Sudan is now in the fourth week of intense military confrontations in the ongoing armed conflict between two warring military factions. A U.S.-brokered framework agreement had fallen through in Sudan, which has historically had more military and political unrest than any other African state since its independence from Britain in 1956. Sudan has seen more than 11 military coups since then, pitting one military group against another. Peace deals have only worked momentarily and intermittently, with democratic transitions persistently thwarted by kleptocratic warlordism.
Recent months have seen China seek to position itself as a regional peace-broker, with the historic resumption of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia closely followed by Beijing’s proposal for peace talks to end the war in Ukraine. A reasonable question that could be asked, then, is whether China can extend its mediating capacities to the Sudanese context. China’s involvement in Sudan is significant and needs to be leveraged upon, especially in matters of peacemaking, yet previous peace attempts have largely excluded China.
Yet three core caveats limit the extent to which Beijing can play a constructive role: i) China’s long-standing preferences to steer clear of internal, civil strife in conflict-prone nations; ii) China’s diminishing socioeconomic and political interests within Sudan; and iii) the complex geopolitical nature of the conflict.
Beijing could hold the key to any future peace in Sudan, but this projection must be buttressed with realism.
An Overview of Sino-Sudanese Relations
First, some context. The contemporary China-Sudan relationship dates back to the 1950s, though serious bilateral economic relations would not commence until the 1970s – a period of intense industrial activity in Sudan especially in areas of mining and oil exploration. In relation to long-standing political divides, Beijing has consistently preferred to have Sudanese parties devise and pursue endogenous solutions to internal issues, undergirded by China’s rhetorical adherence to the sovereignty doctrine in an attempt to differentiate itself from what it typecasts as “Western interventionism.”
As such, Beijing has – perhaps till recently – been keen on courting Sudan, a country long castigated by Western-led international actors due to its domestic human rights records and political atrocities. For instance, when the United States blacklisted Sudan on terrorism charges in 1993, Beijing’s presence in the country expanded through substantial investments in the Sudanese oil sector.
For several decades, Beijing has maintained stable relations with Khartoum, most notably with the former longtime ruler Omar Al-Bashir, whom Beijing considered an important ally until his ouster in April 2019. Just a year prior to the coup, in 2018, Bashir was part of the African leaders invited by President Xi Jinping to the 7th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). There, Xi reportedly pledged China’s unwavering support for Bashir in the face of an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, stressing that “foreign forces” should never interfere in internal affairs.
In a post-al-Bashir Sudan, China has limited leverage, partly because the succeeding regimes have taken over Sudan through frameworks that have increasingly sidelined China in decision-making processes. There are growing signs of wariness in Beijing in regards to the future of Sudan, and China seemingly has taken a “wait and see” approach to events in Sudan.
For one, Beijing was clearly absent in the official peace-brokering efforts after the 2019 military coup; instead, the modus vivendi was predominantly negotiated through the regional power players (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Egypt) on one hand and the so-called Quad (not the Indo-Pacific quartet of the same name, but Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on the other.
Yet China retains a substantial economic and investment presence in Sudan. Sudan considers China a key trading partner. In 2021 alone, Sudan exported $780 million worth of products to China and in the previous quarter-century increased its exports to China at an annual rate of 10.6 percent. Indeed, China is Sudan’s second-largest trading partner after the UAE with about 130 Chinese companies actively taking part in Sudan’s investment sphere. These firms are actively engaged in Sudan’s vast mining industries of gold, chromite, marble among other essential metals. Such investments have been estimated at over $100 million and are projected to continue.
These investments are deeply intertwined with the politics and economics of the Sudanese conflict in many ways. The warring generals tend to possess controlling stakes in some of the leading energy and mineral firms within the country. Generals such as the Rapid Support Forces’ Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and the Sudanese Armed Forces’ General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan have benefited substantially from such investments.
China’s Skin in the Game: Incentives and Capabilities
The reasons for recurring conflict in Sudan are multifold. In more structural and conceptual terms, as witnessed elsewhere (South Sudan, Central African Republic, the Congo, Colombia), military conflicts often evade simple neoliberal matrixes of peace due to the overt cultural connotations of perceived interference by outside forces. In the aftermath of the 2019 overthrow of the al-Bashir regime, the army re-emerged in 2021 and ousted the civilian-led government under the so-called Sovereignty Council, which had received massive support from the West and its international financial machineries notably the World Bank and the IMF. Such flawed peace-making and negotiating models, spearheaded by well-intentioned but fundamentally inhibited international actors, as the Cambridge-based Sudanese researcher Sharath Srinivasan details in the “When Peace Kills Politics,” tend to cause more problems in a context as politically charged and factionally fragmented as Sudan.
Beijing could theoretically present a neutral voice in the current state of affairs to fill the gray areas unaddressed by neoliberal peace offers in the context of Sudan. This would look like Beijing leveraging its historical links with Sudan by convincing the two warring sides to resolve their differences through a multi-partisan-adjudicated mediation framework; requesting humanitarian ceasefires and safe passage for refugees and internally displaced persons; and introducing an international coalition of peacekeepers that would, at least in the short term, curb the spread of the civil strife across the country. In that sense, China could be a credible actor precisely because of its palpable absence from and reticence to partake in the many failed attempts at peace in the past, such as the ones detailed above.
A further reason rests in the unique level of operational capacity that Beijing possesses in the country. China, for instance, successfully evacuated thousands of its citizens and those of other countries in the initial phases of the war when the rest of the world failed to do so. This was possible owing to China’s diplomatic advantage in actively engaging warring elements in securing concessions for Chinese citizens and associates. In theory, Beijing can equally employ this leverage to push for an end to hostilities in Sudan, especially given the distrust that persists among the two generals against the collective West on one hand, and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) group on the other.
It is Beijing’s economic interest to mediate given the fact that it is Sudan’s largest trading partner, and that Sudanese peace is integral to the economic fortunes of the Red Sea geostrategic zone, in which China has already enjoyed a substantial presence. Furthermore, a successful Chinese brokering of peace would amplify the country’s soft power within the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, where Sudan is an important neighbor.
The Clear Limitations and Pitfalls Ahead for Chinese Efforts
However, the case for China’s constructive engagement in Sudan does not come without caveats. It behooves advocates of such peace-brokering to be cognizant of certain pitfalls.
First, Beijing’s own dogmatic approach might partly explain its isolation in such a strategic country as Sudan. Beijing’s tunnel-vision focus on economic imperatives rather than political logic presents many challenges in Sudan’s planned transition to civilian rule. Without clear inclusion mechanisms for ordinary citizens in Sudan, China’s peace-making approach may be less than successful in reflecting the democratic and socioeconomic demands of the Sudanese public. Questions of transitional justice that lie at the heart of the Sudanese crisis might never see the light of the day since they would not feature in a Beijing peace agenda. In the absence of genuine redress of the crimes and legacy of Al-Bashir, genuine transition to peace cannot materialize.
Second, China’s diminishing economic interest in Sudan over the past decades following the split of South Sudan could limit both its interest and capacity in courting warring factions. Between 2011-2018, Beijing only granted an estimated $143 million to Khartoum as part of its grand Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, a figure that stands in stark contrast to China’s investment in the pre-2011 Sudan, which stood at $6 billion between 2003-2010. Following the independence of South Sudan in 2011, Beijing’s interest has palpably shifted southwards. Indeed, in just a year after the split, Beijing granted $8 billion dollars to cash-strapped Juba – a significant show of investment readiness in the young African nation.
That said, Beijing remains a close economic partner to Khartoum given the fact that South Sudan’s oil infrastructure remains heavily intertwined with Sudan at large. A politically dysfunctional Khartoum would present economic problems for Beijing in that regard. In addition, Chinese nationals, hundreds of whom are still trapped in Sudan for one reason or another, will need to be protected. Peace, rather than political instability, will safeguard Chinese nationals living in Sudan, as well as the prosperity of their businesses. Further, the oil pipelines (including South Sudan’s) stationed in Port Sudan could also suffer from a long civil war, adversely affecting the oil production that accounts for at least 2 percent of Beijing’s global oil needs.
Last but not least, Sudan is a highly complex political quagmire that presents further challenges to Beijing’s peace recipe. Sudan is bordered by the contested Red Sea region, the Sahel, and the Horn; all three regions have their own geopolitical meshes. For example, Chad, Sudan’s western neighbor, has historically been fragile and susceptible to militias. Ethiopia on the eastern front, on the other hand, is slowly recuperating from a two-year armed conflict with Tigrayan separatist groups while South Sudan painstakingly implements a shaky peace deal. Almost all of these countries can easily fall prey to what the United Nations’ Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described as a “catastrophic conflagration,” which could potentially explode into a full-scale regional war.
The Red Sea zone, on the other hand, presents further geopolitical dynamics that might limit China’s intervention. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, for instance, have been viewed by some to be in favor of the Rapid Support Force’s consolidation of rule, for primarily economic reasons – notably the gold trade which has sustained General Dagalo’s meteoric rise in recent years. The Gulf was also a dominant factor in the ouster of Al-Bashir, China’s longtime ally.
For Beijing to deliver genuine dividends for citizens on the ground, its approach of non-interference has to contend with these realities, where the battle lines are clearly drawn.
China may turn to the African Union’s vision of “African solutions to African problems” as a rhetorical extension of its vision of non-interference-based peace-making (itself a challenging circle to square). Yet this vision, too, has been marred with technical and financial challenges as well as local regional interests. For one, it remains unclear if China is ready to fund the cash-poor African Union’s stand-by force to deploy in Sudan for a durable peacekeeping mission.
Despite the above reservations, China retains clear strategic advantages and wherewithal in Sudan. It possesses strong political capital to work cohesively with the African Union, which has been fundamentally more responsive to Beijing than Washington over the past decade. When fully employed, Beijing’s long-term engagement, and active on-the-ground presence in Sudan can make a significant difference to the country’s desperate search for stability and transitional justice.
The ball is now in China’s court to deliver upon its oft-touted vision of peace-making diplomacy.