China and Sudan

Julia Strauss and Martha Saavedra in the introduction of China and Africa have submitted the argument that there is a need to consider the differences and similarities in China-African relationships within Africa. This can be done through diligent ethnographic research comparing multiple countries or multiple sites within a particular country. This field is still relatively new such that nuanced and complex research is in its formative stage.

Perhaps we can point to the ways in which China’s engagement in Sudan is simplistically depicted. One approach, which Daniel Large (2009) alludes to, is looking at China’s economic interests, tied to competition with the United States in Sudan. A second approach also frames the issue in terms of China encroachment upon Sudan by scrutinizing the historical change in Chinese diplomacy from “passive, blind support for Khartoum” to more active political involvement championing an end to conflict (62). Large seems to take an altogether different approach, one that examines how China fits into the history and politics of Sudan, rather than the other way around. What Large overlooks has been supplemented by the excellent edited volume, Darfur and the Crisis of Governance in Sudan: A Critical Reader.

Large writes, “The Chinese commercial expansion in Sudan did not take place in a vacuum but rather entered a political economy in which other external players had been and would continue to be active. Sudan, however, has become a center of established Chinese economic interests, which have continued to expand in recent years” (65). In 2007, Sudan was China’s sixth largest oil exporter and has continued to play a key role in oil investment. Ricardo Soares de Oliveira has written about oil investments in Africa, stating that since the 1950s, Western international oil companies (IOCs) such as Exxon-Mobile, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch/Shell and Total dominated the continent (95). Chinese oil companies only recently since the 1990s began to gain a strong foothold in Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and the Sudan.

Arguing that the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime, which assumed power in 1989, is “responsible for the domestic conflict,” Large attributes the sensitivity of Chinese engagement in Sudan to its relations with the NIF/NCP regime. Undoubtedly, as Large and many other scholars have discussed, the media has a heavy-handed role in this controversy. Atta El-Battahani in “Ideological Expansionist Movements versus Historical Indigenous Rights in the Darfur Region of Sudan” explains that the NIF, though containing members from both Arab and non-Arab groups in Sudan, has always been dominated by leaders “from the riverian areas largely dominated by Arabs and as such is susceptible to the perceived or actual influence of Arab-Muslim culture/centricity.” According to El-Battahani (2009), the ethnicization and racialization of the conflict was heightened by the military coup in 1989 bringing Omar Al Bashir and the ideology of Arabo-centricism into power.

Mahmood Mamdani (2009) in “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency” echoes similar points, but calls for an deep analysis of Darfur that takes into account its history and context. “The dynamic of civil war in Sudan has fed on multiple sources. First, the independence monopoly of power is enjoyed by a tiny Arabized elite from the riverian north of Khartoum, a monopoly that has bred growing resistance among the majority, marginalized populations in the south, east, and west of the country. Second, the rebel movements have, in their turn, bred ambitious leaders unwilling to enter into power-sharing arrangements as a prelude to peace. Finally, external forces continue to encourage those who are interested in in retaining or obtaining a monopoly of power” (152).

Elaborating upon Mamdani’s analysis of the complexity of the situation, Salah Hassan in “Naming the Conflict” points out the important role that the NIF government played in perpetuating the crisis. Hassan’s explanation is perhaps the clearest account I have read:

The protracted war in the South began in 1955 at the dawn of Sudan’s independence from British colonialism and was a logical outcome of the inequalities and imbalance of power sharing that characterized the colonial period. The war was also a consequence of the failure, typical of postcolonial regimes since 1956, to seriously address these inequalities. By all accounts the scale of horror and loss of human life over the stretch of fifty years of the civil war between the South, represented first by the Anya-Nya (1955-1971) and SPLM/A (1983-2003) on the one hand and the government on the other was equally if not more devastating than the current conflict in Darfur….Similar to the case of the Janjawid in Darfur, the practice of recruiting Arabized nomads to fight the SPLM/A in areas bordering the South can be traced to Numeriri’s regime (1969-1985). The continued mobilization of paramilitary groups konwn as Murahaleen formed by recruits from the Baggara nomads — the Misayriyyah — was carried out well into the democratically elected government of Sadiq al Mahdi. The Misayiryyah wrought painful devastationa nd undertook mass killings in the south among the Dinka communities in Northern Bahr Al Ghazal. In many ways this served as a rehearsal of the Janjawid attacks against the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa, who at present form the social base and ground support for the guerrilla warfare waged by the Darfur resistance movements” (161).

Hassan further explains that the unequal development created by colonial policies and the postcolonial ruling class between the center (Northern and Central Sudan) and the peripheries (south, east and west of Sudan), as well as the political manipulations of race, religion, and sect by the NIF regime were two main factors contributing to the crisis of governance (163). Hassan continues, “it bears repeating that the policy of forming and arming paramilitary tribal militias was initiated by the Numeiri regime and further consolidated by Sadiq Al Mahdi in 1986 under the pretext of defending civilian populations against SPLM/A attacks. This policy…has been taken to its extreme by the NIF government’s incorporation of these militias into a paramilitary fundamentalist army known as the Popular Defense Forces (PDF), established by a government decree. In the case of Darfur this resulted in the creation of the Jajawid” (164).

China’s role in Sudan has markedly shifted from passive, diplomatic engagement to one that is more politically involved. As Large demonstrates, two incidents targeting Chinese workers — in 2008, nine Chinese workers were kidnapped in the southern Abeyi region, and five were killed by rebel groups who at one time used to be aligned with the central government against the SPLA before going against Khartoum — prompted the Chinese government to become more vocal, at least in public discourse, about government responsibility and ethnic unity (70).

After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005 between the NCP and the SPLM, the Chinese government began relations with the SPLM-led government of Southern Sudan. The CPA created two governing bodies for six-year temporary periods — a Khartoum-based government which enables power-sharing between NCP and SPLM and the semi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan based in the new capital of Juba under the auspices of SPLM. The stipulation is that the south is supposed to receive a share of oil profits. Wedged in between the aftermath of the civil war, the Chinese government has developed profitable relations with both the NIF/NCP and the SPLM governments of Sudan. Especially in war-torn Southern Sudan, Chinese investments have been welcome with open arms (72) and the Chinese government responded through expansions of FDI and aid. Like other foreign investors, Large concludes, the Chinese government will face institutional obstacles ranging from infrastructure to conflicts between different communities in Southern Sudan, divergent interests and resulting clashes with elements of civil society, and potential targeting of Chinese workers by discontented groups seeking to use leverage against the SPLM or Khartoum. How this will affect future politics in Sudan and Chinese international and national politics remain uncertain.

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