NEWS ANALYSIS: China’s role in South Sudan marks change in policy

by Michael Martina

China-Pet-007    Workers for the China Petroleum Engineering & Construction Corp (CPECC) construct new oil facilities in Sudan. China has already gained a strong foothold in many African markets, said a UN report. Photograph: Trevor Snapp/Bloomberg/Getty Images

February 13, 2014[BEIJING] — CHINA’s efforts to help resolve a conflict in South Sudan mark a “new chapter” in Beijing’s foreign policy that will seek to engage more in Africa’s security, China’s top envoy to the continent said.

China is the biggest investor in South Sudan’s oil industry, and experts have argued that Beijing’s typically reser-ved diplomacy will have to keep pace with its growing business interests across Africa.

China’s special representative on African Affairs Zhong Jianhua joined peace talks last month, which led to a delicate ceasefire between the government of South Sudan President Salva Kiir and rebels loyal to his sacked deputy Riek Machar.

“China should be engaging more in peace and security solutions for any conflict there,” Mr Zhong told Reuters in an interview at the foreign ministry building in Beijing on Monday.

“This is a challenge for China. This is something new for us … It is a new chapter for Chinese foreign affairs,” said the veteran diplomat in English.

Thousands of people have been killed and more than 500,000 driven from their homes since mid-December, in the worst violence the world’s newest country has faced since it won its independence from Sudan in 2011.

Since the ceasefire was agreed on January 23, both sides have accused each other of violations. Regional and world powers worry about the potential for violence in oil-rich South Sudan to spill over into an already volatile region of Africa. Mr Zhong said the conflict was his most urgent priority as China’s Africa envoy.

Diplomats from embassies in Ethiopia and South Sudan’s capital Juba, joined early efforts at ceasefire monitoring, Mr Zhong said, a move seen by western diplomats as both welcome and unexpected. “We promised we will join all the efforts for ceasefire monitoring and mechanisms,” he said.

Since 1954, long before China became an economic power with interests around the globe, Beijing has upheld a foreign policy mantra of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs.

But western diplomats have argued that China’s weight as an investor in South Sudan gives it extra leverage to defuse tension there, and have criticised what they regard as Beijing’s aloof policy doctrine.

The need to expand China’s foreign policy footprint and protect its interests are driving China’s more assertive presence in South Sudan, Mr Zhong said, adding that China would not ignore the interests of South Sudan for the sake of its own.

Indeed, western diplomats have noted a deeper level of engagement by China in international diplomatic efforts to resolve the South Sudan conflict, and have even seen some signs of China’s readiness to put more pressure on Juba to avoid a rerun of fighting after any deal.

That, they say, contrasts with Beijing’s usual cautious tendency to keep to the political sidelines.

“It’s the first time China has been so proactive in addressing a foreign crisis. China has clearly been driven by a single motive here — its substantial oil interests in the country,” said a Beijing-based western diplomat who follows China’s relations with Africa.

China imported 3.5-million tonnes of crude oil from South Sudan last year, according to Chinese Customs data, making it the new state’s biggest customer.

But Mr Zhong said China would proceed with caution, and he gave few details on how it would expand its role.

“We are not the party to propose our own initiative, at least at this stage,” Mr Zhong said. “So, we urge all parties concerned to respect an African solution proposed by African parties.”

It is that hesitancy that leaves some experts sceptical about how quickly China would transform its status in Africa, where some countries — while grateful for cheap Chinese loans — have grumbled that China has sucked in their raw materials but offered little exchange of skills in return.

China has sought to change that perception, highlighted by a trip by President Xi Jinping to Africa last year, during which he spoke of work to transfer technology and offer training to help build industry there.

Still, China is not seen as a driving force behind peace talks in South Sudan led by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development group of African states. The most prominent international backers remain the US, UK and Norway, whose top diplomats have been closely involved in meetings with Africans to push along the process.

“China has been playing an active role, although a limited one,” said the programme assistant for the African International Affairs programme at the London School of Economics, Laura Barber, in an e-mail.

“China’s mediation experience remains limited and the extent and depth of its involvement in trying to resolve the South Sudan crisis is limited. Respect for sover-eignty remains at the heart of China’s foreign policy,” she said.

Mr Zhong said China would not take a position on the involvement of the Ugandan military. Rebels have said it had given air and ground support to government troops battling to recapture rebel-held towns before the ceasefire. The Ugandan army has dismissed those allegations as “cheap lies”. — Reuters