01/11/2011, 00.00
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Referendum in Sudan raises questions about Beijing’s role as a superpower

Southern Sudan is voting on independence. There are fears concerning how northern leaders might react and what their Chinese allies will do. As a world power, China cannot limit itself to a policy of “non-interference”, experts say.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – About 20 per cent of 3.8 million eligible voters cast their ballot in the first two days of a referendum that will determine whether southern Sudan becomes an independent state or not. Voting is set to last from 9 January to 15 January. Experts expect the yes camp to win, but the central government in Khartoum remains a wild card. China is a major ally of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, and the vote will test its credibility as a world power.

The ballot was agreed in a 2005 deal that ended two decades of civil war between the predominantly Muslim north, which dominates the central government, and southern rebels, who are mostly Christians and animists. Some two million people died in the conflict and many millions became refugees.

Despite an international trade embargo, China is Sudan’s main trading partner and has been accused of selling weapons used in the civil war.

The south is home to almost 80 per cent of Sudan’s oil production of 490,000 barrels a day, pumped mainly by China National Petroleum Corp., Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd. and India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp.

The Sudanese government depends on oil revenue for 98 per cent of its budget, and most of the export pipelines, Port Sudan on the Red Sea and refineries are in the north.

In addition to oil, the southern region is rich in gold and is believed to have “abundant” deposits of other minerals including marble, gypsum and chromite.

However, half of the region’s population lives on less than US$ 1 a day, 85 per cent of the adult population is illiterate and one in seven women who become pregnant are likely to die from pregnancy-related complications.

President al-Bashir said he would respect the outcome, but warned that an independent south would be very unstable.

Results in the referendum are not expected until next month.

China has justified its ties with dictatorial regimes on the basis of its doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, accusing instead the West of “colonialism”.

China is heavily involved in Sudan. The CNPC has built a 1,500-kilometre oil pipeline that connects southern oil fields to Port Sudan. Chinese firms have built roads and residential areas and provided services.

A pro-independence South Sudanese politician, Salva Kiir, has already visited Beijing twice. China opened a Consulate-General in the southern capital of Juba in September 2008. The CNPC also set up a branch office in the city, and there are persistent rumours that link Chinese investors to a new pipeline that would link south Sudan to the Kenyan port of Luma.

However, few of the 24,000 Chinese working in Sudan are found in the south. In Juba, only one hotel is managed by Chinese interests.

No one expects al-Bashir to go against the interests of his big Chinese ally.

Beijing has not taken any position on the referendum and it is keeping a low profile. However, a number of experts believe that a world power cannot limit its foreign policy to defending its trading interests, but must instead take a stand on major issues, and explain its positions.

Should trouble come to Sudan, not only the international community but Chinese companies present in the country would also want to know where Beijing stands.

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