China’s Big Chance: How the Dragon Can Bring Peace to Sudan

By Kris Khawadja
June 28, 2011

Over the last two months, as South Sudan has prepared for its imminent independence from the North, conflict in and around the contested Abyei region has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Five months after the South’s referendum to secede, Northern aggression has led to violent clashes in Abyei and its larger border state, Southern Kordofan .Western powers and international organizations, with few carrots or sticks left in their arsenal, find their ability to influence the North increasingly enervated. But one major power, China, still holds sway in Khartoum, and the upcoming trip by Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir to Beijing could provide an important opportunity for that country to play a positive role in easing the crisis in Sudan. The question remains: Will China do it?

The case of Sudan is an opportunity for China to set a defining precedent. Given the burgeoning trade relationship between the two nations, especially in the extractive and mineral industries, Sudan represents an interesting situation for the Chinese. On one hand is China’s long-standing tradition of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other nations. On the other, Sudan has come to play an important role in feeding the machine that is the Chinese economy. This will not be the case if Sudan returns to full-scale conflict. China’s counsel to Bashir, especially if couched in tones of continued trade and economic ties, could be their first foray into the role of peacemaker.

In May, the Northern Sudanese Armed Forces’ (SAF) occupation of Abyei forced some 117,000 refugees to flee the area. In early June, fighting broke out between the SAF and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Southern Kordofan, the unstable border state aligned with South Sudan. Fighting has spread throughout the state, with reports of repeated bombing sorties by the SAF on villages held by SPLA forces. An additional 70,000 people have reportedly been displaced.

On June 20, the two parties signed an agreement that made some progress on Abyei. Under the terms of the agreement, SAF forces will withdraw from Abyei, and a battalion of Ethiopian peacekeepers, supported by the African Union and the United Nations, will be deployed to the area. Additionally, an Area Administration with representation from both sides will be formed and joint police units deployed. The outcome of this agreement, and its ultimate effectiveness, is far from certain.

Significantly, the June 20th agreement did nothing to resolve the underlying issue of whether Abyei will ultimately be a part of Sudan or the new Republic of South Sudan. The conflict in Southern Kordofan is even more complex. The state, unlike Abyei, is not contested, and lies squarely in the North. As such, the Sudanese government will continue to make the case that its actions are driven by the need to shore up security in its own territory and to remove a potentially dangerous rebel group (the SPLA) from within its borders.

With the South poised to become the world’s newest nation on July 9, it has taken a markedly moderate approach to these developments. Despite the fact that a number of the North’s actions are in direct violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the civil war between the two sides, the government in Juba is exercising restraint so as not to jeopardize the legitimacy of its independence. This is both laudable and tragic—though the South’s self-control is preventing a larger conflict, the people of Abyei and Southern Kordofan, many of whom sided with the South during the civil war, are left to fend for themselves against an antagonistic, powerful force.

China has a strong position from which to reign in Khartoum’s aggressions. While the West has imposed heavy sanctions on Sudan for years, China’s trade relationship with the country has blossomed. Sudan now exports 60 percent of its oil to China, and China is by far the biggest investor in Sudan. While much of this oil will soon be the sole property of South Sudan, the pipeline needed to transfer that oil for export runs through the North. This could prove to be the most compelling mutual interest around which to consolidate peace in Southern Kordofan and Abyei.

Exerting pressure on Sudan to cease hostilities in Southern Kordofan makes good sense. Continued violence in the African country puts at risk both China’s sizable investments in the country and its domestic energy security. Listening and responding to these concerns is the sensible choice for the Sudanese government. With the North at risk of losing huge amounts of its oil resources to the South, it needs to work on building more expansive and diversified economic ties with the few countries that are willing to work with it.

Any discussions on this topic between China and Sudan will certainly take place behind closed doors. If we see a marked change in Sudan’s military position in Southern Kordofan, it will be a good indication that China has leveraged its relationship with Bashir’s government to calm the situation. This is undoubtedly the wisest path, and may open doors for China to play peacemaker elsewhere.

Photo courtesy of UN Photo/Paul Banks via Flickr.

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