By Xia Ri
Since the outbreak of the conflict in Sudan on April 15, countries around the world have been scrambling to conduct large-scale evacuation operations for their nationals. On April 27, the Chinese Navy deployed its 052D destroyer for the purpose. Sudan is located in the northeast of Africa with a population of 46 million, making it one of the largest countries on the continent. It has a land area of 1.9 million km2. At the same time, it is also one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita annual income of only USD 750.
In 2019, the Sudanese military overthrew former President Omar al-Bashir and established a transitional military council to govern the country. The essence of the Sudanese conflict lies in internal conflicts within the military factions. The most acute contradiction is between the al-Burhan faction, which seeks to establish consolidated military authority nationwide, and the Dagalo faction, which aims to maintain the independence of its armed organization and ensure control over military power. Due to the balance of power between the two sides and external support for both factions, the unrest in Sudan may become protracted and will have a series of medium- to long-term impacts on China.
First of all, there is a potential risk facing Chinese energy investment companies. Prior to South Sudan’s independence in 2011, China had invested over USD 20 billion in Sudan, mainly in oil and non-oil aid projects, according to the latest foreign investment cooperation guidelines by the Ministry of Commerce. China was the destination for two-thirds of Sudan’s crude oil exports, being its sixth-largest source of overseas crude oil imports. Currently, 65% of Sudan’s total oil exports are directed to China, and Chinese investments account for 75% of Sudan’s overseas oil investments. Chinese oil companies were invited by the Sudanese government as early as 1995 to participate in the development and construction of the oil industry.
After more than a decade of efforts, Chinese oil companies successfully assisted Sudan in establishing three major oil fields with an annual crude oil production capacity of 26 million tons and a Khartoum refinery with a crude oil processing capacity of 5 million tons per year. This achievement led to the creation of an integrated petroleum industry system with comprehensive infrastructure, advanced technology, and a large scale, enabling Sudan to achieve self-sufficiency in oil and generate a surplus for export.
Among the companies involved, CNPC stands out with its nine subsidiaries operating in the local petroleum industry, including the Nile Petroleum Corporation and the Khartoum refinery. Daqing Oilfield Branch Company, Great Wall Drilling, Oriental Geophysical, and Engineering Construction Company are some of the subsidiaries contributing to the industry. CNPC has successfully carried out ten investment projects in Sudan and South Sudan, and it also owns six gas stations and one finished oil depot. In addition, Sinopec entered Sudan in 1996, with multiple companies engaged in exploration and development activities. Notably, the Block-6 pipeline construction project in 2010 exemplifies their involvement in the region.
Secondly, Russia and China are facing geopolitical conflicts. The Russian private military group Wagner has close ties with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan. An article from The Hill reported that since 2017, Wagner has been providing advanced training to RSF and exchanging intelligence with them. In return, Wagner was given control of several gold mines in Darfur, Blue Nile, and other regions of Sudan through its collaboration with the RSF. Another significant area of cooperation between Russia and the RSF is the military base at Port Sudan, where the RSF facilitates the construction of a naval base for Russia.
In early 2022, a day before the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Dagalo visited Russia, marking a new phase in the relationship between the RSF and Wagner. Following the outbreak of the civil war in Sudan, on April 21, CNN reported that Wagner supplied portable air defense missiles to RSF to assist in launching a coup and safeguard Russia’s hard power and strategic interests in Africa. On the other hand, China has developed closer ties with the Sudanese government, creating a certain degree of geopolitical conflict with Russia. Since the 1990s, especially with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), when the international community isolated the al-Bashir regime for supporting terrorism and extremism, China swiftly took advantage of the situation and established friendly relations with the al-Bashir government.
At the same time, China also maintains a good relationship with the current Sudanese government leader, al-Burhan. On December 8, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Sudan’s Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Riyadh and emphasized that the two countries are “good friends and good brothers who share weal and woe”. Due to significant investment interests in Sudan, China tends to align with the government side represented by al-Burhan, which, to some extent, deviates from China’s long-standing policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
Lastly, China’s strategic layout in the Red Sea region is facing adjustments. Sudan is a strategically important country in Africa, located at the intersection of the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, with abundant natural resources and a population advantage. The Red Sea is a landlocked sea of the Indian Ocean, situated between the northeast of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula in West Asia. It connects to the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal in the northwest and links to the Gulf of Aden through the Strait of Mandeb in the south.
In a narrow sense, the Horn of Africa refers to the region from north of Kenya and Uganda to the east of the White Nile River, extending to the area between the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean coast. The significant role of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa in today’s global geopolitics and conflicts is determined by factors such as geographical location, maritime oil transportation routes, and the frontlines of the war on terrorism. Djibouti, as a geographical hub connecting the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean, has become China’s first overseas support base and an important node in China’s BRI.
According to Western geopolitical scholars, the emerging geopolitical interests in the Red Sea are forming a new conflict front involving Egypt, Turkey, Sudan, and Eritrea. Other actors have also appeared, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Qatar, Israel, Russia, and China. The conflict in Sudan could worsen disputes and frictions in areas such as borders, security, and water resources, leading to a butterfly effect on coastal countries of the Red Sea, the security of oil transportation, and the international fight against terrorism. It could also reshape the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Aden, and the Horn of Africa, thereby affecting China’s strategic layout in the Red Sea region, and certainly includes its BRI.
Final analysis conclusion:
The prolonged conflict in Sudan is expected to have significant medium- to long-term implications for China’s global strategic positioning. These implications encompass potential risks for energy investment companies, indications of geopolitical conflicts with Russia, and the necessity to adapt the strategic layout in the Red Sea region. Consequently, it will be crucial for China to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the situation in Sudan, promptly adjust its relevant strategic plans, and proactively mitigate medium- to long-term risks.
Xia Ri is a researcher at ANBOUND