As the conflict in South Sudan crosses the one year mark, China is preparing its first deployment of combat troops in UN peacekeeping operations, reflecting the change in the country’s policy of non-interference based on principles set down by Premier Zhou Enlai at the 1955 Bangdung Peace Conference. But what exactly does this deployment of 700 combat troops to South Sudan mean – is it an example of China using its military to safeguard its commercial interests in the region? And does it also open up a new front in the country’s rivalry with India, which has been one of the major security providers operating under the UN flag on the African continent? With both countries becoming ever more dependent on African resources to drive their growing economies, India and China’s interests in peace and stability for trade are very high – but beyond this interest also lies an incentive to check each other’s influence in the region.
Before the outbreak of ethnic and political violence in South Sudan in December 2013, the Chinese state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) already had billions of dollars invested in the country’s oil fields and provided China’s rapidly growing economy with 5 percent of its oil imports. However, over the last year, there has been a drastic reduction in oil production due to the violence. Chinese efforts to broker a ceasefire in South Sudan through diplomatic efforts have been both visible and direct, though it has not yet found success. This latest move, which was first announced in September, represents China’s clear willingness to make proactive use of its military to defend its commercial interests, while simultaneously improving its standing in the UN as the largest contributor of peacekeeping troops among the permanent five members of the Security Council.
Until the announcement of the deployment of combat troops, Chinese contributions in South Sudan and other African nations have mostly been in the fields of engineering, medicine and transportation with only minimal security deployments. China also secured a deal with the UN where peacekeepers would be used to protect South Sudan’s oil workers last summer. While this concession was reportedly made to garner Chinese support to bolster the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the UN has denied reports that these troops would be deployed to the regions with the vast majority of South Sudan’s oil fields or the oil fields themselves.
The new contribution will bring the total number of Chinese troops serving under UNMISS to over one thousand, making it one of the largest contributors of troops after India, which has committed more than 2200 troops. It is not India’s first deployment of combat troops for UN peacekeeping missions – the country contributed troops to the Korean War in the 1950’s and the Congo in the 1960’s. India currently has more than 8000 military personnel deployed in a dozen UN missions, which is the result of the need to gain prestige and traction in the UN Security Council.
India’s presence in South Sudan, however, is more than simply an attempt to win favor in the UN as India has burgeoning economic interests in the country. Indian companies have a 25 percent stake in a two South Sudan oil companies as well as an oil pipeline, in addition to other commercial interests. These interests have resulted in the Indian government’s decision to maintain its contributions to the UN despite growing violence in South Sudan and the loss of seven personnel in the last year.
The returns on these deployments from a purely commercial perspective are hard to measure. It is, however, a fact that Beijing has significant commercial interests in the region, especially in the form of investments in return for resources, which are used to drive its ever growing industrial base. Beijing’s commitment of about 2200 troops in pockets all over Africa has been only a minor contribution so far in securing those interests. On the other hand, considering India’s return on its trade with African countries, its total contributions on the continent seem dull in comparison to China.
However, China’s new willingness to wield a stick in regions where it has commercial interests could represent a challenge to the political and security order currently in place. Both China and India are already locked in a competition to secure the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean Region. This competition encompasses everything from diplomatic efforts to win docking rights for commercial and naval shipping to conducting naval patrols and joint training exercises with countries in the region, in addition to conducting anti-piracy operations around the Gulf of Aden. And now this rivalry has spilled over into Africa.
With both economies continuing to grow and African resources requiring greater military strength to safeguard, India and China’s already uneasy relationship is bound to be strained by the balancing act in South Sudan.
Pushan Das is a researcher at Wikistrat.