“It will be a business trip but it will also be political because this is the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Second World War in Asia,” said Khalid al-Mubarak, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Embassy in the United Kingdom.
Bashir is officially set to attend the signing of a contract between the Sudanese government and a Chinese company to build a 1,000-km, 1.4-billion-dollar (1.2-billion-euro) railway line in eastern Sudan.
Other deals, especially in the defence industry, are expected. China has already built outside Khartoum a military-industrial complex that allows Sudan to use Chinese-developed weapon systems in its war on insurgents in Darfur, Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains.
Bashir’s four-day trip his first outside the Middle East or Africa since 2011 is underscoring China’s role as a crucial economic partner. China, the main foreign investor in the country, has played a prominent role in the oil industry and building colossal infrastructure projects, notably dams.
“It’s been a very lucrative partnership for Sudan,” said Harry Verhoeven, professor of government at the University of Georgetown in Qatar. “Given the continuing economic problems that Sudan faces problems that have been very acute since the secession of South Sudan since 2011 President Bashir is trying to get more Chinese support for his beleaguered regime, which does not have many friends.”
Rights activists, including the Save Darfur Coalition and Human Rights Watch, are calling on China to arrest Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court since 2009 on genocide and war crime charges in Darfur.
But China is not a signatory to the Rome Statute creating the ICC and is not legally bound to arrest him.
Bashir has travelled extensively in Africa and in the Middle East, including in countries that have ratified the Rome Statue. He attended an African Union summit in South Africa in June, despite a South African court decision ordering his arrest.
More controversially, his name is on a draft list of heads of state slated to attend the UN General Assembly in New York in September.
“He’s done an awful lot of travel for someone who’s an indicted génocidaire,” remarked Maddy Crowther of Waging Peace, a London-based rights group. “It’s embarrassing for the ICC because China, unlike other places he’s travelled to, is a permanent UN Security Council member. It just doesn’t look good when the body that actually refers a case to the ICC is not helping implement any of its rulings.”
Behind the scenes in Beijing, Bashir is expected to seek debt rescheduling or cancellation. Sudan has one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world, and Khartoum is struggling to pay money it owes China for Chinese infrastructure projects built in the 1990s.
Debt cancellation has been part of China’s development assistance packages to African countries that find it difficult to repay their loans. It also allows debt repayments to be rescheduled. But debts that are cancelled or rescheduled appear to be government-to-government loans.
China has imposed in recent years stricter loan conditions to other African partners like Ethiopia or Zambia and it may be reluctant to help Sudan because of its own financial woes.
“The times when China could write blank cheques so to speak are really over,” said political scientist Verhoeven. “For Sudan this is not good news. The chances that they will get a good deal are fairly slim.”
Asked about debt relief, Sudanese Embassy official Mubarak answered: “I’m not sure that this is on the cards or not.”
Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011