Mercenaries are scooping up contracts here. Arms dealers are flying in and out on the daily flight from Nairobi, Kenya. And the rebels, theoretically out of work, are training full time on the dunes around Juba, South Sudan's self-proclaimed capital.
Up north, in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, weapons arsenals are filling up, talk is tough, and clear signals are being sent out that the resource-rich south will never be allowed to be independent.
More than two years after the north-south peace agreement, and four years before the expected southern referendum on secession – it's a matter of time, say observers, before the fragile calm blows up, reigniting the 21-year civil war that left 1.5 million dead.
"It's a lull in which both sides are regrouping for the new war," says a Canadian UN military observer stationed in South Sudan, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, the Darfur crisis that has killed more than 200,000 and displaced more than 2.5 million in western Sudan continues to rage unabated, helping Sudan earn the top spot on Foreign Policy magazine's "Failed State Index" for the second year in a row.
The Chinese are as much to blame for this situation as anyone, say critics, and not so much because of their economic policies but because of political ones.
Beijing has "a vested interest in the continuation of a low level of insecurity. It keeps the other major investors out," charged the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) in a 2002 report. The report argued that China welcomes the absence of real peace in Sudan as enhancing its business opportunities, whatever the cost to southern Sudanese civilians: "There is [on the part of the Chinese] an almost total disregard for the human rights implications of their investments."
ICG spokeswoman Kimberly Abbott says that "Beijing's foreign policy has significantly evolved. China now well understands that its investments in Sudan are threatened by growing instability in Darfur and the potential reemergence of conflict in the south of the country, and has started to lean on Khartoum. While not yet doing as much as it could and should to solve the Darfur problem, it is hardly alone in that regard. No country has done enough, and the crisis continues to the shame of the entire international community."
The evolution of China's position has done little to satisfy the leaders of the semiautonomous south who say they won't sit idly by while revenue from Chinese drilling in their oil fields goes mostly to the Arab-dominated government in the north. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly stated the current position of the International Crisis Group.]
"This peace is ugly," says Daniel Deng Moyndit, a former rebel who now chairs the Government of South Sudan's parliamentary security committee. "They [Khartoum government officials] are not serious ... and any state is entitled to defense in anticipation of aggression."
Despite this, "China doesn't want another government in charge," adds a Khartoum-based humanitarian aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They're used to dealing with this government."
While pockets of South Sudan are seeing some economic benefits from the shaky peace, the region in general is shortchanged. The main sore point has to do with years of underdevelopment and a perception that oil revenues are not being shared fairly.
Under the peace deal between north and south, oil profits are to be shared: 50 percent to the south, 48 percent to the north, and 2 to the specific oil-producing areas. But many in South Sudan say this agreement is not being implemented fairly.
As no official information is released about how much oil is being pumped out of the south or how much is being paid for it, the amount of money transferred to the semiautonomous Government of South Sudan is left to the discretion of Khartoum.
Angelina Teny, the minister of state for Sudan's Ministry of Mining and Energy in Khartoum, says the division of oil revenues is not transparent.
"We have an oil revenue calculation committee, and every month we look at the production and sales figures and work out the figures for who takes what," says Ms. Teny, a member of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), a political party formed by rebels from the south. But the production and sales figures all go directly to the Ministry of Mining and Energy from the Chinese-run Greater Nile Production Company, without any way of checking whether the figures are accurate.
In recent months, South Sudan's share in those oil revenues has dropped by half. Between January and March, it has gone from around $80 million to less than $40 million per month, says Teny. "This is when a lack of trust comes in," she stresses. "If we have figures yo-yo like this, with sharp drops, we ask questions. This can only be answered by having a proper monitoring system."
China both buys the vast majority of Sudan's oil and is the majority partner in the consortiums extracting the oil – but refuses to open up its records or get involved in any debate on whether their payments are reaching the rightful destinations.
More worrysome for many critics, however, is that China sells Khartoum weapons and military aircraft and backs Sudan in the UN Security Council when other nations seek to condemn it for its bad behavior toward its own citizens.
In recent years, most talk of the Khartoum government's mistreatment of citizens has focused not so much on the south but on the conflict in Darfur.
President Bush calls the killings in Darfur "genocide" and accuses Khartoum of serious human rights abuses.
He is far from alone. According to a report last year by Amnesty International, Sudan is carrying out "massive violations of international human rights ... in southern Sudan and Darfur" – all with the help of Chinese ammunition, tanks, helicopters, and fighter aircraft.
In 2005, the last year such figures were made available, Sudan bought $24 million worth of arms and ammunition, as well as $57 million worth of parts and aircraft equipment and $2 million worth of parts for helicopters and airplanes, according to a recent report by Amnesty International. China has also recently delivered six K-8 advanced trainer fighter jets, which can be used for air-to-ground attacks, according to the report. All this after a UN-approved embargo was imposed on Darfur.
"We are using helicopters in Darfur, yes," says Mohamed Yousif Abed Allah, the minister of culture. "It is necessary ... as you call it, a deterrence."
Sudan and China boosting military cooperation
In April, China's state-owned Xinhua news agency reported that China and Sudan had vowed, "to boost military exchanges and cooperation in various sectors," during a visit by Sudan's Joint Chief of Staff Haj Ahmed El Gaili to Beijing. "Military relations between China and Sudan have developed smoothly," Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan was quoted as saying. "China is willing to further develop cooperation between the two militaries in every sphere."
Meanwhile, in its role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has continuously blocked effective action against Sudan by arguing for the respect of Sudan's sovereignty. This is in line with China's overall policy to respect other nations' independence.
"China had suffered imperialist aggression and oppression for over 100 years before the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. Therefore, China regards the hard-earned right of independence as the basic principle of foreign policy," the foreign ministry states on its website.
China respects and defends Sudan's sovereignty
In light of this way of thinking, China has repeatedly used veto threats to block the deployment of a joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, significantly weakening international pressure on Sudan's government to solve the crisis.
China does diplomacy in its own way, stress officials in Beijing. Unimpressed with what it – and others – see as the West's strong-arm tactics and father-knows-best conditionality for aid and trade, China aims for a subtler, more respectful approach.
For example, while Chinese President Hu Jintao made no public statements about Darfur during his February visit to Sudan, he did discuss the issue with Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir behind closed doors, according to Zhang Dong, China's ambassador in Khartoum. China "…never interferes in Sudan's internal affairs," Zhang emphasized to the Xinhua news agency – but it does "play an essential role here" by "respecting" Sudan and "consulting with it as an equal."
"The Chinese government is very cautious," stresses Xu Weizhong, director of the department of African Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government think tank. "If it loses influence with Khartoum, a direct confrontation between Sudan and the United States could make the situation worse."
In April, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun repeated this message after a three-day trip to Sudan, which included a visit to a Darfur refugee camp, a rare move for a Chinese official. "The Chinese government is deeply concerned with the Darfur issue and has provided several batches of humanitarian assistance materials to the region," Xinhua quoted Mr. Zhai as saying – but there were no public calls for UN troops to be allowed in, or pressure to stop the killings.
Beijing's 'subtle diplomacy'
But less than a week later, whether or not due to quiet pressure by China, President Bashir conceded to a deployment of 3,500 UN peacekeepers into Darfur.
Those peacekeepers have yet to deploy, but this month Bashir also agreed to an expanded force in the region, with up to 25,000 African Union and UN peacekeepers.
At times like this, even the US, which is more often than not critical of Chinese foreign dealings, admits that Beijing's cautious behind-the-scenes diplomacy might be working in concert with the US's more aggressive style.
Appearing at a Senate hearing in April, Bush's special Darfur representative, Andrew Natsios, said Beijing's "subtle diplomacy" complemented, rather than undercut Washington's sanctions-based policy.
He also said he thought China's diplomacy might have been the "critical factor" in persuading Khartoum to accept a "heavy support package" for the outgunned 7,000-strong African Union force in Darfur. "I think they may be the crucial actors. I think there has been a lot of China bashing in the West, and I'm not sure, to be very frank with you, right now it's very helpful."
Still, many critics say that China's willingness to befriend, do business with, and diplomatically protect questionable regimes does not end with Sudan.
For example, Beijing's relations with Zimbabwe, even while cooling in recent months, still include, among other things, supplying it with fighter jets.
This relationship has been a major support to the otherwise internationally ostracized President Robert Mugabe: With both human rights conditions and the economy in a free fall under Mr. Mugabe, China has in recent years sold more than $200 million of military hardware to Zimbabwe.
After Mugabe launched Operation Murambatsvina – or Operation "Drive Out Trash" – last year, in which 700,000 people had their homes or businesses destroyed in order to clear urban slums for renewal, China blocked condemnation in the UN Security Council.
'Coddling' authoritarian regimes?
"There is a perception," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of African Affairs James Swan, speaking at Columbia University in New York in February, " ... that China is willing to coddle authoritarian regimes."
Furthermore, because of its attitude that sovereignty of nations must be respected above all else, China does not tie its aid or investment to conditions such as good governance, fighting corruption, or adopting reforms – the sort of conditions that have long been mainstays for the West and international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
This ends up being convenient for regimes that do not care to make reforms in their countries and undercuts efforts by other donors and investors to press for positive reform, say critics.
"China is doing business here – fine," says Mr. Deng Moyndit. "But it is not being careful with lives of others, which is not acceptable. [China]... is no friend of ours.'"
• Staff writers Scott Baldauf and Peter Ford contributed to this report from Khartoum, Sudan, and Beijing.