By Jerome Mwanda
Nine months after South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in the aftermath of a prolonged civil war, military clashes are raging in the region bordering Sudan and South Sudan, prompting the UN Security Council to express “grave concern” and urge both countries to negotiate under the auspices of the African Union. Independent analysts are of the view that China could play an important role in ending hostilities.
This view is apparently backed by the U.S. President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama agreed at their meeting on March 26. 2012 in Seoul, South Korea, that “to maintain peace and stability between Sudan and South Sudan serves the common interest of China and the United States”. Both are permanent member of the Security Council.
In fact a new report by the International Crisis Group says China has been encouraging restraint, peaceful negotiation, and stability, not least due to concerns over the security of its investments. “China’s primary interest in South Sudan is, without question, oil and other commercial investments. But its engagement is not driven solely by its voracious resource appetite,” the report adds.
The report sheds light on the rapidly evolving political and economic relationship between China and South Sudan, while also addressing the challenges Beijing confronts in re-orienting relations with partners in both North and South.
“Historical support for Khartoum left a sour legacy in the South, but the potential for mutual economic benefit means Beijing and Juba are keen to leave the past behind, and a new chapter in bilateral relations is now being written,” says Zach Vertin, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for South Sudan. “But balancing new friends in Juba and old friends in Khartoum has proven a delicate dance for China.”
Primary research for the report titled China’s New Courtship in South Sudan was conducted in Juba, complemented by studies in Beijing, Shanghai, Addis Ababa and Washington between November 2011 and February 2012.
The report points out that China’s “new strategic courtship has followed the oil south,” and Beijing’s relationship with Juba is evolving fast. China’s cultivation of new political and economic relations has been most visible in the surge of bilateral exchanges with Juba over the last year, which is expected to be capped in the coming weeks by President Salva Kiir’s first visit to Beijing as head of state.
As they seek to build bridges with the South, says the report, the Chinese are keen to draw comparisons with their own experience of economic transformation and rapid rural development as well as to emphasise a sense of shared historical experience at the hands of imperial powers.
“South Sudan is very much open for business, actively seeking foreign direct investment from West, East, and everywhere in between,” says the Crisis Group report, adding: “Historical ties may be strongest with the West, but Juba has made clear that if the Chinese are first to come and partner in developing the new nation, they will not hesitate to welcome them.”
Furthermore, China’s “no strings attached” political approach and economic cooperation model is as attractive in Juba as it has proven elsewhere on the continent, not least in resource-rich states eager to develop fast.
However, as Juba opens up to new investment, the Crisis Group advises it to take two critical factors into consideration. First are potential correlations between the economic partnerships it forges, the character of the state that emerges and its foreign policy.
“While it hopes to remain politically aligned with the West, time will tell whether expanding economic partnerships with China or others will have a gravitational effect. For now, it wants to welcome, and leverage, the interest of all actors,” asserts the report.
Secondly, in the midst of a mounting budget crisis, the report asks Juba to consider how to secure direct investment so as to best serve its development agenda, calm its own domestic insecurity and prevent even greater state fragility.
“It must actively shape new economic relationships rather than become a passive recipient of foreign-authored investment. Given limited government capacity and an untested legislative framework, its economic planners must take care to harness such investment for its own benefit, lest Africa’s newest state be overrun in a resource scramble,” cautions the report.
According to the report, some of Juba’s elite – who are not specified – remain hesitant about putting too many eggs in one basket, and even those most eager to secure a major economic partnership argue there will be no Chinese monopoly.
Beijing affirmed in January 2012 its intent to offer an economic package, including development grants and a possible billion-dollar infrastructure loan, and details are being negotiated.
“But new uncertainty over the future of Juba’s oil sector and continued North-South instability have altered the equation and may reduce the total offered in the end,” says the report, adding: “Given the greater variety of financing opportunities now available to Beijing’s government ‘policy’ banks and thus an increased sensitivity to risk, the scale of a loan may not match those extended to other resource-rich African states.”
According to the report, China has cultivated diplomatic relationships in Africa to serve political objectives as well, namely to strengthen its political alliances and networks in international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, to “emphasise sovereignty as a core foreign policy principle” in the international arena, and to buttress international support for its “One-China” policy. In South Sudan however, these motives are at best complementary to economic pursuits.
“The future of Beijing’s dual engagement and the character of the relationship with South Sudan will depend in part on how the oil standoff – and the broader political and security agendas – are confronted,” says Comfort Ero, Crisis Group’s Africa Program Director.
“Resolution of the impasse and resuscitation of oil flows would undoubtedly influence the scope and character of the relationship that emerges; whether the political and economic ties already established between Beijing and Juba are robust enough to weather the current crisis remains to be seen, but both sides hope so,” adds Ero.