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Beijing may rethink hands-off approach in South Sudan

Conflict in the area is causing worry for China and the CNPC, who are heavily invested in South Sudan

China has found itself directly affected by the South Sudan conflict. State-owned China National Petroleum Corporation, is the most heavily invested foreign company in the young nation’s oil sector. China currently imports approximately 70% of Sudan and South Sudan’s oil, although production has fallen by at least 20% since the fighting began on 15 December 2013.

The Chinese government’s primary concern has been with the safe evacuation of the roughly 300 Chinese workers from South Sudan’s oilfields. But there is also growing concern within Beijing’s foreign policy-making establishment regarding the conflict’s impact on broader regional stability. It is increasingly apparent that Beijing’s leadership is aware it has a direct role to play in the resolution of the conflict. China’s special envoy for African affairs, Zhong Jianhua, has offered to mediate between both sides and stated his intention to establish direct contact with the rebels “to express our will and help achieve a ceasefire”.

This is significant, given China’s deep-seated foreign policy principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. But from Beijing’s perspective, a direct mediation role would not constitute “interference” in South Sudan’s internal affairs, as China is adamant that it would only intervene if both sides requested it.

Chinese mediation efforts between conflicting parties, including engagement with rebel movements, are not unprecedented in Sudan and South Sudan. In 2008, at a time when the negotiations seeking to end conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region were stalling, China began to understand that to become effectively involved in any conflict resolution efforts, it must engage with all the key players. The then-special envoy for African affairs Liu Guijin began, albeit informally, to pursue a more inclusive mediation approach, including, for the first time, talking to players apart from the ruling elite in Khartoum. Although China’s role in the process was limited, the fact it was engaging at this level at all was significant. At present, a key stumbling block to a ceasefire between the rebels and the government in South Sudan is the rebels’ continued insistence on the prior release of 11 political detainees in Juba. This is despite the fact that the detainees themselves have told Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) mediators that their status should not be an impediment to reaching a ceasefire agreement. Liu’s successor Zhong Jianhua has a key role to play in the current crisis in South Sudan. Through direct mediation, Zhong could further the efforts of his US counterpart, Donald Booth, to encourage the rebels to agree to an immediate ceasefire without preconditions.

It is crucial not to overstate the extent of China’s potential involvement in the resolution of the crisis. Nevertheless, in its efforts to ensure the protection of Chinese citizens and the continued flow of oil in the Sudans, China will remain engaged in supporting the IGAD-led peace process. Moreover, China’s leadership is aware that an enhanced mediation role in resolving conflicts will also boost its credentials as a “responsible power” and demonstrate its commitment to African peace and security.

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on the LSE’s Africa@LSE blog

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