China’s delicate diplomatic tango between the two Sudans

China “needs both countries”, as South Sudan has the oil, and Sudan has the pipelines and refining equipment.

Workers at the Petrodar oil concession f
In early 2012, tensions heightened following the fall out over oil revenues and border demarcations and South Sudan shut down its oil production and lost more than 98 percent of its income [AFP]

China’s political and economic foray into Africa almost resembles the West’s exportation of its liberal democratic institutions through military occupation and reconstruction. Its economic model, state-led capitalism, however, has been far more useful in Africa. The profound relations China has with its African partners provide the opportunity for it to expand its leverage over the countries while maintaining mutual benefits.  

Yet, China has not always been active in its investment deals in Africa. The 80s was a decade of economic death spell for the country, as it could not compete with western aid. As China began its ascent on the world stage as an economic power in the 90s, it needed oil and resources, and thus turned its attention on Africa once again, especially towards Sudan’s oil industry. 

When the rest of the world stayed away, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) went ahead with its investments while the civil war raged on in Darfur. It became the biggest investor in Sudan, importing 70 percent of Sudan’s total oil exports in 2010. This engagement with China has changed Africa’s landscape. China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, having overtaken the United States in 2009. 

As Chinese companies make serious advancements, becoming Sudan’s largest customer, western companies, on the other hand, are compelled to withdraw due to the civil war and human rights abuses by the Sudanese government. Further, the US relations with Sudan has been apprehensive ever since Omar al-Bashir seized power in 1989 and adopted a militant Islamist approach, playing host to several jihadists, including Osama bin Laden. 

China needs both countries

In comparison, China dangles the complete package with money, technical expertise, and its leverage in the UN Security Council shield the country from international sanctions. In May 2012, China initially resisted a UN resolution that threatens Sudan and South Sudan with additional measures under article 41 of the UN Charter, which allows countries to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions if the countries fail to ignore their decisions. The council was voting on sanctioning on the countries if they fail to comply with demands to halt the escalating conflict.  

 China pursue oil interests despite
Sudan-S Sudan conflict

Sudan and South Sudan seceded in 2011 after decades of civil war, which cost the lives of more than 2 million people. In early 2012, tensions were heightened once again following the fall out over oil revenues and border demarcations. Sudan confiscated the South’s crude claiming that the latter owed transit fees. South Sudan responded by shutting off its production and losing more than 98 percent of its income. By doing so, both countries are at the losing end: while 75 percent of the oil lies within the South, most of the pipelines run north. 

China has been ratcheting up its investments, expanding new trade routes and forging new alliances in the newly independent South. Traditionally the ally of the Khartoum government, Beijing is heavily courting South Sudan with visits from senior officials and they became the first to establish a consulate general in Juba. They made efforts to assure continued access to its oil investments while providing arms to the North. 

China needs both countries – while South Sudan has the oil, Sudan has the pipelines and refining equipment. But as it expands its unique brand of development aid into Sudan and South Sudan, stronger ties develop, and China cannot remain a passive investor. 

With the “non-intervention” rule, investments flow into the country without any political conditionality. This has generally guided China’s foreign policy agenda in the developing world and has been popular with the African leaders, as it does not require a commitment to democratic standards. This was deeply challenged when the conflict broke out in 2012. 

An illuminating summary by Alex de Waal, Executive Director of World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, aptly captured China’s response to its estrangement: 

China has taken a very simple position with regard to both parties, which is that it wants to see oil production and export resumed by a fair agreement as soon as possible, and it has pressed both parties to negotiate seriously under the facilitation of the African Union. It has shown no interest in any other solution than utilising the existing infrastructure, which was built by the Chinese for this purpose. So it has played a low-key but very consistent and firm role. 

Pragmatic engagement

Most of the oil that flows through the pipelines goes to China. Their vested interest in this conflict has resulted in a shift in their non-interference policy. China played its first shuttle diplomacy by sending a special envoy to broker the tensions. China’s economic need has forced it to intervene in the domestic politics of another country. 

While some may see this as a changefrom the five principles of peaceful co-existence that China usually undertakes, it is too optimistic to argue that this is substantive. Beijing flirts with the powerful domestic actors and dips its foot into their internal affairs when there is an immediate necessity, such as when its access to strategic resources is imperiled or an interference with its own domestic politics. 

“China has been ratcheting up its investments, expanding new trade routes and forging new alliances in the newly independent South.”

Even though this pragmatic engagement may be unsettling for it relegates good governance and threatens to displace the West’s careful crafted plan of transparency and democracy, it is still useful. 

In 2008, using its ties with Sudan, China quietly pressed Darfur to accept UN peacekeeping forces. It must, however, be noted that although this step may be outside China’s diplomatic normalcy, it was executed under the situation where a barrage of criticisms was levelled against the country for its close ties with Sudan just when the Beijing Olympics was about to occur. To save its image as the host of one of the grandest international events, China had little choice but to modify its foreign policy.  

And in May 2012, during the UN resolution to impose sanctions on Sudan to stop the killing, China eventually did not abstain, or veto the vote. While unusual, the ghost of Chen Guangcheng’s fiasco hovered above bleakly suggesting China is not a new human rights convert. 

For sure, China will never champion democracy and aid Sudan in its post-war governmental transitions. It will be the responsibility of the West to do so. But instead of perceiving China as a threat that undermines the West’s agenda, one should see it as a convenient partner of Sudan. To defend its own business interests, it must undertake less parochial ways, even if it means quietly pressurising a country to abide by international norms. 

Most revealing is this comment from a Chinese official during an interview with the International Crisis Group: “We cannot just be bystanders; we need to be a player. Can you imagine how any Western country would engage if they had all these interests?” 

The advantages of exporting China’s economic model is that it serves the interest of both parties while inexorably tying them together. The dilemma, then, that China has placed itself in will continue to challenge their non-interference as a foreign policy. 

Tng Ying Hui is a graduate student in International Studies at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, a blogger and journalist.