In December 2016, the Lowy Institute published an article I wrote on China’s involvement in the South Sudan peace process. Read more below:
Most analyses of China’s relations with South Sudan begin and end with oil.
Oil was the most important reason for China’s heavy investment in, and intensification of, relations with Sudan from the mid-1990s onwards (years prior to South Sudan’s independence in 2011). Dan Large and Luke Patey have written extensively about China’s involvement in the development of the Sudanese oil industry, one of modern China’s earliest and riskiest economic forays into Africa. The success of the initiative demonstrated to Beijing that it could rival Western prowess in frontier energy exploration.
Following the independence of South Sudan, China quickly sought to improve its relations with the new state. Juba had faced a better equipped and better resourced Khartoum of a decade earlier, in part as a result of funds derived from Chinese-produced oil. Juba made no secret of its suspicion and mistrust of Beijing and its unhappiness at the prior support to Khartoum, causing an anxious Beijing to reassure Juba that no matter the past, China would now be a good friend to South Sudan.
But the relationship Beijing anticipated and hoped for was principally one of trade, investment and resource extraction. As Large wrote in 2008, ‘meaningful participation in African conflict-resolution processes is not an important aspect of China’s current Africa relations’.
Civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, barely two years after independence. One of the early casualties was the oil industry, with roughly half of the country’s daily production soon halted due to fighting. By now, South Sudanese oil was strategically much less important to China than it had been 15 years earlier. South Sudan was far from China’s most attractive African foreign investment destination.
And yet by this year, China found itself, if not fully mired in attempting to resolve South Sudan’s growing conflict, then far more than a casual actor. China’s role in arming the South Sudanese military has been well documented, as has the first-ever deployment of Chinese combat troops to serve in a UN peacekeeping mission.