China serves as a stabilizing force in South Sudan’s fragile peace

China serves as a stabilizing force in South Sudan’s fragile peace

Last week, a “final final” peace deal was ostensibly struck– a handshake between South Sudan’s rebel leader Riek Machar and President Salva Kirr– signifying a truce in the 5-year civil war that has devastated the young nation. But a reticence was in the air. Senior officials expressed caution, conscientious of the fragile peace and the prospect of offering false hope, yet again.

And indeed, the qualified optimism has proven apt. Just two days later, rebels reported a Southern Sudanese military offensive on their position in the Kajo-Kaji County. It is too soon to say determinedly whether the truce has ultimately failed, however. The situation remains fraught, but the lasting impact of this agreement will only be made clear in the weeks and months to come.

Global brokers

In order to secure the peace and implement the agreed-upon terms, the government of South Sudan has voiced its need for financial support from global powers. The expected donors are the “the Troika”, or the United States, United Kingdom and Norway. US Diplomat Thomas Hushek has stated that funds will be provided only if the terms of the truce bear out. At face value, this is business as usual: Western nations providing economic incentives for peace, and importantly, democratic transition. However, this is not the only external dynamic at play; behind the scenes, it is actually the Chinese government that has settled in to the role as the critical broker in the country’s long-term stability.   

China plays key role in Sudan’s economy

China is Sudan’s largest foreign investor, purchasing about two-thirds of Sudanese oil. It has invested over $15 billion in the oil sector and has helped build a pipeline from South Sudan to the Red Sea as well as a refinery near Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. The Chinese also own a large stake in the consortiums that pump out most of Sudan’s oil and hold 95 percent of the rights in a drilling area that straddles the troubled region of Darfur. In other words, China has sunken significant capital into a region gripped by violence. And given that South Sudan’s economy is 98% oil exports, it comports that China has a direct line of communication to leadership and rebels alike.

China has a demonstrated an ability to mediate disputes amongst warring factions in the region, stemming back to its investment in Khartoum before the secession of the South. During the first civil war, China positioned itself as a peace broker– maintaining its ties with the North, but also establishing links with the nascent government in the South. In one particular instance in January of 2012, the North and South were deadlocked on a dispute about the price for using the North’s oil pipelines. China was able to deftly negotiate, and in conjunction with the African Union High Level Implementation Panel, brought the stalemate to an end. Since conflict flared up in the South in late 2013, China has taken an active role in mediation efforts, meeting with rebel and government delegations to discuss the terms of peace. China has also expanded its peacekeeping in the region, and adopted a new tack in the form of humanitarian aid.

What lies ahead

While China’s role in the South is not as “win-win” as it may seem, there is no doubt that China has established itself a key power in the future stability and economic viability of the region. Investing in South Sudanese infrastructure will also be key to the longevity of the relationship and stability in the country, though the plans to do so have been put on hold as a result of the clashes.

While short-term insecurity in South Sudan remains high, the national and regional risk is eased significantly by China’s embeddedness in the conflict. China has immense power, both economically and diplomatically, and has significant incentive to continuing brokering the peace– without the same concern for establishing democratic systems of governance, building institutions, or evaluating humanitarian or human rights conditions– that constrains Western aid. In sum, despite the concerns over flare-ups in the immediate aftermath of the deal, Chinese involvement will buffer a full re-escalation, and potentially underscore the next chapter in a stable South Sudan.

About Author

Carly West

Carly West graduated with an honors BA/MA in International Affairs from Brown University’s Watson Institute. Carly has subject matter expertise in MENA/Eurasian geopolitics, CVE, and the WPS agenda. She has worked at RANE (Risk Assistance Network Exchange), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, UN Women, and the US State Department at the Office for Global Women’s Issues. Carly is a born and bred New Yorker, but has lived in China and Turkey, and has travelled extensively through South East Asia and West Africa.