Following its oil interests and other opportunities to Juba, China is building a new relationship with South Sudan but finds itself drawn into a dangerous dispute that risks bringing the Sudans back to conflict.
China’s New Courtship in South Sudan, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the rapidly evolving political and economic relationship between Beijing and Africa’s newest state, and addresses the challenges involved in re-orienting relations with partners in both Sudans amid their ongoing hostilities over oil, money, borders and a host of other matters not resolved when the South achieved independence in July 2011.
“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”.
South Sudan is very much “open for business”, seeking investment from West, East, and everywhere in between. While its leaders are keen to welcome all foreign investors, China’s political 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. Beijing is keen to preserve and expand its footprint in South Sudan’s oil sector, but Chinese companies are also flocking to other sectors, above all to build infrastructure in a country that has almost none.
The budding bilateral relationship with Juba has strained of late, however, as Beijing finds itself drawn uncomfortably into a high-stakes oil dispute between North and South. Both countries continue to try to pull China into their respective corners, but Beijing has resisted taking sides, as its principal objective remains balanced relations with North and South.
Perceptions of China’s influence and readiness to employ it have been unrealistic, but Beijing can do more to ensure peaceful resolution, without compromising its interests. A possible new entry point for the international community includes opportunities for China to help break the deadlock, ease pressure on itself and bolster stability within and between the two states.
“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”.