About Turn?

Has China changed its ‘hands-off’ foreign policy in South Sudan?

By Kang-Chun Cheng

Premium badge Reserved for subscribers

Posted on May 25, 2022 12:38

President of South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit in China
China’s President Xi Jinping and President of South Sudan Salva Kiir Mayardit shake hands before their bilateral meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, August 31, 2018. Roman Pilipey/Pool via REUTERS

China has a reputation for maintaining a diplomatic strategy of non-interference, which is core to its foreign policy principle. However, this reputation is multi-faceted, as China is also known for its identification of niche markets and an economic philosophy based on risk-taking, venturing where traditional Western powers generally shy from. Guided by this philosophy, how has China assessed and entered South Sudan’s market?

As contemporary China’s involvement in Africa deepens via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), debates swirl around the Asian country’s next step.

There have been increasingly substantive intricacies of Chinese involvement in both Sudan and South Sudan after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in January 2005, in which Beijing was a witness.

Unlike most other African countries, where Chinese companies or state-owned enterprises are present as construction contractors, China has a much more entrenched position in the South Sudanese oil industry. Sudan, after all, was China’s first overseas oil success story.

Running on South Sudanese oil

The discovery of oil in the 1970s furthered strains between Juba and Khartoum – with both cities wanting control of regional oil fields – and is inextricably linked to the armed conflict that later turned into a 38-year civil war, the longest-running one on the continent.

I may be biased, but my general impression is that China doesn’t care about South Sudan’s political process or stability

Estimated to contain the third-largest oil reserves in Africa, South Sudan was found to yield at least 3.5 billion barrels of crude oil.

This oil wealth has qualified South Sudan as a middle-income country despite its immense poverty and underdevelopment (the World Bank estimates that about half the population – 7.2 million people – face crisis-level food insecurity, with nearly 4 million people still displaced from years of conflict).

China first entered Sudan’s petroleum industry in 1995 in the thick of the second Sudanese civil war, despite American economic sanctions on Sudan. In 2008, it established a Consulate General in Juba and recognised South Sudan’s independence in July 2011.

There's more to this story

Get unlimited access to our exclusive journalism and features today. Our award-winning team of correspondents and editors report from over 54 African countries, from Cape Town to Cairo, from Abidjan to Abuja to Addis Ababa. Africa. Unlocked.

Subscribe Now

cancel anytime