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China’s Sudanese Predicament

With its economic interests in jeopardy, how strong a role will China take in the resolving the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan?
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Chinese peacekeepers in Sudan. Photograph by the UN.

Beijing, China:

Recent outbreaks of violence on the loosely demarcated border between Sudan and South Sudan have brought the issue of Sudanese oil back into sharp focus for Chinese diplomats.

The violence comes just a week before the summit intended to bring about order within the disputed regions, and stability to the South’s oil-producing Unity State. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has now pulled out of the summit citing the apparent attacks on Sudan’s oil fields.

This is a major blow to China, which previously received 5% of its oil from the Sudanese operation, and represents a spanner in the works for the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which has invested heavily in the region in return for access to the oil in the south.

China’s handling of the issue serves as further evidence that China’s path of investing in developing countries does not marry well with its foreign policy approach of non-interference.

China’s interests regional interests

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei has called on both sides to handle the dispute through negotiation. However, calling for restraint in the latest instalment of a conflict that has lasted several decades may be somewhat naïve.

There is no doubt that Chinese officials will want to avoid a potentially costly and hazardous intervention between the Sudans, especially during a period of domestic political change in China. Yet leaving states to pursue negotiation among themselves, as might be called for under China’s norm of non-interference,  misses the complexity of the conflict.

South Sudan claims that the Sudanese government in Khartoum is supporting southern rebels within Unity State, while Sudan counters these claims, alleging that South Sudan is supporting rebels in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, north of the border.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM/N) has been fighting the Sudanese Army since June of last year within South Kordofan, and since September in the Blue Nile. The SPLM/N’s involvement in the second Sudanese civil war aligns them with the South in the eyes of Khartoum, whether the South Sudanese government in Juba supports them or not. Meanwhile, the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) rebels are fighting against what they refer to as a corrupt South Sudanese leadership.

Prior to secession, the issue of civil war provided only a logistical problem for CNPC and China in terms of maintaining the flow of Southern oil through the Northern pipelines. Once the South was granted independence however, this logistical problem became a much more refined balancing act, in which Khartoum was no longer the only state actor with which China has to deal.

Growing complexity

CNPC’s problem, and more importantly China’s problem, comes from the fact that these clashes and incursions are taking place across a loosely demarcated border. It may be of some comfort to Chinese officials that these clashes can be passed off as acts carried out by rebel groups. But when you add to this that the South’s army has taken over the oil field of Heglig, to which both Sudanese states lay claim, it is harder to maintain stability.

Back at the start of February, the situation seemed to be progressing in a manner which would have pleased China. A security agreement signed on February 10 apparently showed the intent of both sides to avoid conflict. Only two weeks ago, China's Special Representative on African Affairs, Zhong Jianhua visited Sudan and South Sudan to smooth the way for the April 3 summit, which it was hoped would have led to a resumption of oil exports to China.

However, with uncertainty abounding over territorial claims, preventing conflict from spiralling will prove difficult. In the border area of Jao, clashes broke out between Sudanese and South Sudanese forces. South Sudan reported that the Sudanese army launched air strikes against oil fields within the South’s Unity State. President Salva Kiir of South Sudan claimed that the Sudan Armed Forces provoked Southern forces by carrying out aerial attacks on Jao and Pan Akuach ultimately leading to the South’s occupation of Heglig.

Stand by or step in?

Many believe that China could help end the Sudanese conflicts due to their economic might and interests in both countries. Sudan seems to believe China has the political and economic wherewithal to influence proceedings. Khartoum has previously sought Beijing’s help in mediating the issue of oil transportation fees such as during the visit of Sudan’s foreign minister Ali Ahmed Karti to Beijing in February.

However, this does not sit well with China’s historical norm of non-interference in the sovereign affairs of other states. Nevertheless, as the conflict pulls in more actors and rebel groups, its complexity deepens. As it extends and spreads, China may find its light touch approach unsustainable.

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