China Playing Both Sides in Sudan Conflict

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China South Sudan photo

South Sudan's President on his recent visit to China

Pressure is mounting on President Hu Jintao’s government to use its commercial ties with Juba and Khartoum for constructive diplomacy.

South Sudan’s government and ruling party have welcomed the billions of dollars in promised investment that resulted from President Salva Kiir Mayardit’s April visit to Beijing, but they are calling for China to take a more active role in the resolution of the conflict. As its first Independence anniversary draws near, South Sudan is turning still further to the East for the investment and development support it needs. This is less a political decision than an economic one: with instability continuing and low-level conflict growing with Sudan, most Western companies remain cautious about doing much more than reconnoitre.

However, the role of politics may be growing. The government and public alike feel betrayed by the Western allies who were quick to condemn Juba’s military occupation of the oil town of Heglig in April. Asian governments are seen as having been less quick to condemn or at least, on the Chinese model, as detached from local politics. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s ‘order’ to Salva Kiir to withdraw his troops from Heglig (seen abroad as Sudanese but in the non-delineated border area) went down badly in a country rejoicing in a sovereignty for which it had battled for half a century. So did condemnations by the United States and Britain, major backers of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that led to Southern secession from Sudan.

Along with other interested governments, they had failed to condemn Khartoum’s regular bombing of civilians in the South, continuing since February. Beyond that, they had failed publicly to identify the National Congress Party (NCP) regime in Khartoum as mainly responsible for blocking the completion of the ‘unfinished business’ of the CPA, including oil and border details, and treated Salva Kiir’s and President Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir’s governments even-handedly. At the height of the crisis, the Government of the Republic of South Sudan (GRSS, often called GOSS) played the Asian card skilfully.

Salva Kiir paid an official visit to Bejing – his second as President but first since Independence last July. But he cut short the five-day trip on 25 April after meeting top officials, including President Hu Jintao and Vice-Premier Li Keqiang.Salva returned with a promise of US$8 billion in loans and investment. This will be very welcome since Juba halted oil production in January in response to Khartoum’s obstruction of negotiations over transit and other fees. Oil contributed some 98% of GRSS revenue, in one of the world’s least developed economies. Britain’s 26 April pledge of an extra £10 million ($16.2 mn.) in emergency relief aid looked less impressive.

Future for strategic relations

The Chinese money is mainly ‘to finance basic infrastructure’, the Secretary General of the governing Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) told a seminar at Britain’s Overseas Development Institute on 1 May. This would include hydropower dams, roads, five universities, hospitals and many other development programmes,’ said Pa’gan Amum Okiech, rather optimistically perhaps. ‘I see a strategic future for those relations,’ said the man who also heads Juba’s negotiating team in the African Union-sponsored talks with Khartoum in Ethiopia.

Earlier, at an on-the-record talk at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Pa’gan noted that China was South Sudan’s largest investor. As ‘owner’ of one of the two oil pipelines from South to North, it was ‘going to lose its investment because of the hostility of the Government of Sudan to South Sudan’. It needed to ‘catch up its foreign policy with [its] international profile’.

China Sudan photo

China has been a longtime ally of Sudan

China’s policy of political non-interference is indeed challenged by the conflict between the two Sudans. Beijing also knows that South Sudan offers more oil and other economic interest than Sudan, though in the long term, a different government in Khartoum might partly rectify that balance. South Sudan, though, is just launching modern sector economic development and unlike most Western countries, China is well in at the start. Although the GRSS repeatedly stresses that it considers China ‘a long-term friend’, China also knows that Juba has not forgotten that the NCP regime developed the oil almost entirely through Chinese investment (plus some from Malaysia and later India) and that the oilfields were cleared through ethnic cleansing. In the midst of heightened tensions, Juba expelled scores of Sudanese employees of the Chinese-Malaysian Petrodar company in late April. China still is Khartoum’s main arms supplier, so it has some ground still to make up on the popularity stakes.

The most visible economic issue for outsiders is the new pipeline to Kenya, now agreed with Toyota Tsusho Corporation. The feasibility study is now completed, said Pa’gan. Juba has asked China to be involved, too. ‘China is now considering it,’ he said, and India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation had ‘fully expressed their commitment to work with the GRSS to develop and build’ a pipeline to Lamu.

Juba says it is ready to resume negotiations, reopen the flow of oil through Sudan and even to help Sudan’s crisis-ridden economy. However, various Khartoum officials poured insults on the South, and Field Marshal Omer made references to slavery and called the SPLM ‘insects’ that must be ‘sprayed’. ‘So they spray us with bombs,’ observed one SPLM supporter. The NCP also refused to go back to talks or ‘ever’ to allow Southern oil through its pipelines again; it declared war on South Sudan and Omer threatened to march on Juba. Salva Kiir has not threatened to march on Khartoum.

NCP language changed after the 2 May resolution by the UN Security Council to take action against both governments if they did not return to the AU negotiating table within two weeks and sort out their differences within three months. The UNSC threatened Article 41 measures – not military, probably sanctions. Juba is unhappy with AU mediation and wants the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development to take over. Here this means Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, which Juba sees as less pliant towards Khartoum.

This gives the NCP breathing space: its regular armed forces and militias were defeated at Heglig by Juba’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Its forces were also hammered by the armed Sudanese opposition, the Sudan Revolutionary Front, consisting largely of the SPLA-North and Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement. The SRF gets backing from Juba. Unlike Khartoum’s proxy militias in the South, it does not rely on such support and its dynamic is purely internal. Even if the two belligerents abide by the UN resolution, it won’t stop fighting by Northern opposition groups, which are growing steadily stronger.