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Foreign Policy

China’s Foreign Policy in the Horn of Africa and Future Implications

Jun 09, 2023

China has achieved multiple foreign policy successes this past year that have boosted its international prestige. This is underscored by its mediating role in Saudi Arabia and Iran reaching a peace deal and Brazilian President Lula calling for a currency shift away from dollar dominance at the multilateral institution BRICS—China’s alternative to similar Western institutions. China desires to alter the global system to better fit its needs and ensure China can act as it sees fit. To effectuate this change, China must work to build its global prestige and decrease the U.S.’ favorable perceptions worldwide. The crisis in Sudan presents another opportunity for China to flaunt its capabilities.

China has had a sizable footprint in Sudan for an extended period of time. It’s currently Sudan’s largest trading partner, and has over 130 companies operating in the country. Furthermore, China has helped to create over 30,000 jobs in Sudan through its New Epoch Agricultural Development Company and its new cotton variety, “Seeni 1.” Many industries have Chinese operators, from oil to health and agriculture. All this has led China’s long-term economic engagement with Sudan has been fruitful for both countries.

However, China was presented with a different type of opportunity from which it could benefit when fighting began in April among those in the security sector over potential reforms that could dictate Sudan’s future. The conflict is between Sudan Armed Forces Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan and Rapid Support Forces Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. The ensuing fallout from the conflict has left more than 2,500 civilians injured, and the fighting has internally displaced more than 700,000 people.  

The conflict and subsequent fallout left foreigners in Sudan in precarious and potentially dangerous circumstances. Thus, on April 26, Chinese personnel began evacuating from the country. The guided-missile destroyer Nanning (南宁) and comprehensive supply ship Weishanhu (补给舰) docked at the Port of Sudan and began evacuation operations. On April 29, the withdrawal mission was complete, with 940 Chinese citizens evacuated. This marked the third Chinese overseas evacuation operation after Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015.

The optics of this evacuation presented to Beijing, and the rest of the world, a very successful mission. However, Chinese officials seemingly took this as an opportunity to emphasize how this success contrasts greatly from the concurrent U.S. operation.

Initially, on April 26, 70 staff members of the U.S. embassy were evacuated through special forces operations using three MH-47 Chinook helicopters. This left more than 16,000 Americans in Sudan. Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder stated that U.S. agencies would work closely with U.S. citizens seeking to depart Sudan and provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to assist in this endeavor and keep citizens safe.

Despite these reassurances, many U.S. citizens are angry with the way the evacuation was handled. Many have even stated that they have felt abandoned by the U.S. government. Despite promises to assist in the evacuation, multiple people told CNN that the State Department has provided “barely any assistance.” Many also pointed out that the State Department failed to issue explicit security alerts advising U.S. citizens to leave the country prior to the beginning of the fighting.

China has grasped this perceived U.S. failure and amplified this message in its State media. China is also utilizing its diplomats abroad to emphasize this point further, as observed with China’s Ambassador to South Africa, who recently sent a tweet contrasting the U.S. and China’s response to Sudan. He highlighted that the U.S. prioritized evacuating officials first over its citizens. China has also boasted about its ability to assist in the evacuation of nationals from five other countries. Most prominently, China helped at least 216 Pakistani nationals leave Sudan. This occurred a day before the U.S. began evacuating its citizens. China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Mao Ning, also made a concerted effort to highlight China’s relative success compared with the U.S. and stated, “When evacuating from danger, our diplomats will always be the last to leave.”

It is worth noting that the U.S. did begin large-scale evacuation on April 30 when it evacuated 1,000 civilians from a port city in eastern Sudan. Moreover, State Department spokesperson Mathew Miller on April 29 stated, “The U.S. government has taken extensive efforts to contact U.S. citizens in Sudan and enable the departure of those who wished to leave.” The State Department has also reiterated that it continues to advise citizens not to travel to Sudan.        

However, for many private U.S. citizens and from other countries’ perceptions, the action was too little too late. Many saw, through U.S. and foreign news outlets, that there was a delay in the evacuation of its private citizens and an outcry from those who felt neglected. China has taken advantage of this and used its resources to amplify this message of success and U.S. failure. This will be a tactic that China will continue to use in the future as it attempts to control the narrative for States, particularly those in the Global South, to view China more favorably. China’s efforts to improve its global image, at the expense of the U.S., is one way it is attempting to shift the international narrative in its favor.  Additionally, China will be able to exert more influence over countries in the Global South if Beijing is considered the preeminent global patron. Thus, the U.S. must remain vigilant and ensure it sustains itself as a necessary and competent global actor. 


China’s engagement with Sudan/region

​​Roundup: First China-Horn of Africa peace conference concludes with call for realizing shared aspirations

Impact of conflict

Sudan displacement doubles in one week, says IOM | UN News

Sudan doctors: At least 100 killed in Darfur clashes | AP News

Chinese media on the U.S.

'I Let Down the Combatant Commander': Marine Leader Regrets His Forces Weren't Available for Recent Crises |

U.S. Marines abdicating a rescue role to China – Asia Times

China Boasts of Sudan Evacuations as U.S. Efforts Criticized

China’s evacuation

Overview of Chinese personnel evacuation from Sudan by PLA Navy - China Military

Over 140 evacuated Chinese nationals from Sudan arrive in Beijing - CGTN

Pak envoy thanks China for helping Pakistanis evacuation from Sudan

China evacuates its citizens out of Sudan

U.S. and the evacuation

U.S. evacuates hundreds of Americans from Sudan capital: NPR

Why the U.S. evacuation from Sudan left Americans behind | AP News

Americans stuck in Sudan to make 'life or death decisions' express anger at U.S. government | CNN Politics

Could the U.S. have helped avert the crisis in Sudan?

How U.S. Efforts to Guide Sudan to Democracy Ended in War - The New York Times

Where the U.S. Went Wrong in Sudan



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