SOUTH SUDAN: CAUGHT IN A TUG OF WAR BETWEEN THE US AND CHINA – SELYCIA CURWEN

Image: (Unsplash)

Introduction

Sudan has been in political, ethnic and social turmoil for many years. Many international efforts have been made such as peace operations by the United Nations (UN) and the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Since South Sudan’s independence in 2011 and the recent ousting of Omar al-Bashir, relations have largely improved with other states. It is acknowledged that there are numerous factors at play on all sides of the parties involved as well as there being a number of other state actors who have an influence. What will be missing from this article is the perspective of the South Sudanese government and the direct influences that their decisions will have. Herewith, the United States (US) and China’s involvement specifically in the affairs of Sudan will be briefly discussed. This will show the complexities of these relations and the difficult decisions South Sudan has to make when being caught in the middle of two hegemonic rivals. 

US involvement in Sudan

The former ruler of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir came into power in 1989 through an Islamist coup. Since then, he has committed human rights violations and was a sponsor of terrorism, thus, Sudan was included in the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List and has been heavily sanctioned by the US as a result. On top of this, Sudan was considered a pariah state along with North Korea, Iran, and Syria. There have been numerous attacks on American officials, diplomats, and ambassadors at the American embassies in Sudan over the decades. The most notable of which occurred in August 1998 by al-Qaeda; a terrorist group sponsored by Sudan and Iran. This has been the cause of much of the static relations and distrust between the countries. After the 9/11 attacks, Sudan made increased efforts towards counterterrorism through cooperation with the US, which they favoured. 

Since Bashir was ousted, US-Sudan relations improved and resumed military relations in 2017 along with the lifting of economic sanctions. This is in return for what Khartoum had promised; cooperation with the US in counter-terrorism, support of the peace process in South Sudan, and political reforms. In October 2020, Former President Donald Trump also announced the removal of Sudan from the Terrorist Sponsor List, an announcement which is most welcomed, but will not be uncomplicated for the Sudanese. Economically, Sudan is struggling with debt and inflation, however, the lifting of the sanctions and the delisting is also good news as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) can be negotiated, banking partnerships can commence and the US will be able to support debt relief of Sudan at the International Financial Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. These benefits were, however, also in exchange for Sudan compensating the victims of the attacks mentioned above and normalising relations with Isreal; a last-ditch effort by Former President Trump last year to pressure Arab nations to cease their hostilities towards Israel. Recently, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan opposed normalising efforts stating it could add to the unrest in his country. 

China-Sudanese Relations

China is able to offer African countries, including Sudan, much needed infrastructure and beneficial trade. These would have been difficult services to deliver considering the civil conflict that occurred from 2013 in South Sudan. For China, South Sudan is strategically important due to its oil wealth and geographic location in East Africa. Sudan’s oil wealth is part of China’s plan to diversify its sources of energy. This was to the benefit of both parties in that China wanted returns on oil investments and South Sudan needed the revenue this would generate. South Sudan could be key to China’s plan to expand into the East African Region through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) where China has already made large investments in manufacturing, infrastructure and railway construction, in Ethiopia for example. The BRI was extended to Kenya with the second phase of the project aiming to link it to Uganda, Burundi, and South Sudan.

What may negatively affect these operations is the instability and uncertainty in South Sudan, as China prefers not to interfere through the use of military force or direct political interventions. This is a natural concern since the construction companies and projects could be harmed as well as Chinese nationals working on-site. Instability, thus, may negatively affect China’s long-term plans. China has taken a “silent” approach to South Sudan through its non-interference and decision to not provide any assistance nor taking sides in terms of leadership candidates, as is their foreign policy principle. South Sudan is also a large purchaser of Chinese arms alongside Algeria. 

Conclusion

The US and China have different interests in South Sudan. It can be argued that the US sees Sudan, as a whole, as a way of maintaining its hegemonic power and power play through the lifting of sanctions and removing Sudan from the State Sponsor to Terrorism list. The US then, is playing a far more active role in its relations with Sudan and is rather public with its decisions. China, on the other hand, has a more direct interest in South Sudan in the sense that China has already contributed towards building infrastructure such as the BRI railway system. This will no doubt benefit both parties as China would receive oil and South Sudan would receive the revenue. With the US-China trade war, African states, have suffered economic stress further aggravating the conflicts. US protectionism in this regard led states to believe that the US is rather apathetic towards the Sub-Saharan region. Beijing has used this to their advantage by showing anti-US sentiments and reinforcing China’s image as a favoured partner of the African region. Sudan, particularly South Sudan, is now stuck in the middle between economic development which China is able to offer, being delisted and unsanctioned by the US in exchange for compensation to victims and normalising relations with Isreal. It is not yet clear what the new Biden Administration would mean for South Sudan or what it would mean for US-China relations. It is now a waiting game.

Selycia considers herself a jack of all trades, with her interests and abilities widespread. She wants to pursue as many of them as she can in her lifetime. She believes life is not meant to be a straight “normal” line but a beautiful journey of segues. Selycia is one of the permanent writers on The Art of Politics team.

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