The age of ideology in China may soon be ending. Caught between its longstanding opposition to independence movements worldwide and its expanding economic interests, Beijing finds itself remarkably choosing to court a separatist government in south Sudan.
The south is scheduled to vote on January 9 on independence from Khartoum after 43 years of civil war that left more than 2 million people dead. The referendum is still uncertain amid fears of a new war. But if the vote goes ahead, the south is overwhelmingly expected to break the continent's biggest nation in two.
China has long had substantial investments in all of Sudan, the most of any foreign country. It has a 40% stake in the oil industry and 60% of Sudan's oil is exported to China. To protect those interests Beijing has supported Khartoum in the U.N. Security Council over separatist movements in Darfur and, until recently, in the south.
That was consistent with China's opposition at the U.N. to separatist movements elsewhere in the world, such as in Kosovo and East Timor. The aim has been to give no encouragement to Taiwan and its own restive minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. Those independence movements
are watching what China does abroad. Taiwan, notably, was among the first countries to recognize Kosovo.
Until early this year, China steadfastly opposed southern independence in Sudan too. But China saw the writing on the wall in Juba and was faced with a choice: either risk emboldening its domestic independence movements or its oil investments in the south, where 80% of the country's petroleum is found.
"Khartoum had insisted that they alone were the interlocutor on oil for a long time and the Chinese respected that," said Fabienne Hara, an Africa specialist at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Khartoum awarded China's four oil concessions. But by 2007 the south Sudanese realized they needed China if they were to become independent and the Chinese realized they might soon need an independent south Sudan too, if the oil went with it. "It is pragmatism. I don't think anyone believes that the referendum process can be stopped," Hara said.
China opened a consulate in Juba, the south's capital, a normally unusual move for Beijing in a place that wants to break away. Chinese Communist Party officials routinely visit the south. Southern leader Salva Kiir has twice visited China.
But Beijing must walk a fine line between courting the south and not alienating the north. It still has major business there, including arms sales and infrastructure projects. Li Baodong, China's U.N. ambassador, told me that Beijing is clearly trying to stay on good terms with both sides.
"We respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of this country, any argument amongst themselves, that's their internal affairs and we are not getting into it," Li said. "Whatever the choice the people make, we will respect that."
Oil revenue is currently shared 50-50 between north and south under the 2005 peace deal that set up the referendum. It is pumped from the south through the north in a 1,000-mile Chinese-financed pipeline to a Chinese-built refinery in Port Sudan on the Red Sea, where it is shipped.
How to share this oil in an independent south Sudan is still one of the trickiest questions the two sides, under the mediation of Thabo Mbeki, are trying to work out. Other issues under discussion are the border, sharing water and what to do with Abeyi. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir warned of war if these issues aren't worked out by Jan. 9.
The south would likely enrage Khartoum if it were to find a way to get the oil out bypassing the north altogether. With Chinese help, this may one day happen.
Kenyan officials have been studying a pipeline and refinery project from south Sudan to the port of Lamu on the Indian Ocean coast. The Kenyan Transport Ministry has sought bids for the project. According to China Daily, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Chinese President Hu Jintao discussed China's commitment to build the $16 billion project last May in Shanghai. China is conducting a feasibility study, according to Kenyan media.
I asked Ali Karti, the Sudanese foreign minister, about how his government would react to such a project. "We have our own oil," he said, adding, "That project will never be built."
Adopting a Western business mentality, in which profit and economic growth are often the only tenets, has launched China into a head-on collision with some of its traditional policies, said Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese minorities at Pomona College in California.
China has always portrayed itself as a leader of developing countries, but its own rapid development has changed its relationship with the developing world, he said. "Encouraging a so-called separatist movement is one that is going to complicate that position very much,"
"It is a delicate issue for China. It is a very important development that China is seriously considering going against its 50-year long policy of non-intervention," Gladney told me.
China has apparently calculated that it can suppress its own separatists while courting separatists in Sudan, he said. "Chinese separatists are going to recognize that China first and foremost is very pragmatic, that its development and national self-interest is clearly taking precedence over ideology in China today."
"They may take some encouragement from it, but I don't think they really will take it that China is changing its position on separatism, especially within China," Gladney said.
He expects Beijing to crack down on separatists at home while making deals with them abroad. "It's whichever cat catches mice and in this case the cat that supports a separatist, Christian group will catch more mice for China," Gladney said.