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Chinese Peacekeepers in Africa

Jun 19 , 2014
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

The arrival of a full battalion (850 men) of Chinese peacekeepers in South Sudan, all wearing UN blue helmets, should strengthen patrols along the ceasefire lines recently agreed upon between the warring parties in that very troubled newest nation. Every additional international supplement to the UN’s arsenal of peace-maintainers is welcome even if the South Sudan’s civil conflict is still explosive, and the deep issues between President Salva Kiir’s government and former Vice-President Riek Machar’s insurgents are hardly resolved.

Robert I. Rotberg

The Chinese battalion joins approximately 19,000 other troops in the nascent United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).  It is now focused primarily on policing and protecting vulnerable civilians caught in the war’s crossfire from wanton violence that has largely been indiscriminate and mindless. But if UNMISS helps to restore order and a sense of stability to the South Sudan, then the country’s oil will continue to flow northward to Port Sudan (in the neighboring Sudan) and on to China. More than 83 percent of South Sudan’s pumped petroleum is destined, in peaceful times, for China.  Moreover, this flow accounts for a significant 5 percent of China’s oil imports.

Given the realities of oil, and the fact that China constructed the main pipeline northwards from South Sudan and has a controlling interest in the Sudan’s main oil refinery, it is no surprise that China’s long affirmed policy of non-interference in the affairs of African (and other) nations has now been modified to dispatch a battalion of peacekeepers to South Sudan. The United Nations and every outside power involved wants war to cease and oil to flow from South Sudan. China’s national interest thus joins the national interests of other world leading states.

China’s decision comes after six months of turmoil that has impacted every facet of South Sudanese society. Since December, conflict between Dinka, the new state’s largest ethnic entity, loyal to President Kiir, and the somewhat less-populous Nuer, who follow Machar, destroyed the young government’s political and economic emergence as a mature nation. In particular, violence has impacted key oil-producing areas of the country and its northern Unity and Upper Nile states.

Both factions have ignored previous cease-fires; it is too soon to tell whether last week’s negotiated concord will truly be honored. UNMISS is responsible for sheltering non-combatants and attempting to keep the rival factions from shooting at each other.  So far, however, its mandate excludes peace enforcement – actually disarming Dinka or Nuer fighters.

In one of the poorest countries in the world (despite oil revenues), the persistent civil war has displaced 1 million people and forced nearly 400,000 persons to flee their homes into neighboring countries. Vast herds of cattle have been destroyed and ripening crops have been trampled and set on fire.  Food shortages exist everywhere in the war zone, with fully half of South Sudan’s 8 million people at risk of severe hunger.

China’s decision to join the UNMISS effort (much earlier it had contributed 350 engineers to UN peacekeeping efforts in the Darfur region of the Sudan) follows its multi-billion dollar investments in the infrastructure of oil delivery in South Sudan, in improving agricultural performance, in building critically-needed roads, and in exploring hydropower possibilities.

China was also active earlier in brokering a resumption of petroleum pumping when South Sudan and the Sudan were embroiled in a dispute over oil transit revenues.  Now China has helped to influence the various negotiations in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, which nudged Kiir and Machar to forge the latest internal ceasefire.  Further, China has pledged $1 million to an intergovernmental effort to monitor the ceasefire.

China is also building a pipeline and a railway from Mombasa on the Kenyan coast toward the new Kenyan oil deposits to the west of Lake Turkana and toward the Uganda oil fields near Lake Albert. Both the railway and the pipeline could conceivably be extended to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and to the South Sudanese petroleum fields.

China, in other words, is fully invested in the strategic future of South Sudan and the adjacent oil producing states. Sending a battalion of peacekeepers shows that China intends fully to engage with the region in an enduring manner.

Robert I. Rotberg is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and President Emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.

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