China Power

In South Sudan Conflict, China Tests Its Mediation Skills

Driven by commercial interests, China is taking the unusual step of mediating between rival South Sudanese factions.

In South Sudan Conflict, China Tests Its Mediation Skills
Credit: South Sudan map via Shutterstock

As mediators try yet again to jumpstart stalled peace talks between warring factions in South Sudan, the world will get to see China playing an unfamiliar role: that of lead mediator in another country’s internal conflict. Usually, China’s insistence on non-interference in others’ affairs prevents it from taking such steps, but China’s unique interests in South Sudan have called for a different tactic.

According to Reuters, Western diplomats have noticed a more “hands-on approach” from China on the South Sudan issue. China has been heavily involved in the peace talks in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Talks began in January 2014, less than a month after the conflict began, and the negotiations have continued on and off ever since (two ceasefire agreements, reached in January and May, both failed to actually halt the violence). Throughout the process, China has been in close contact with both sides, and with Western diplomats and African mediators. It’s a stark difference from China’s usual approach to internal crises; Beijing typically prefers to stay out of the fray and call for a peaceful resolution from afar.

When asked why China was taking “a more proactive role” in the South Sudan crisis, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that China was acting with the goal of “maintaining regional peace and creating enabling conditions for local development.” Of course, this doesn’t answer the fundamental question — there are many other internal crises where Beijing has chosen not to get involved, despite threats to “regional peace” and “local development.”

China’s involvement in South Sudan recognizes the substantial commercial interests Beijing has at stake — most notably in the oil industry. According to Reuters, before the conflict began in December, South Sudan was providing five percent of China’s oil imports. Now, oil production in the country has been slashed by one-third. Chinese workers have also been evacuated from South Sudan due to the threat of violence. Principles aside, China had every reason to push hard for a swift resolution to the crisis.

Perhaps even more importantly, other major world powers, including the U.S., have far less reason to take proactive action in South Sudan. Other countries have fewer interests in the new nation,and were unlikely to get involved to the extent Beijing has. China stepped into the void, taking up a rare role as a mediator. “We have huge interests in South Sudan so we have to make a greater effort to persuade the two sides to stop fighting and agree to a ceasefire,” Ma Qiang, the Chinese ambassador to South Sudan, told Reuters.

Despite China’s active role in addressing this crisis, Hong Lei emphasized that “it does not mean that China has changed its diplomatic principles.” Interestingly, Hong spoke of China’s “peace promotion work between the South Sudan and Sudan,” rather than addressing China’s role as mediator between the two rival factions in South Sudan’s internal conflict. Meditating between two sovereign states is one thing; mediating in an internal war poses thornier questions for Beijing’s policy of non-interference.

As China’s interests abroad grow, its policy of non-interference will face more and more challenges. China’s vision for a “New Silk Road” would see increased Chinese investment and trade in some of the most unstable regions in the world. Much closer to home, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor could face serious security threats from extremists operating within Pakistan’s border.  As China continues to build-up economic interests in vulnerable areas, it will face more pressure at home and abroad to replicate its South Sudan performance in future regional crises — even if this means interfering in strictly internal conflicts.