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China Navigates Delicate Balance Between Two Sudans

  • Kelly J. Kelly

South Sudan map

South Sudan map

China has been playing a delicate game of balancing alliances between Khartoum and Juba, especially now as the two countries try to settle their differences over oil fees once and for all. China watchers say that its role in the negotiations mark a change in the developing giant’s foreign policy, and may mark the beginning of a bigger shift across Africa.

Deborah Brautigam, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has been studying China’s role in Africa for over thirty years. She says she’s been closely monitoring Chinese diplomats during the talks between Sudan and South Sudan in Addis Ababa this summer.

“Sudan is fascinating because it’s a good example of how China is getting pushed out of its comfort zone in its non-interference policy. You can see that in trying to broker this recent agreement. They’ve had their first special envoy -- shuttle diplomacy. The Chinese never did that before.”

Brautigam explains that China’s usual foreign policy is governed by five principles of peaceful co-existence. One of those principles is that China doesn’t interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign countries, like Sudan and South Sudan. But she says two factors are changing China’s behavior. The first is the need for natural resources for their rapidly growing economy.

“It’s not only for their own development. They’re also the workshop for the world. [The things they sell] have to be made with resources that come from somewhere to export things to the US and to Europe. To secure those supplies, they realize they need to get more involved in helping to ensure areas are stable and peaceful. Not something they can just sit back and allow others always to take the role.”

The second factor is politics. Brautigam says China wants to be seen as a responsible player on the world stage. A former U-S ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, points out that China also has a particular—and significant—stake in getting the oil flowing again.

“China has a huge vested interest in this. This is oil that goes through pipelines that they built, and most of it goes to China.”

If what these experts say is true, it’s unlikely that China would help fund a second oil pipeline out of South Sudan that bypasses Sudan, as some have hoped.

“I’m sure that is what they said to Kiir when he was visiting Beijing in April. They said we can offer you a very large package. You can repay it with your oil revenues in the future. But use it for the things you need domestically, for your own infrastructure. Don’t use it to build another pipeline that would be stupid.”

Professor Brautigam says South Sudan—and other African countries—can benefit from China’s brand of foreign aid, which often comes in the form of a secured loan.
“They think that foreign aid, particularly from developing countries to other developing countries, should benefit both partners. And they see nothing to apologize for [about] that.”

In the past, the Chinese have created loan packages in countries like Ghana, which repaid the money in cocoa beans, and Ethiopia, which repaid it in sesame exports, and even in Sudan, where a Chinese loan repaid in oil helped the country build a refinery. These kinds of arrangement are the kinds of win-wins Brautigam says the Chinese are good at, and likely planning to create in South Sudan, too.

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