Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is on the beginning-of-year Africa tour customarily undertaken by Chinese foreign ministers. On Monday, Wang was in Sudan, where he participated in a discussion with both sides of the South Sudan conflict on how to speed up political reconciliation in that newly-formed country. Also under discussion: the lingering conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, which dates back to the years before South Sudanese independence.
In Khartoum, Wang met with representatives from both sides of the South Sudan conflict as well as officials from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a trade bloc consisting of eight African nations that is helping mediate the South Sudan peace process. China’s Foreign Ministry called the meeting a “China-brokered Special Consultation in Support of the IGAD –led South Sudan Peace Process,” which impressively manages to both put China front and center and yet insist on IGAD leadership. “This Consultation is held to continue with the support for the mediation efforts by IGAD on the South Sudan issue, [and to] encourage conflicting parties of South Sudan to proceed with dialogue and negotiation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei explained.
Why the insistence on IGAD’s leadership role? In a word, political cover. China generally steers clear of internal conflicts like the ongoing war between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and opposition fighters led by former Vice President Riek Machar – all the more prudent as the two sides are largely divided along ethnic lines. However, China’s own interests in South Sudan – and, perhaps just as importantly, a lack of any other major powers with an incentive to step up — have forced Beijing to play a more active role. China has been acting as a mediator between the two South Sudanese sides for over a year now. “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 last June.
Since then, China has only stepped up its involvement in the war-torn country, sending a battalion of 700 peacekeepers that tripled the number of troops China had assisting the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan. The initial announcement was made in September; all 700 troops are scheduled to be in South Sudan by March of this year. China has been active in providing financial aid as well. Writing for The Diplomat last October, Zhou Hang estimated that China’s total aid to South Sudan is worth at least $21 million – and could be as high as $45 million if a promised $24 million grant is included in the figure.
China’s noticeable involvement in South Sudan has opened Beijing to criticisms that it is selfishly protecting its own interests, rather than acting out of a good-faith effort to resolve the conflict. Foreign Minister Wang Yi refuted those claims during his visit to Sudan. “China is mediating between Sudan and South Sudan not for its own interests but acting on the responsibilities and obligations of a responsible world power,” Xinhua paraphrased Wang as saying.
Yet Wang also made a special point of noting that “wars and conflict hurt the oil industry,” which is where Beijing’s interests are concentrated. “China, Sudan, and South Sudan have had sound cooperation” over oil production, Wang noted, while also pointing out that any damage to the oil industry would hit the Sudanese and South Sudanese people first and hardest.
In stepping up its role in mediating between the various factions involved in the South Sudan conflict, China may indeed be trying to play the role of a “responsible world power.” But no matter how “responsible” a country is, the government must still pick and choose where to invest its time and resources – a calculation that is naturally heavily influenced by where national interests are at stake. China has undeniable interests involved in both Sudan and South Sudan, and would benefit greatly if a long-elusive peace could be found for this region. In this regard, China is acting not only like a “responsible world power” but like a practical great power.