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China and the Current Crises in the Sudans

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  • March 06, 2012
    Round Table

    Chair: Ruchita Beri

    Mr. Daniel Large, Research Associate with the South African Institute of International Affairs, gave a presentation on ‘China and the Current Crises in the Sudans’. He opened his presentation with a background of the current situation in Sudan and South Sudan and observed that there is a pattern of multiple inter-locking of crises in the two Sudans. He describes China’s relations with the two nations as an ‘intriguing work in progress’. A year ago, China’s relations were restricted to Khartoum but ever since, its relations with South Sudan have been growing. Since January 2011, there has been a qualitative acceleration of Chinese engagement in South Sudan and the numbers of Chinese businesses have grown exponentially. This has led to a scramble for businesses which range from SMEs to independent and private entrepreneurs. China’s aid programme, through humanitarian and development assistance to South Sudan, is being rolled out in its ten provinces. Its political relation with South Sudan has moved from a state of war to a pragmatic friendship, with enhanced government and inter-party interactions. Though some areas of tension remain, the relations have significantly improved. However, one key bottleneck for long-term Chinese investment in these countries is the lack of finances.

    Throwing some light on China’s engagement with South Sudan, Mr. Large argued that China began its relations even before South Sudan seceded away from Sudan. According to some observers, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) was ‘sneaking in’ to initiate relations with Juba in the mid-2000s. In July 2007, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir visited China and elaborated his country’s position on its relations with Sudan and the geographical distribution of his nation’s oil resources. A year later in September 2008, China opened it’s Consulate in South Sudan.
    The two Sudans had separated without settling their disputes on the oil resources. Arguing that South Sudan did not make an emotional decision on the issue of oil-sharing, Mr. Large stated that the country began to protect its interests through negotiations with the Sudan in November, 2011. Through a contract between the Government of South Sudan and the oil companies, South Sudan also managed to free itself from any kind of liability in the eventuality of the companies shutting down. Following this, China’s relationship with South Sudan soured and Juba became uncomfortable with Chinese intervention in the oil negotiations. However, in the Addis Ababa talks between Sudan and South Sudan over oil-sharing, the Troika (comprising the US, Norway and the UK) were sidelined and China was expected to make a difference.

    Mr. Large concluded his presentation by stating that security is the main concern for China in the Sudans given the fact that in late January 2012, Chinese workers were kidnapped by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (North). Chinese presence in the two countries has also raised issues of its responsibility to protect the civilians, the practicality in mobilizing aid for the countries and if it is worth at all to be engaged in the countries given such fragile security environment. China’s relation with the two countries is characterized by what Mr. Large calls, ‘sober realism’. In the likelihood of a change of Chinese leadership, there could be a departure from the current stand of a favourable relationship with Sudan. Under the Chinese initiative of ensuring security and development, there is great hope for development in South Sudan, while in Sudan the agricultural renaissance is touted to replace the former oil economy. But given the pattern of intensifying insecurities in South Sudan, Mr Large contended that it remains doubtful if these programmes can be realized.

    In the discussion that ensued, some more issues related to China’s wider engagement with the African continent were brought to the fore. Given China’s growing power status and its medium- and long-term interests in Africa, there is an increasing deployment of the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) on the shores off the African coast. China has also been gradually developing its operational capacities in Sudan to protect its national interests. Relations between China and Sudan have been deepening, but this pragmatic relationship is based on mistrust. However, the South Sudanese have not been as welcoming of China and the latter are concerned about corruption in Salva Kiir’s government.

    Sudan and South Sudan are inextricably dependent on one another and their relationship is based on good neighbourliness. However, it is extremely hard for China to balance and therefore it is ‘uncomfortably stuck’ between the two. As a result, it is continually trying to navigate through unchartered waters. It was concluded that despite all the challenges, there has been a pronounced improvement in China’s relationship with South Sudan both in tangible (development aid) and non-tangible (reception of South Sudanese government officials in China) terms. Given China’s engagement in the country, it hopes for a more established, viable South Sudanese government that is capable of better governance.

    Report prepared by Keerthi Sampath Kumar, Research Assistant, IDSA

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