Chinese President Hu Jintao's arrival in Sudan Friday could well mark a turning point in China's growing relationship with Africa.
If Mr. Hu announces more investment and development projects, as promised at Beijing's summit of 43 African heads of state this past November, then China will cement its position as the continent's new business partner of choice. If he buckles to pressure from Western governments, and makes future aid dependent on Sudan's actions to halt the brutal civil war in Darfur, then African leaders will see that even China's aid comes with strings attached.
Whatever happens, Hu's visit to Sudan will be historic.
"It is a true partnership, and the Chinese are probably not getting the biggest share of it," says Abdul Rahim Ali Mohammad Ibrahim, a pro-Sudanese government analyst and director of the Institute of Arabic Language Study in Khartoum. "The Chinese are using it as a showpiece. It would be easy for China to tell other African countries, 'Come see what we've done in Sudan.' "
With the global race for African resources well under way, Mr. Hu's eight-nation Africa tour caps a portentous week, coming on the heels of the African Union summit in Ethiopia, and new UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's five-day Africa visit.
Chinese investment has become the new driving force for economic development in Africa – with African-Chinese trade reaching $40 billion and Chinese aid expected to reach $10 billion in 2009 – and many African countries see China as their ticket to prosperity. Chinese aid is especially attractive, because it comes without all the troublesome conditions that Western donors tend to place on clean governance and human rights.
Nowhere is this more true than in Sudan. As a recipient of Chinese aid since 1959, and a close trading partner since Chinese investment jumpstarted Sudan's dormant oil industry in the late 1990s, Sudan has always felt that its friendship with China extended beyond economics.
Now with the UN pushing Sudan to halt the humanitarian crisis in its Darfur region – a three-year civil conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 civilians and displaced 2.5 million more – and to accept UN peacekeepers, Sudan looks to China for high-level diplomatic support.
It's an expectation that Sudanese observers say may be increasingly hard to match.
"I don't think Sudan will benefit from the visit of the Chinese president," says Khalid Tijani El-Nour, a political commentator and editor in chief of the Sudanese business weekly Elaff. "China has huge economic relations with the United States ... so China is not supporting Sudan 100 percent. China has never promised to use its veto [to block UN action against Sudan over Darfur]. They have advised the Sudan government to be flexible, to find a political solution for Darfur."
The best China can do is "bridge the gap and minimize pressure on Sudan," adds Mr. Tijani. "China is a very important power, so this trip gives us some relief, but on the other hand, Sudan is facing a challenge in its relations with China. There are other African countries asking China to come in. Nigeria and Angola are also producing oil. We have to wake up. We are not the only players on the ground."
Despite Sudan's political turmoil, and history of decades of civil war, the lure of oil and other natural resources, and access to the third largest country in Africa, has proved irresistible for China. In addition to Chinese investment in Sudan's oil industry, which supplied China with 7 percent of its energy needs last year, China has also invested $2 billion in the Merowe hydropower dam project. When it opens in 2008, the Merowe will meet Sudan's entire demand for electricity, and allow it to sell the excess to other African neighbors.
Sudan's oil fields, mainly in the southern region, today produce an estimated 500,000 barrels a day, up from 300,000 barrels last year. But that same southern oil belt is a land where a 50-year civil war between the Arab-dominated Sudanese government and Christian and animist black African minorities ended two years ago with a peace agreement.
Almost immediately after the North-South war ended, the conflict in the western region of Darfur began.
"China was more interested in doing business with the government of Sudan, to the detriment of the people of Darfur," writes Ali Trayo the spokesman for the Darfur rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army, in an e-mail. "It is in the general interest of the people of Sudan, and Darfur in particular, and that of China itself to exert pressure on the government of Sudan."
While Darfur rebel groups welcome the world's attention, one senior opposition leader says that the West's preoccupation with Darfur could be counterproductive, and even dangerous.
"I consider the West naive," says the opposition leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity from his home in Khartoum. "Instead of being involved in the oil business, and putting pressure on the dictator of the day, they have abandoned us. And believe me, when you abandon us to the hands of the Chinese, you are leaving Sudan quite naked."
The more the West pushes Sudan into a corner over Darfur, the more the Sudanese people will learn to hate the West, says Professor Ibrahim. "In my opinion, neither the US nor the Europeans can compete with China on its trade and development policies, so they want to push China out."
But that's not likely to happen any time soon. China's famous reluctance to intrude on other countries' sovereignty and its long-term investment approach allows it to overlook disagreements with the current government, says Ibrahim.
"China is very farsighted. Nothing is lost because of their cooperation with one regime. If that regime is overthrown, they work with the next government, too. They may offer advice, but they continue to invest, and this sustainability is the result."