides border demarcation issues, the resulting two government also debate oil revenues and the prices for pumping oil to awaiting oil tankers, as well as the rights of their respective citizens. Many Sudanese of southern origin live in the north, since it was there that there was relative calm during the decades-long and genocidal strife.

However, the dispute between the two governments has effects on the world economy: the clashes could lead to suspension of oil deliveries to China, which last year bought about 12.99 million barrels (equal to 5% of its total imports). Beijing has a huge appetite for energy, which it needs to maintain its industrial production at current rates. It purchases oil from all over the world and from sanctioned countries such as Sudan.

According to Professor Yin Gang, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, "the dispute between Juba and Khartoum will be the focus of this visit." According to AsiaNews, Yin said, "Beijing has a responsibility to resolve this dispute. But it will not go much further than an invitation to dialogue, because the division of the country in two was not part of Chinese plans and has created many problems." Last January, South Sudan halted production of crude oil after accusing Khartoum of "stealing."  This caused a loss to China that amounted to 260 thousand barrels per day of imports.

Catholic Archbishop Paulino Lukudu Loro of Juba, Sudan's capital, said "the people of South Sudan do not want war. This is an economic conflict for the control of oil. South Sudan is ready to reach an agreement with Sudan on oil. But what has disappointed the southern Sudanese is the attitude of the UN, of the African Union and other Western countries on the issue of Heglig." Noting the hardships the current conflict has represented for the people of South Sudan, he added "In my opinion, these organizations have made premature statements without knowing the reality. In particular, we must understand exactly where Heglig is: is it in South Sudan or Sudan? Representatives of these international institutions must go there to clarify this point, to demarcate precisely the boundary between the two countries."

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