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China's Sudan Engagement: Changing Northern and Southern Political Trajectories in Peace and War*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 September 2009


China has developed a more consequential role in Sudan over the past two decades, during which it has become bound up in the combination of enduring violent internal instability and protracted external adversity that has characterized the politics of the central state since the 1989 Islamist revolution. Two inter-related political trajectories of China's Sudan engagement are examined here. The first concerns Beijing's relations with the ruling National Congress party in incorporating China into its domestic politics and foreign relations amidst war in Darfur, to which Beijing has responded through a more engaged political role. The second confronts the practical limitations of China's sovereignty doctrine and exclusive reliance upon relations with the central state. Following the peace agreement of 2005 that ended the North–South war, and motivated by political imperatives linked to investment protection concerns, China has developed new relations with the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan, thus seeking to position itself to navigate Sudan's uncertain political future.

Research Article
Copyright © The China Quarterly 2009

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1 Walzer's, Adapting MichaelThick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

2 Sudan's impact on Chinese foreign policy and the nature of China's international diplomacy over Darfur are important, closely related questions, but space does not allow proper treatment here. Additionally, knowledge gaps about aspects of China's political relations with Sudan preclude detailed treatment of certain issues at this stage.

3 See, for example, Holslag, Jonathan, “China's diplomatic manoeuvring on the question of Darfur,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 17, No. 54 (2008), pp. 7184CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Huang, Chin-Hao, “US China relations and Darfur,” Fordham International Law Journal, Vol. 31 (2008), pp. 827–42Google Scholar.

4 For example, Eric Reeves, “China in Sudan: underwriting genocide,” testimony before the US–China Economic and Security Review Commission: “China's role in the world: is China a responsible stakeholder?” 3 August 2006.

5 Small, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt and Andrew, “China, the unlikely human rights champion,” Policy Innovations (The Carnegie Council, 14 February 2007)Google Scholar; and “Beijing's new dictatorship diplomacy,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2008.

6 See, for example, Askouri, Ali, “China's investment in Sudan: displacing villages and destroying communities,” in Manji, Firoze and Marks, Stephen (eds.), African Perspectives on China in Africa (Oxford: Fahamu, 2007), pp. 7186Google Scholar.

7 The realist position notably discounts the importance of the political principles informing Chinese diplomacy; the constructivist position can convey a misleading teleology of a Chinese shift on Darfur, discounting flourishing business amidst an underlying continuation of China's support to Khartoum, and arguments prioritizing the benefits of Chinese investment fail to locate this properly within the longer and more recent history of Sudanese politics characterized by a politically and economically dominant centre.

8 For a notable exception, see Srinivasan, Sharath, “A marriage less convenient: China, Sudan and Darfur,” in Ampiah, Kweku and Naidu, Sanusah (eds.), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Africa and China (Durban: University of Kwazulu-Natal Press, 2008), pp. 5585Google Scholar.

9 The comparative lack of Chinese scholarship on Sudanese politics until recently reflects history and more generic research constraints. Liang, Xu, “Zhongguo de Sudan wenti yanjiu zongshu (1949–2006)” (“Summary of studies on Sudan issues (1949–2006)”), Xiya Feizhou (West Asia and Africa), No. 2 (2007), p. 71Google Scholar.

10 The historically grounded political foundations of China's modern relations with Sudan, in contemporary political rhetoric conveying a unique, special relationship, is most vividly articulated in the figure of “Chinese” Gordon. He made his name in China, being present when the Summer Palace was sacked in 1850 and serving as commander of the Ever-Victorious Army militia against the Taiping rebels from March 1863. Gordon later served as governor general of the Turko-Egyptian Sudan, famously meeting his death in Khartoum at the hands of Mahdist rebels in 1885. For Premier Zhou Enlai, notably during his state visit to Khartoum in 1964, and for a secession of Chinese political, civilian and military visitors to Sudan, Gordon has symbolized a common experience of shared colonial oppression. In the official narrative, the Sudanese succeeded in exacting revenge on Gordon for China in what is portrayed as an act of just anti-colonial resistance.

11 Reinforcing this idea, the nature and impact of China's post-1989 engagement represents an actual and perceived contrast with previous periods: the role of People's China in Sudan, in which aid and cotton trade were foremost, is generally remembered positively whereas key defining episodes in the latest phase of relations, such as wartime oil operations in Southern Sudan or Beijing's support for Khartoum over Darfur, have had a far more critical reception. See Ali, Ali Abdalla, The Sudanese–Chinese Relations Before and After Oil (Khartoum: Sudan Currency Printing Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Large, Daniel, “Old friend, new actor: notes on the history of Sudan–China relations,” Sudan Studies, No. 37 (2008), pp. 3952Google Scholar.

12 Deng, Francis M., War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1995), p. 383Google Scholar.

13 See Johnson, Douglas H., The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars (Oxford: James Currey, 2003)Google Scholar; Justin Willis, “Ambitions of the state,” in The Sudan Handbook (London: Rift Valley Institute, forthcoming); see also Woodward, Peter, Sudan, 1989–1989: The Unstable State (Boulder: Rienner, 1990)Google Scholar.

14 Waal, Alex de, “Sudan: the turbulent state,” in Waal, Alex de (ed.), War in Darfur and the Search for Peace (London: Justice Africa, 2007), p. 20Google Scholar.

15 Ryle, John, “Disaster in Darfur,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 51, No. 13 (2004)Google Scholar.

16 See Flint, Julie and Waal, Alex de, Darfur: A New History of a Long War (London: Zed, 2008 (2nd ed.))Google Scholar.

17 Including through the regime's most influential figure, Hassan al-Turabi, who supported Saddam Hussein in August 1990 and made efforts to organize and export political Islam. The NIF's terrorist links, most notably the attempted assassination in Addis Ababa of the Egyptian president in June 1995, resulted in the US designating Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism in 12 August 1993. There followed UN sanctions in 1996, US sanctions in 1997 and an American missile attack on a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum in 1998.

18 Zongguo, Yun, “Sudan shiyou kaifa xiangmu qianjing guangkuo” (“Prospects for Sudan oil development project broad”), Guoji jingji hezuo (International Economic Co-operation), No. 5 (1997), pp. 2223Google Scholar; “Zhongguo gongren zoujin Sudan” (‘Chinese workers enter Sudan’), Shijie zhishi (World Knowledge), No. 9 (2004), pp. 42–43.

19 See Jakobson, Linda and Daojing, Zha, “China and the worldwide search for oil security,” Asia-Pacific Review, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2006), pp. 6073CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 See al-Jaz, Awad, “The oil of Sudan: challenges and achievements,” in Hopkins, Peter Gwynvay (ed.), The Kenana Handbook of Sudan (London: Kegan Paul, 2007), p. 673Google Scholar.

21 See Daniel Large, “Sudan's foreign relations with Asia: China and the politics of “looking east,” ISS Paper 158 (Pretoria: Institute of Security Studies, 2008).

22 See Downs, Erica. S., “The fact and fiction of Sino-African energy relations,” China Security, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2007), pp. 4268Google Scholar.

23 CNPC has a 40% stake in the Greater Nile consortium, which operates blocks 1, 2 and 4 and began exporting good-quality Nile blend crude in August 1999. Output from these blocks declined from a peak of nearly 300,000bpd to around 235,000bpd at the end of 2007. CNPC has a 41% stake in Petrodar, whose two blocks (3 and 7) came onstream in April 2006 and in which Sinopec, active in Sudan's downstream sub-contracting, has a 6% stake. CNPC also has a 95% stake in Block 6, which produces very poor quality oil mainly for domestic consumption in Sudan. CNPC is an operator of the partly deepwater Block 15 in Sudan and, at the end of June 2007, took at 40% stake in offshore Block 13. For background, see Luke Patey, “A complex reality: the strategic behaviour of multinational oil corporations and the new wars in Sudan,” Copenhagen, DIIS Report, 2006.

24 According to the Bank of Sudan, China's proportion of Sudan's imports have increased from 8% in 2002 to 20.8% in 2006. China exports mostly manufactured products to Sudan.

25 Recent growth sectors include telecommunications and agricultural co-operation. In June 2008 a protocol on agricultural co-operation was signed in Beijing by the Sudanese and Chinese Ministers of Agriculture, al-Zubair Bashir Taha and Shen Zhengcai. The construction sector has seen particular increased activity by Chinese companies, notably in infrastructure projects (bridges, roads, railways, dams).

26 Governmental relations are structured into official co-operation channels, with the Joint Sudanese–Chinese Ministerial Committee, which has alternated between Khartoum and Beijing and held its eighth meeting in Beijing in December 2007, playing a leading role.

27 These, unsurprisingly, represent key members of the NIF, from President Bashir, who first visited Beijing in November 1990, to the role of technical management through the long-term Energy Minister and current Minister of Finance, Awad Ahmed al-Jaz, who played a pivotal role in the oil sector.

28 Seen, for example, in the CCP's message of congratulation and “admiration” to the NCP's general conference in November 2005. Political support for the NCP was notably expressed on 22 March 2009 when vice-minister Li Jinjun of the International Department of the CCP's Central Committee spoke of the CCP's rejection of the International Criminal Court and its ongoing support for Sudan. “Chinese delegation in Sudan for golden jubilee gala,” Sudanese Media Centre, Khartoum, 22 March 2009.

29 In December 2008, a CCP “goodwill” delegation led by Chen Jiwa, deputy secretary of the CCP's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Regional Committee, visited Sudan at the invitation of the NCP. It held meetings with senior NCP politicians and the governor of the Khartoum State, but also discussed Guangxi's business ties with Sudan. “Sudan, China discuss political and economic relations,” Sudan Tribune, 25 December 2008.

30 During a visit by an NCP delegation to Beijing in July 2008, a senior NCP politician, Mustafa Osman Ismail, donated US$100,000 to the CCP to aid China's response to the Sichuan earthquake. “CCP to promote co-operation with Sudan's National Congress,” Xinhua, 9 July 2008.

31 This thickened following an exploratory trip to Beijing by the Chief of Staff of the Sudan Armed Forces in March 2002, but military relations have a longer history dating to 1971 in particular when the PRC assisted President Nimeiri. Different Sudanese sources attribute Chinese technical assistance in building arms factories near Khartoum in the late 1990s, but Sudan's indigenous arms manufacturing capability remains somewhat opaque. On 7 January 2002, the government of Sudan reportedly paraded the hardware produced in its military complex to the public in Khartoum's Green Square. Tanks based on the T-55 – dubbed the Bashir-1, Zubeir-1 and the Abu-Fatima-1 – were showcased. See Daniel Large, “Arms, oil and Darfur: the evolution of relations between China and Sudan,” Small Arms Survey Issue Brief No. 7, August 2007.

32 For example, Sudan's current Minister of Energy and Mining, Al-Zubayr Ahmad al-Hasan, visited China in August 2008 at the invitation of CNCP officially to discuss co-operation between his ministry and CNCP. He also attended the inauguration of the Beijing Olympics (“Minister of Energy and Mining visits China,” Suna (Khartoum), 12 August 2008).

33 See Waal, Alex de (ed.), Islamism and its Enemies in the Horn of Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004)Google Scholar; Burr, J. Millard and Collins, Robert O., Revolutionary Sudan: Hasan al-Turabi and the Islamist State, 1989-2000 (Leiden: Brill, 2003)Google Scholar.

34 See Galab, Abdullahi A., The First Islamist Republic: Development and Disintegration of Islamism in the Sudan (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).Google Scholar

35 One China-related illustration of this was demonstrated in 1999 through the “affair of the Chinese loan,” which for Einas Ahmed illustrated a willingness by the NCP “to submit religion to reasons of state and sometimes to their own particular interests.” Despite Sudan's Islamic banking system, the body charged with oversight of finance with Sharia law invoked a jurisprudence of necessity to allow the government to accept a Chinese loan requiring interest payments. Ahmed, Einas, “Political Islam in Sudan: Islamists and the challenge of state power (1989–2004),” in Soares, Benjamin F. and Otayek, Rene (eds.), Islam and Muslim Politics in Africa (Palgrave, New York: 2007), pp. 189208CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 In the late 1990s, amidst the process of oil development that was inseparable from patterns of conflict and civilian displacement in Southern Sudan, the SPLA regarded China as an enemy since it provided political, economic and military support for the government of Sudan. The first incident that clouded China's oil investment came in March 2004 when two Chinese oil workers were kidnapped by anti-government militia and later released.

37 “Sudan: rebel says Chinese hostages moved to area government forces cannot reach,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat website, 25 October 2008 (via BBC monitoring).

38 “Chinese team in Sudan visits four rescued Chinese hostages,” Xinhua (in English), 31 October 2008.

39 Anshan, Li, “China and Africa: policy and challenges,” China Security, Vol. 3, No. 3 (2007), p. 77Google Scholar.

40 Wang Suolao, “Non-interference and China's African policy: the case of Sudan,” report on Symposium on Chinese–Sudanese Relations, 26 July 2007 (London: Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis, 2008), pp. 16–17.

41 “Hu puts forward four-point principle on solving Darfur issue,” Xinhua, 2 February 2007.

42 See Human Rights Watch, Sudan, Oil and Human Rights (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003)Google Scholar.

43 Jackson, Robert H., Quasi-states: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

44 Conflict in Darfur is a recent manifestation of a historical pattern of the state's mobilization of proxy militia, following the deployment of this tactic in the war in Southern Sudan.

45 See Clapham, Christopher, “Fitting China in,” in Alden, Chris, Large, Daniel and de Oliveira, Ricardo Soares (eds.), China Returns to Africa (London: Hurst, 2008), pp. 361–69Google Scholar.

46 Beijing did not support Anyanya 1, the earlier Southern Sudanese rebellion that ended with a peace agreement in 1972, which might have been viewed by the PRC as a worthy people's struggle. This was in contrast to its support for “revolutionary armed conflict” in other parts of Africa. Beijing continued to support Khartoum, having apparently concluded that any other policy would jeopardize relations with a friendly government and China's wider interests in the Middle East.

47 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005), p. 4, para. 2.5. Full version at

48 Popular Southern sentiment tends to support the vision of independence more than the SPLM's John Garang-inspired vision of a united, reformed and democratic “new Sudan.”

49 Peter Adwok Nyaba, “An appraisal of contemporary China–Sudan relations and its future trajectory,” paper presented at the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Societies, 23–24 November 2005.

50 China is not alone in doing so, with other foreign governments from Africa and beyond doing the same.

51 “US policy to end Sudan's war: report of the CSIS task force on US–Sudan policy,” co-chairs Francis M. Deng and J. Stephen Morrison (Washington, DC: CSIS, February 2001).

52 This principle appeared to have been inspired by Deng Xiaoping's recommendations in 1984 for a practical means to accommodate socialist China's relations with capitalist Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

53 Conversations with senior SPLM leaders, Juba, December 2005.

54 China's aid to Southern Sudan was to be increased following an official Chinese needs assessment mission to Juba in mid-2007. A number of projects, from hydropower to road construction, were planned. In early April 2009, the Chinese Consul General in Juba donated a grant of $100,000 to the Government of Southern Sudan from Beijing.

55 An expanded Chinese commercial involvement is a further dimension of Chinese engagement with Southern Sudan. There had been little of substance beyond Chinese oil operations prior to 2005 but the CPA opened up a new frontier of business opportunity. At first Chinese construction work was prominent in Juba. Chinese companies entered via Kenyan and Ugandan brokers in the form of private joint ventures. The Nile Construction Company, for example, entered into a joint venture with the Chinese company Golden Nest in October 2006 to work on construction projects. The China National Overseas Engineering Company renovated government buildings and the Juba Teaching Hospital for the Government of Southern Sudan. A small Chinese service sector subsequently developed. This featured the prefabricated Beijing Juba Hotel, which suffered fire damage in February 2009, and the “Wonderful Chinese Restaurant” established by a Chinese businesswoman from Wenzhou who had identified an open market. Conversation in Juba, 18 June 2008. China's actions impressed elements within the Government of Southern Sudan by swift, effective delivery of infrastructure, a contrast to the slow-turning wheels of the multilateral assistance framework.

56 Organizational Report Presented to the Second National Convention of the Sudan People Liberation Movement by SPLM Secretary-General Pagan Amum Okiech, 18 May 2008.

57 The state in which Petrodar concessions are located.

58 CNPC appeared keen to co-operate with Upper Nile state authorities, and would, through the Petrodar consortium, contribute infrastructure projects to Malakal, which demonstrated business relations between the foremost Chinese oil company in Sudan and a state government.

59 See Leben Moro, “Oil, conflict and displacement in Sudan,” DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 2008.

60 Thanks to Laura James for pointing this out.

61 Oil accounted for roughly 99% of total Government of Southern Sudan revenues in 2006 and over 98% in 2008. See “Government of Southern Sudan. 2009 budget speech,” Kuol Athian Mawien, Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, presentation to the Southern Sudan Legislative Assembly, 10 December 2008.

62 As well as continued peacekeeping support, Beijing also made public statements on the CPA and support gestures, such as a donation of US$3 million to the NCP to support the CPA in late 2008.