By Salman Rafi Sheikh
No country has so rapidly and so successfully penetrated in Africa in the last two decades or so as China has. Not only has China managed to take over economic ‘supervision’ of Africa, but has now started to deploy its military in the region too. China may be Africa’s biggest trade partner, but it has generally taken an arm’s length approach to the continent’s conflicts and domestic difficulties. However, 2015 has witnessed a dramatic shift in this policy. China is now committing 700 combat troops to South Sudan to help bring peace to the world’s newest nation. And on January 12, 2015, it sent Wang Yi, the foreign minister, to help mediate talks between South Sudan’s warring factions. The obvious reason for China to involve politically and military is that China has invested billions of dollars in South Sudan, particularly in its oil production. Although the foreign minister refused that China’s mediating role had anything to do with her oil interests, it is difficult to deny that oil is ultimately the prime factor for China.
While Beijing’s troops will operate under U.N. command, their posting to South Sudan marks a sharp escalation of China’s efforts to ensure the safety of its workers and assets in Africa and guarantee a steady flow of energy for domestic consumption. The deployment marks the first time Beijing has ever contributed a battalion to a U.N. peacekeeping force, U.N. officials said. In March 2013, China sent some 300 peacekeepers to Mali to protect Chinese engineers building a U.N. camp in the town of Gao.
The immediate reason is that China’s state-owned National Petroleum Corp. holds a 40% stake in a joint venture that operates in South Sudan’s vast oil fields. The company also has a 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) export pipeline that carries crude through neighboring Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Before the latest fighting in South Sudan flared, the country accounted for 5% of China’s crude imports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Output has since plummeted by a third—to 160,000 barrels a day—following the outbreak of fighting late last year.
Fighting began in South Sudan in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his sacked deputy, Riek Machar, of attempting a coup. Oil-producing regions have endured some of the worst violence, with output drastically reduced, and thereby affecting China’s interests directly. Peace in the region is therefore essential for ensuring an uninterrupted production and supply of oil—hence, deployment of combat soldiers and necessity of peace talks. China has sought diplomatically to ease tensions in the region. Beijing’s envoys were key to resolving last year’s oil export dispute between Sudan and South Sudan, which brought the two former civil-war foes to the brink of war.
But the outbreak of the current conflict presents Beijing with a new challenge. Development and peace in South Sudan is crucial for China because South Sudan depends on oil for nearly 98 per cent of its state revenue and the shutdown has puts its economy under pressure. With China already the biggest investor in oilfields in South Sudan, through state-owned Chinese oil companies China National Petroleum and Sinopec, any reduction in oil production and supply is most likely to hit Chinese interests in every possible way. Therefore, the “Asian economic powerhouse” has had to play a delicate balancing act with the two countries (Sudan and South Sudan), since Beijing is also one of Sudan’s major supporters. However, China’s first priority is South Sudan because South Sudan took most of the former Republic of Sudan’s oil with it when it was allowed to secede from Khartoum in 2011, bringing a final resolution to decades of civil war.
A dispute with Khartoum over the sharing of southern oil revenues resulted in the suspension of South Sudan’s entire oil industry in 2011. As a result of this conflict, Chinese imports of Sudanese oil came to a complete halt in much of 2012 and 2013. When South Sudan’s oil came back online in 2013, the economically hobbled country wasn’t in any position to turn away potential customers, just as a growing China was not in any position to alienate potential sources of oil. Relations improved, and China, which held a 40% stake in the united Sudan’s state oil company before the country’s breakup, became the major investor in South Sudan’s oil infrastructure. Beijing continued to hold 40% of a joint partnership to explore and develop South Sudan’s oil resources. Now the break-out of civil war in South Sudan threatens to again block oil supply to China; and, as such, the primary reason for deploying troops is avoiding such a scenario. Additionally, the South Sudan turmoil comes within a larger context of Chinese investment in Africa, where it has spent substantial political and economic capital in recent decades. This has allowed Beijing to project its soft power through an emerging region while obtaining access to vital resources and markets.
On the other hand, the reason for why China’s military deployment has been accepted and welcomed by the African countries is that she is considered to be an ‘appropriate’ counter-weight to the Western imperialism. For long, China has been presented as a post-imperial superpower, whose foreign policy is anchored by the principles of non-interference and win-win economic partnership. It refused, in the past, to get embroiled in domestic troubles in other developing countries, from Sudan to Syria, incessantly focusing on its economic interests. Slowly but surely however, as China expands its geopolitical and economic stake in far-flung regions of the world, it has increasingly started to resemble a traditional global power who does no longer shy away from influencing the political developments abroad.
Economically speaking, China is no longer just a source of affordable and cheap commodity goods for Africa either. Over the last decade or so, particularly since the economic recession of 2007-2008, it has also become a major source of capital investment and technology provider to much of the developing world. In particular, Africa – a site of colonial machinations for centuries – China has certainly emerged as a key barometer of the shifting global poles of power, as Chinese companies and workers redefine the ancient continent’s economic landscape.
While Chinese influence faces stiff competition from western (and regional powers) in places such as Latin America and the Middle East, the African continent has, as provocatively argued by US journalist Howard French, become “China’s second continent”. Perhaps, the reason for this assertion lies in the fact that thousands of Chinese workers, professionals and businessmen can be seen in Africa today who symbolize not only Africa’s integration into global market, but also speak volumes about the proverbial “Chinaization” of Africa. As a matter of fact, Chinese migration has helped redefine the urban landscape in many sub-Saharan African countries.
Due to such a large scale investment and on-ground presence, China has gradually emerged as an indispensable machine for keeping the African economy running. To augment its geopolitical position in the world, particularly against the US and its allies, she has made investments in major and highly symbolic infrastructure projects, from large stadiums across the continent to the glittering headquarters of the African Union. That China is sharply and increasingly making life difficult for the US and its allies in Africa was evident during the US President’s recent visit to Africa. The US President Barack Obama, who is widely seen as a “son of Africa”, struggled to reassert the US influence in the continent against the increasing Chinese tide, and was compelled by the force of changed geopolitical realities to end up criticizing China by indiscreetly warning African leader and urging them to “make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine to the port to Shanghai…”
Notwithstanding the celebrated rhetoric of neutrality and its practical side, China has steadily grown into one of the most important and a major external actor in Africa. Not only is she economically dominating the continent, but also has emerged as a major supplier of conventional arms to African states. On the other hand, it has also increased its contributions to UN peacekeeping missions twenty-fold since 2000, with the majority based in Africa. Notwithstanding the self-contradictory nature of China’s relations with Africa (selling conventional arms to states who use these arms in civil wars, and then contributing to peacekeeping), it is now quite obvious that China has largely and quite successfully sidelined the US and its allies as the only “peace makers” in the continent. The quest for uncontested Chinese hegemony in Africa, as is evident from these developments, is very much on the horizon. It would be interesting to see how the West responds to it in the near future.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs