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Foreign Policy

China Can Save South Sudan

Aug 24 , 2016
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

China is South Sudan’s last best hope. Given the interminable bloodletting and brutal fratricide that engulfs Africa’s youngest nation, and given the inability of the African Union and United States to broker an effective peace, intervention and assistance by China may provide South Sudan with its only viable lifeline.

South Sudan is in a parlous state. Not only does the country’s civil war between Dinka and Nuer, the dominant ethnic groups, and between the official government headed by President Salva Kiir (a Dinka) and the insurgents led by Vice-President Riek Machar (a Nuer) never seem to end despite frequent peace agreements and promises, but also, the national treasury is empty. The government is unable to pay its civil servants, police, and soldiers regularly. Last year inflation hit 600 percent.

About 50,000 South Sudanese (mostly civilians) have been killed in the crossfire between official forces and Machar’s legions since 2014. An estimated 2.5 million South Sudanese have been displaced by the civil war. More than 200,000 often very hungry South Sudanese crowd into six despicable displaced persons camps guarded sometimes by UN or African Union troops. Women, especially, venture outside the camps for food and water at their peril, fearing rape or death.

Now, looking to one last option, South Sudan has asked China for help. It hopes China will provide nearly $2 billion to re-develop oil fields and to restore roads and other infrastructure. In particular, South Sudan has asked China to reopen a key petroleum-supplying field in Unity State and to rebuild a critical road between Juba – the capital – and Wau, a major city in the western part of the nation.

Oil exports are South Sudan’s only real source of foreign exchange earnings and the basis for substantial employment. But the field that South Sudan wants China to help re-establish has not functioned since late 2013, thus denying the war-torn country’s critical revenues. The road to Wau will also re-connect two parts of the young nation that are fundamental to its existence and that keep the Dinka heartland joined with the capital.

China is already heavily invested in South Sudan, a country with which it has long had important economic ties. China funded and constructed the pipeline that sends petroleum north from Unity State through the Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, for export to China in Chinese-owned tankers.  It attempted to defend the pipeline when the Sudan and what is now South Sudan were at war, and it supplied arms and ammunition to the Sudan as South Sudan broke away. Later it helped to arm South Sudanese forces.

When the pumps were working well in Unity State, South Sudan supplied about 5 percent of China’s oil imports. The China National Petroleum Corp. owns 40 percent of the South Sudan’s oil fields. Before 2014, Chinese managers and workers were active in developing those concessions.

More recently, China has sent nearly 1,000 peacekeepers (a battalion of troops and logistics and medical personnel) to serve alongside African and other national detachments in UNMISS, the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in the Republic of South Sudan. In 2015, President Xi Jinping offered to send 8,000 more Chinese soldiers to help enforce the peace in South Sudan, but that initiative has not yet been accepted by either the UN or South Sudan.

China has also long been unusually active in joining the African Union and the Horn of Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in an attempt to broker peace between Kiir and Machar. In 2014, Ma Qiang, China’s ambassador to South Sudan, declared, “We have huge interests in South Sudan so we have to make a greater effort to persuade the two sides to stop fighting and agree to a ceasefire.” China has contributed more than $1 million to IGAD to assist diplomatic efforts.

China is still heavily engaged in seeking diplomatic solutions to the chaos and mayhem in South Sudan. It obviously would prefer to procure oil exports now blocked by war, but helping to end the combat materially would also bolster China’s influence in Africa and in the UN Security Council.

South Sudan’s request for funds thus provides China with substantial leverage, which is potentially convertible into a major peace accomplishment. Given the failure of so many American, Norwegian, African Union, UN, and IGAD attempts to procure a sustainable peace, China now has both the means and the skill to help end one of Africa’s more senseless and thoroughly destructive wars.

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