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

By Kang-Chun Cheng
Posted on Wednesday, 25 May 2022 14:38

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.

‘Hands-off approach’?

Beijing’s engagement with Juba is typical of the vast difference between the approaches of the US and China, says Josh Maiyo, a lecturer at the United States International University in Nairobi, who specialises in China-Africa political ecology. “China traditionally has a hands-off approach in terms of governance, democratisation, and sticks to its policy position [of non-interference]. Meanwhile, the US falls back on traditional approaches to emphasise human rights and a neoliberal agenda. The spill-over effect is strong.”

Esther Soma, a native of South Sudan who previously worked with the UN on conflict resolution, has witnessed her home country’s arduous journey towards peace building. She doesn’t sense strong Chinese engagement here as in other African countries, such as Kenya. “The Chinese don’t necessarily seek integration or get to know the locals much. They tend to be in their own spaces unless you go to Lily’s, a supermarket run by the Chinese, or a Chinese hospital or school,” she tells The Africa Report.

The stereotype is that they don’t engage in the political process in a way that actually seeks peace or stability

She says: “I may be biased, but my general impression is that China doesn’t care about South Sudan’s political process or stability. Their engagement is often viewed through humanitarian donations or infrastructure projects – mostly on the outskirts of Juba – but China barely speaks on issues of the peace process, peace building, or human rights.

“When a violation of the peace agreement happens, other embassies issue statements, but you never see anything from China. The stereotype is that they don’t engage in the political process in a way that actually seeks peace or stability. Nevertheless, they provide opportunities for exchange for different groups of people. I know a couple of people who have benefited from bureaucratic exchange programs with China, which is a plus.”

However, Luke Patey, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies focusing on Chinese foreign and security policy, believes China has already begun to change that hands-off narrative in South Sudan.

“In the beginning, Beijing may have been more focused on economic and national security interests, but since oil companies had already set up offices in South Sudan well before its independence, with tens of billions of oil reserves in jeopardy, it naturally became more deeply involved.”

When conflict in South Sudan surged, Patey tells The Africa Report that the Chinese were quick to react. “They spoke to the rebel opposition, having already gotten their feet wet in Darfur through pushing Bashir to resolve the crisis by sending a host of Chinese peacekeepers.”

‘Development first’

As is the case with South Sudan, and other African countries, Beijing favours ‘development first’ and ‘peace through development’ strategies in the form of building infrastructure, poverty alleviation, and stable governance. This is different from the liberal peace idea that is central to most Western countries that focus on free markets and the protection of individual rights, says Aly Verjee, a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace.

“The much hotter debate is between constructivist peace building thinkers who want to move away from a neoliberal developmental model and those of a more liberal institutional persuasion. This might be in part because there is not a clear articulation of what Chinese alternatives really are, compared to, say, development, where there is a clearer sense of what a Chinese development model is and means.”

Patey says while there is an ongoing debate in peace and security studies, he points out that the Chinese concept of ‘developmental peace’ is perhaps more efficient than ‘liberal peace’ – but that there are also significant commonalities between the two.

Today’s China, given a choice, would have little interest in Sudanese oil…

“The Chinese aren’t the first to argue that development – addressing poverty first – is a driver for building peace, but what is different for Western ideals is the belief that the state, the central government, should be guiding rational economic strategies, focusing on political inclusivity, democracy, the involvement of civil society.”

Verjee also notes that China’s involvement in South Sudan is a historic artifact. “Today’s China, given a choice, would have little interest in Sudanese oil; the reason they ended up in Sudan was because of how it was a marginal economic frontier with little Western interest in the 1990s. China has never had to face a situation where its interests in one country became interests in two countries. The simple construct of non-interference was not designed for such an eventuality.”

Peace through development

“The absence of a colonial history between Africa and China is the single biggest advantage, which accounts for the absence of destabilising tension and an ever-growing spirit of cooperation and solidarity,” says Admore Mupoki Kambudzi, the acting director for Peace and Security at the African Union.

For South Sudan, this has meant China pushes on with its development so that over time, structural sources of conflict (a military government in Juba), can be overcome.

Despite a commitment to foreign sovereignty, the Chinese government is nevertheless tweaking how things are done in practice and venturing from its safety net of pledging mere rhetoric for peace.

The chronic state of insecurity, ranging from war to kidnapping and petty crime, has set the backdrop for doing business in the region. South Sudan has the highest capacity deficit on the continent. With a gross debt in the billions from 2012 to 2016, the government was forced to mortgage future oil revenue and has established a pattern of late loan payments. It’s unclear how long China will hold out hope as investors become increasingly reluctant to make big commitments.

 “The billions of dollars of Chinese investment and economic support have not yielded the outcome that Beijing had hoped for. Neither Sudan, South Sudan, nor the relations between them can be considered a showcase for Beijing’s ‘peace through development’ model,” says John Calabrese, the director of American University’s Middle East-Asia Project.

Careful participation

Even so, nuanced changes in China’s interpretation of its non-interference policy are increasingly apparent in its relations with South Sudan.

Although China has refrained from participating in certain international mediation efforts to broker peace (ex. the April 2005 Oslo donor conference), it did support the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission in 2011 by sending over a team of observers and donating $500,000.

During the implementation of the CPA in 2005, Beijing supported negotiations that divided oil revenues between Juba and Khartoum, albeit in line with its conservative approach: abstaining from full-fledged mediation yet supporting economic decisions.

When the civil war broke out in December 2013, volatility peaked and disrupted oil production. At the time, China was operating in notably unstable regions since the most accessible oil fields had already been drilled. This was the first time that Beijing stepped in, not only to protect citizens and its economic interests but to support an end to the war and aid humanitarian goals.

Peacekeeping or politics?

Xiao Kang, who works for the UN in Malakāl, a town in Northern South Sudan, says China has yet to penetrate this remote, northeastern portion of the country. “I see China as venturing more into peacekeeping to garner respect and credibility for the international community, but the situation is dire here. China does not have the capacity to expand here yet. Even with our own work, liaising with the military government is difficult due to a general lack of trust.”

In January 2015, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi mediated discussions committed to ‘ceasing hostilities’ between the rebels and the South Sudanese government. The Chinese offered financial incentives to the rebels to refrain from attacking, notes Patey.

Nevertheless, private Chinese security companies and arms dealers going in to do business with South Sudan have further complicated matters. Incidents of Chinese arms fueling the conflict in Darfur were not only embarrassing, but counter to China’s desire to broker peace. “These cases show how it’s not always a well-oiled, monolithic machine sent from Beijing to all actors,” says Patey. “These days, the Chinese are no longer the only ones going into high-risk zones. Chinese companies have also become more sensitive to the loss of life and security abroad.”

The Chinese don’t influence our politics. They don’t comment on it, and what they want, they pay for…

Patey believes that South Sudan’s winding history with attempts at foreign capacity building demonstrates the need for international cooperation. “These days, it seems that China and the US don’t want to work together on anything. Africa actually offers a venue for collaboration, with relatively low geopolitical risk.”

As the South Sudanese rapper Emmanuel Jal said in a CNN interview back in 2011, “The Chinese don’t influence our politics. They don’t comment on it, and what they want, they pay for… The only foreign policy advice I heard from China was when they said to Sudan, ‘Don’t go back to war.’ That’s all they said. They didn’t push anything else.”

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