Since 2003 an estimated 400,000 people have died as a result of the campaign of ethnic cleansing being waged against the people of the Darfur region of Sudan by the military regime of General Omar al-Bashir. As many as 2.5 million people have been made into refugees.
The so-called janjaweed militia, armed and trained by the Sudanese army, has waged a campaign of murder, torture, rape and plunder across the Darfur region, often openly assisted by the army and air force. The groups under attack in Darfur -- mainly the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit peoples -- are Sunni Muslims, just like those running the regime in Khartoum, but they are ethnically African rather than Arab.
Sudan has always been a frontier zone between the Arab and African worlds -- the word "Sudan" means "land of the Blacks" in Arabic. Encouraged by pan-Arabist and Islamist ideologists from Egypt and Libya, the Bashir regime, which seized power from an elected government in 1989, has sought to gain popular support from the Arab majority by launching an ethnic war against the African minorities.
Efforts by the African Union (AU) and the UN either to negotiate an end to the conflict or to put an international peacekeeping force into Sudan have been consistently thwarted by the Sudanese regime. Sudan has tried to paint the issue as one of Sudanese sovereignty versus interfering Westerners. It sadly has been supported by its fellow members of the Arab League. It was pleasing last month to see the AU reject Bashir's bid to be elected as the organization's president for this year.
Sudan's main ally, however, has been China, which has consistently blocked efforts at the UN to have Sudan's actions classed as genocide, to have effective sanctions put in place, or to have a peacekeeping force with the power to protect the people of Darfur put into Sudan.
What does China care about a squalid ethnic conflict in central Africa? Why is one of the world's greatest powers indifferent to the genocides in Darfur and the effect on China's reputation of its sponsorship of Khartoum.
The answer is partly economic self-interest, and partly geopolitics. Sudan's economy has been a disaster for decades, mainly as a result of mismanagement by successive military regimes. In the 1990s it was the world's largest debtor to the World Bank and the IMF.
But since 2000 major oil discoveries have been made in south and central Sudan. Most major oil companies regard the country as too unstable for investment, but the gap has been filled by China, along with companies from Canada and Malaysia.
Today oil is Sudan's major export, indeed its only major export, and 80 percent of its oil exports go to China -- currently worth more than US$2 billion a year. Beijing is also investing millions in infrastructure, including the pipeline from the oilfields to the tanker terminal at Port Sudan. Chinese laborers are building roads and airfields in oil-producing regions. Some of these airfields are used by the Sudanese air force to launch air attacks on undefended villages in Darfur.
This oil bonanza for Sudan pays not only for vital food imports, but also for new Chinese military hardware including tanks, fighters, helicopters, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
China is Sudan's largest supplier of arms. It is thus a knowing and willing accomplice in the Bashir regime's genocide in Darfur.