The claim by South Sudan’s president that the country’s northern neighbour has declared war on it is a troubling development for the region. However, it also offers China an opportunity to exert its influence.
Relations between China and Sudan are generally good, and China has consistently supported the regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, including by opposing Bashir’s indictment by The Hague-based International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
This closeness is in part based on the close economic ties that China has with Sudan, especially concerning oil and infrastructure projects. China’s media has noted that Chinese companies have a virtual monopoly on telecommunication projects in Khartoum, while China has relied on Sudan’s oil.
And Beijing has been keen to continue close ties with recently created South Sudan. Although South Sudan only achieved independence last July, China has already moved to cement business with the young nation. The already close ties were underscored by the fact that despite his country being on the verge of all out conflict with Sudan, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir this week took a trip to Beijing, where he met his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.
Clearly, South Sudan fully understands both the economic and political influence that China exerts in the region. This influence is bolstered by the presence of so many Chinese workers in the region, something I saw for myself when I visited what is now the South Sudanese capital of Juba. At that time, South Sudan hadn’t declared independence. Regardless, though, China had already undertaken several important infrastructure projects such as road building and residential construction. The most prominent example of Chinese efforts is the presidential office building in South Sudan, which was built and is maintained by a Chinese company at a cost reportedly running into the hundreds of millions. Indeed, one person involved in the project said it was more like a presidential village than a presidential office. And judging from the locals I spoke with, Chinese assistance is welcomed in the hopes that Chinese knowhow can help develop this into a city to be proud of.
All this means that China is well-placed to consolidate its position in the region by mediating between the two sides, something it should try for three reasons:
First, South Sudan owes its independence largely to the West, which seeks to use South Sudan to balance the rule of Bashir. With this in mind, some Chinese scholars have grown concerned thatChina’s influence will gradually come to be overshadowed. The current tensions give China an opportunity to make clear that the West doesn’t have the necessary influence on both sides to resolve the current problems.
Second, China must ensure that it has a stable supply of oil from the region. North and South Sudanhold important resources, and it’s therefore in China’s direct interests to ensure the steady supply of resources needed to fuel the country’s growth.
Third, and looking ahead, if China can successfully intervene to defuse the conflict between the two Sudans, it will bolster trust in Beijing’s diplomacy among other governments in the region, as well as foster greater trust.
There’s much that is misunderstood about China’s role in Africa, and the current situation gives China’s leaders a chance to offer some much-needed reassurance. They should seize the chance to show that China’s foreign policy is as peaceful as they claim