China's non-interventionism at a crossroad

By Stuart Wiggin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, April 14, 2012
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The outbreak of violence on the border of Sudan and South Sudan should serve as a warning to Chinese officials. At a time when the world's focus is pointed squarely at Syria, the Chinese government may face a far more serious problem within the continent of Africa.

Violence at the end of March put paid to a summit that was intended to bring about order within the disputed regions, and bring stability to the South's oil producing Unity State. As a result, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir delayed his visit to the South. Following the recent large-scale attack by the South Sudanese Army on the oil field of Heglig, Khartoum ceased all negotiations with the Juba government on Wednesday. Ultimately, mediations taking place under the auspices of the African Union in Ethiopia have come to a standstill. With large-scale conflict looking increasingly likely, of all the non-African states in the world, China clearly has the most to lose.

Prior to the South's secession, and long before the South shut down its oil fields over an argument involving oil transportation fees with the north, China received 5 percent of its oil from the Sudanese operation. State-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) invested heavily in the region in return for access to the South's oil. Initial skirmishes which began in March have been followed up in April by an attack on Heglig, the largest oil field in Sudan, by the South Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The SPLA claimed that it was responding to air strikes carried out by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). The U.S. condemned the actions of the SPLA, in recognition that Heglig is internationally recognized as part of Sudan's territory. With an immediate withdrawal looking unlikely, the situation has massive ramifications for the Chinese government.

At a time when conflicts in Syria are causing China to urge for restraint, oppose intervention and uphold its norm of non-interference, the government may be sucked into a conflict in Africa whereby the norm is severely tested to its utmost limits. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei previously called on both Sudans to handle the dispute through negotiation. However, calling for restraint in an African nation, which has witnessed civil war on the scale that Sudan/South Sudan has, may be more than a little short-sighted. Such negotiation is no longer possible thanks in part to the South's actions in Heglig and Khartoum's exit from the negotiating table. Chinese officials will certainly hope to avoid the headache that the Sudanese states present, especially during a critical period of leadership changeover in China's Standing Committee.

Oil, and the revenue it creates, is firmly at the center of this conflict. Oil creates power and wealth, both easily lost by states with political, economic or social vulnerabilities to groups outside the government. These groups are often unofficially co-opted into the ruling class, and thereby become part of the official authority.

Though this had not been exactly the situation played out in the Sudanese states, a very similar picture emerged with unsubstantiated claims being thrown about by both sides.

It may be overly optimistic to believe that calling for negotiation among a varied array of actors, including rogue military factions on both sides of the border, will solve the problems facing the Sudanese states. Following the latest developments, the African Union has expressed “grave concern.” Prior to secession, the issue of civil war was at most a logistical problem for CNPC and China. With Sudan untied from a constitutional standpoint, it was fairly easy for the flow of Southern oil through the Northern pipelines to be maintained. Following the South's independence, China has had to tread a lot more carefully over the issue of sovereignty in order to protect its investments on either side of the loosely demarcated border.

The problem China faces in Sudan and South Sudan is a direct result of the way the Chinese government views Africa as a continent. This view is outlined by Deborah Brautigam, author of “The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa,” who astutely points out that China sees Africa as an area ripe for development – a massive investment opportunity. There is very little altruism at play, as is the case with most developmental aid from the West, and political stability is low on the list of China's priorities. In comparison, investment returns and development loans, which can take the form of natural resources, are more important. Brautigam states that Africa provides a selection of countries in which China and Chinese industries can do business deals, especially in the areas of infrastructure. And in many cases, Chinese companies compete amongst themselves to secure contracts.

Many believe that China is able to steer the Sudanese issue due to its economic might and its interests within the region. The north has previously sought Beijing's help in mediating the issue over oil transportation fees, as seen by the visit of Sudan Foreign Minister Ali Ahmed Karti to Beijing in February. However, this does not sit well with China's entrenched norm of non-interference in the sovereign affairs of other states. In 2005, David Zweig and Bi Jianhai wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that China “has been able to adapt its foreign policy to its domestic development strategy.” However, as linkages became deeper, and as Chinese interests became entrenched, China's foreign policy norms came under intense strain when the number of official actors increased (the addition of Juba alongside Khartoum) and as rogue factions on the ground exacerbated tensions among these numerous actors.

China still pursues businesses first and foremost in Sudan, but their business considerations are now being directly affected by regional skirmishes based upon ethnicity and a struggle for power. China's businesses in Sudan could be halted permanently if it is unable to overcome the restrictions that the country itself has imposed and continues its wait-and-see approach.

Despite these pressing issues, China appears barely flustered at the moment. The fact that these events are taking place in Africa, a continent often forgotten by the developed world, may explain why the Chinese predicament has not been fully explored within the press. The lack of panic may also suggest that the Chinese government is willing to forgo the potential economic benefits in re-establishing oil production in order to maintain its foreign policy norms. If China is intent on maintaining its policy of non-interference, it may have to abandon any hope of collecting a return on its Sudanese investments any time soon. If, however, the returns on investment are too great to relinquish, the government will have to rethink its strategy for getting both sides back to the table, or risk having to make a U-turn in its foreign policy.

Stuart Wiggin is a news editor at China Radio International. He graduated from Oxford University majoring in modern history and politics.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of


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