China’s African Adventure

The disintegration of South Sudan, the world's newest country, is driving a foreign-policy shift in one of the world's oldest.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Kazuhiro Ibuki - AFP - Getty
Kazuhiro Ibuki - AFP - Getty

The maelstrom of violence in South Sudan shows no signs of abating, with rebel forces reportedly advancing on a pair of key oil-producing regions and massacred civilians piling up by the hundreds. The horrors have prompted outrage from senior officials at the United Nations and the United States — but the biggest potential impact from the unrest could occur thousands of miles away, in Beijing.

The disintegration of the world’s newest country is driving a profound shift in one of the world’s oldest. China, which for decades has sought to pair globe-trotting economic ambitions with an inviolable "non-interference" approach to other countries’ affairs, is departing from tradition to take an increasingly active role in the Sudan crisis.

China’s African envoy, Zhong Jianhua, has blitzed the region in recent months trying to help craft a solution for South Sudan’s internal strife, a stark contrast to the much-criticized, stand-off position China held just a few years ago when Khartoum ran roughshod over civilians but kept sending plenty of oil to Beijing. In February, Zhong told Reuters that China’s hands-on approach to South Sudan represents a "new chapter" in Beijing’s millennial foreign policy. Earlier this year, Zhong offered to facilitate mediations between the country’s warring factions designed to wind down the fighting.

"China is taking a more active interest. They are trying to figure out just what it means to be a responsible, rising power," said Deborah Brautigam, an expert on Africa at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "Right now, Sudan is kind of the test case for how do you do shuttle diplomacy, how do you do negotiations, how do you try to be a peacekeeper, how do you take on a greater global role."

Beijing has already sharply ramped up its participation in U.N. peacekeeping activities and other international endeavors that it once denounced as interference in the sovereign affairs of other states. China is the biggest single contributor of U.N. peacekeepers, but they have almost always played support roles far from the front lines. Last year, however, China dispatched combat troops to Mali to help reduce tensions in the country’s restive north, a first for Beijing.

To be sure, Beijing’s willingness to inject itself into the South Sudanese crisis is driven by the simple fact that China buys almost 80 percent of South Sudanese oil exports and has watched with alarm as the current fighting has crippled the country’s ability to produce and export oil to customers in Asia. Oil production in both Sudans has dropped from a peak of about 480,000 barrels a day in 2010 to about 160,000 barrels today, and even that last bit is under pressure from rebels in South Sudan, who have ordered international oil companies to pack up and leave as part of a strategy to cut off the main economic lifeline of the South Sudanese government.

China may also not have much of a choice. The cease-fire in South Sudan brokered in early 2014 imploded in the last week, with rebels advancing on key cities in oil-producing regions and slaughtering civilians as they went. The political nature of the fighting — which pits Salva Kiir’s South Sudanese government forces against rebels led by Riek Machar — has by some accounts descended into an ethnic bloodletting. China has been caught in the middle; a pair of its oil workers were abducted by Machar’s forces last week and Chinese oil firms have been told to leave the country.

The U.N. and the South Sudanese government blamed Machar’s rebel forces for the purported slaughter of hundreds of civilians in the atrocities in the oil capital of Bentiu; Machar denied his troops were responsible. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., decried the violence on Thursday, calling it "outrageous" and saying that "the world’s newest state is clearly on a precipice."

China’s traditional interests in both Sudan and South Sudan, and its newfound interest as a mediator, were on full display in the wake of the attacks. China’s foreign ministry on Wednesday "strongly condemned" the killings in Bentiu and called on "relevant parties in South Sudan to resolve their issues by pushing forward political dialogue and achieve reconciliation." But the ministry also called on South Sudan’s government to better protect Chinese oil firms and workers there after the two workers were abducted last week.

Oil markets are not panicking about the interruptions to South Sudanese production the way they did late last year when rebels first threatened the country’s oil fields. That is partly because escalating tensions in Ukraine weigh more heavily on energy markets, but also because South Sudan’s oil sector has essentially gone walkabout since the country achieved independence from the north in 2011.

Oil production has fallen by half, even in relatively peaceful times, and oil exports have fallen even further due to disputes between Juba and Khartoum over how to share the proceeds of oil exports; the only pipeline to the sea goes north through Sudan. That is bad news for South Sudan, which the World Bank describes as "the most oil dependent country in the world," with oil accounting for about 97 percent of government revenues.

Despite the relatively paltry quantities, South Sudan’s oil is still important to China, the world’s biggest oil importer. In 2011, China bought about 80 percent of South Sudan’s exports, or roughly 260,000 barrels a day; that provided 5 percent of China’s crude oil imports. In 2012, the latest year for which full data is available, South Sudan exported about 50,000 barrels a day to China, or 1 percent of that country’s imports. In percentage terms, South Sudan — when its export capacity is at full blast — provides a greater share of Chinese oil imports than Kuwait or Iraq do for the United States, underscoring its importance as a long-term source of supply for Beijing.

In the past, that kind of economic interest shaped China’s view of Sudan as well as most other countries in which it did business. For years, China invested in, and bought oil, from the outcast regime of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir; China also had friendly relations with a host of other rogue nations, from Libya to North Korea and Myanmar, that faced a battery of sanctions and other restrictions imposed by the West.

Much of that began to change in 2011. The civil uprising in Libya forced China to rethink its suppo
rt for Muammar al-Qaddafi, and in fact China supported modest United Nations sanctions on leading Libyan officials. The hurried evacuation of Chinese civilians from Libya that year also brought home to Beijing the need to match security capabilities with its investment reach, lessons which are being applied in the rest of Africa today.

Likewise, the creation of South Sudan as an independent state in 2011 forced Beijing to recalibrate its relations with Khartoum and Juba, since most of the oil fields are in the newly independent south.

To be sure, oil still looms large in China’s view of what’s at stake in the Sudan crisis; last year, Princeton Lyman, the former U.S. envoy to South Sudan, criticized China for worrying more about the secure supply of crude than finding a solution to South Sudan’s political problems. But in general, U.S. diplomats working in South Sudan have praised China’s newfound political engagement.

So far, China’s active diplomacy to find a solution for South Sudan’s domestic woes has not been repeated in other countries. Beijing has maintained a relatively hands-off role regarding the crises in Syria and Ukraine, and China’s forays into Middle East diplomacy have been limited to ensuring the free flow of energy resources, rather than dabbling in internal politics.

Still, the Sudan experiment could well serve as a template for China’s future foreign policy, as the country learns how to leverage its influence rather than just its economic heft, Brautigam said.

"They’ll do it in one place, and experiment, and learn from that, and I think that’s what they’re doing in Sudan," she said.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP