South Sudan, Africa’s youngest state, is ripe for rescue by China. Given the vicious bloodletting and ferocious fratricide engulfing the country, and given the inability of the African Union and United States to broker an effective peace, intervention and assistance by China provides South Sudan with its only viable lifeline.
Only 11 years since its creation, South Sudan is in ruins. Not only does the country’s civil war between Dinka and Nuer, the dominant ethnic groups, and between the official government headed by President Salva Kiir (a Dinka) and the insurgents led by Vice-President Riek Machar (a Nuer), never cease despite frequent peace agreements and promises, but the national treasury is empty. The government is unable to pay its civil servants, police, and soldiers. Inflation exceeds 600 per cent a year.
About 50,000 South Sudanese (mostly civilians) have been killed in the crossfire between official forces and Mr. Machar’s legions since 2014. An estimated 2.5 million South Sudanese have been displaced by the civil war. More than 110,000 have fled to Uganda. Another 200,000 often very hungry South Sudanese crowd into lamentable displaced persons camps near Juba and Malakal.
South Sudan has asked for help from China, nearly $2-billion (U.S.) to redevelop oil fields and to restore roads. South Sudan has asked China to reopen a key petroleum-supplying field in Unity State, and to rebuild a critical road between Juba, the capital, and Wau, a major city in the western part of the country.
Oil exports are South Sudan’s only real source of foreign-exchange earnings and the basis for substantial employment. But the field that South Sudan wants China to re-establish has not functioned since late 2013, denying the war-torn country critical revenues. The road to Wau will also reconnect two parts of the country that are fundamental to its existence.
China is heavily invested in South Sudan, with which it has long had important economic ties. China financed and constructed the pipeline that sends petroleum north from Unity State through Sudan to the Red Sea, for export to China in Chinese-owned tankers. China attempted to defend the pipeline when Sudan and what is now South Sudan were at war, and supplied arms and ammunition to Sudan as South Sudan broke away. Later it helped to arm South Sudanese forces.
When the pumps were working in Unity State, South Sudan supplied about 5 per cent of China’s oil imports. The China National Petroleum Corp. owns 40 per cent of South Sudan’s oil fields. Before 2014, Chinese managers and workers were active in developing those concessions.
More recently, China has sent nearly 1,000 peacekeepers (a battalion of troops and logistics and medical personnel) to serve alongside African and other national detachments in the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission. In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered to send 8,000 more Chinese soldiers to help enforce the peace in South Sudan, but that offer has as yet not been accepted by either the United Nations or South Sudan.
China has also long been unusually active in joining the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in attempting to broker peace between Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar. In a 2014 interview with Reuters, Ma Qiang, China’s ambassador to South Sudan, declared: “We have huge interests in South Sudan so we have to make a greater effort to persuade the two sides to stop fighting and agree to a ceasefire.”
China is heavily engaged in seeking diplomatic solutions to the chaos and mayhem in South Sudan. Helping materially to end the combat would bolster China’s influence in Africa and in the UN Security Council.
China, hence, has critical leverage. It can lean hard on Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar, and also purchase their compliance. Given the failure of so many American, Norwegian, African Union, UN, and IGAD attempts to procure an end to internecine hostilities, China’s chance to forge an enduring and sustainable peace is the last best hope of South Sudan’s beleaguered people.
This post first appeared, under the same title, in the Globe and Mail, Aug. 16, 2016