China's awkward position: on both sides of the Sudanese civil war

China sells arms to Khartoum, but needs oil from its southern neighbour

On both sides of a civil war

Kazuhiro Ibuki/Getty Images

The missile fired by a Sudanese fighter jet on April 15 slammed harmlessly into the earth on the outskirts of the South Sudanese town of Bentiu. The air strike was just one of many that have landed in South Sudan in recent weeks, and it would have been relatively insignificant except for one thing—rocket fragments showed Chinese characters. That’s hardly a surprise. China, after all, has long supplied arms to Sudan. But as the border clashes in April brought Sudan and the newly independent South Sudan to the brink of all-out war, the rocket highlighted China’s increasingly awkward position.

Beijing has poured billions into the oil industry in Sudan. Its stake in Sudanese oil is forcing China to move from its long-standing policy of staying out of the affairs of faraway lands. China doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter. If war erupts, it risks having to walk away from its sizable investment in the countries’ oil fields.

China is the largest buyer of oil from the two Sudans, the former civil war foes turned troubled neighbours, and Beijing now finds itself with substantial investments on both sides of a volatile border, trying to make peace between the two. For China, non-interference is “still is one of the bedrocks of their foreign policy,” said Zach Vertin, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

When South Sudan declared independence last July, it acquired three-quarters of the formerly united country’s reserves. But the landlocked south depends on pipelines and processing facilities in Sudan to get its crude to market. In the midst of Sudan’s two-decade civil war, which ended in 2005 and led to the south’s secession, many Western oil companies, including Canada’s Talisman, sold their oil concessions amid sanctions. China, however, spent billions exploring, drilling, and building pipelines and processing facilities. Now, much of that infrastructure is idle, and China is unable to recover its investment.

In late January, South Sudan shut down all oil production after accusing Sudan of stealing US$815-million worth of its crude. The move deprived China’s energy-hungry economy of an estimated 260,000 barrels per day. And it forced the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp. to halt operations in the south. Sudan claimed it confiscated southern oil to make up for unpaid fees. Oil revenue sharing is one of a number of post-secession issues that Sudan and South Sudan have been unable to resolve during negotiations sponsored by the African Union. The lack of success has contributed to border tensions, which exploded April 10 when South Sudan occupied the Heglig oil fields; they lie in a contested area administered by the north and account for half of its oil production. After strong international pressure, the south eventually withdrew its forces.

China has since announced that it will use its influence to “ease the tension between the two sides,” and pull the countries back from the brink of war, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, told reporters in Beijing recently. That uncharacteristic announcement was just one the latest signs of China’s willingness to assert itself in the Sudans. Beijing had dispatched envoys to the two capitals—Khartoum in the north, Juba in the south—and publicly urged both sides to reach a deal. In a telling episode at the height of the conflict, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir jetted to Beijing, of all places, where he announced Sudan had “declared war” on his country. Still, China’s efforts have achieved limited success, says Amanda Hsiao, a researcher with the Washington-based Enough Project, who has followed the talks closely. She argues it is “crucial” that China step up diplomatically, “as one of the few international players with considerable influence over Khartoum.”

Yet Beijing is Khartoum’s principal weapons supplier, according to arms expert Jonah Leff, with the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. “As long as Sudan maintains its share of oil exports to China, their arms-for-oil relationship is likely to continue,” he adds.

To the dismay of some South Sudanese officials, it has refused to abandon old economic, political, and military ties to Sudan. “If they sell weapons to Khartoum to fight us,” says Barnaba Marial Benjamin, South Sudan’s information minister, “they must also sell us weapons.”

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