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Clash of the Giants: The Sino-American Tug of War in South Sudan

When the residents of Juba, the capital of South Sudan, took to the streets at midnight on July 9, 2011 to celebrate the country’s independence, they expected a future of peace and order after decades of unrelenting conflict. Though the mood was optimistic, the ensuing stability was remarkably short-lived. By December 2013, the world’s youngest nation was once again engulfed in civil war. And in the midst of this unprecedented violence, South Sudan has become the latest battleground in China’s bid to challenge the current world order.

Sudan: A War-Torn Nation

Sudan is no stranger to domestic conflict, with a history of upheaval extending back to the 1950s. The First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972) was fought between the Sudanese government and separatists from the south of the country over the former’s decision to renege on its promise of federalism. The separatists accused the Muslim government of discriminating against the predominantly Christian South. After 17 years of sustained insurgency, the Sudanese government appeased the separatists by giving southern Sudan greater autonomy in the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972.

Despite the concession, violence arose again in 1983, when former President Gaafar Nimeiri created “Islamization” campaigns across the country. His hard-line stance, which involved implementing rigid Shari’a law, led to widespread public condemnation. In response to Nimeiri’s violation of the autonomy guaranteed to them by Addis Ababa, southern separatists launched a second campaign against the government. The second civil war was more organized than the first, with John Garang de Mabior emerging as the leader and figurehead for southern independence. There was a brief possibility of a ceasefire after Nimeiri’s death, but this lapsed when current Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir took power in the 1989 coup. After another 16 years of civil war, Bashir finally signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in 2005.

The American Roots of Southern Independence

The decision to sign the CPA might seem like a radical turnaround for Bashir, a polarizing figure who was once charged by the International Criminal Court for committing war crimes in Darfur. Unsurprisingly, it did not come about through his own initiative. American diplomatic pressure was essential in bringing about a ceasefire and sustaining peaceful negotiations. When George W. Bush became president in 2001, he prioritized conflict resolution in Sudan. He was primarily motivated by domestic pressure from evangelical groups, who supported Sudan’s Christian South. The idea of American involvement was also consistent with his interventionist foreign policy. Nonetheless, his focus on Sudan helped bring an end to the brutal violence. As former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice boldly declared when asked about Bush’s chequered legacy, his contribution was “vital [in] stopping the civil war between southern and northern Sudan.”

Under American direction, the two rivals eventually signed the CPA in January 2005. The agreement gave the South further autonomy and the possibility of independence after a referendum in 2011. It also had a power-sharing element, with John Garang becoming vice president until his death a month later. The CPA was heralded as an extraordinary breakthrough and a victory of American intervention, especially after the Sudanese government held the referendum on schedule and subsequently gave the South independence. As a result, South Sudan is seen as a largely American creation.

However, the American sphere of influence is waning in the face of renewed conflict and Chinese intrusion. Within three years of independence, South Sudan descended into another civil war, this time between two rival political factions. In December 2013, Salva Kiir, the nation’s president and leader of the SPLM, accused his erstwhile deputy, Riek Machar, of attempting a coup. Machar denied the allegations and countered by claiming Kiir was unfairly persecuting him. The situation quickly escalated, with another round of violence breaking out across the country.

There are deeper, more sinister factors behind the civil war in South Sudan. The two leaders are from rival tribes; Kiir is from the Dinka tribe, while Machar belongs to the Nuer tribe. Both factions are populous throughout the nation, and have battled for centuries over land and resources. These sectarian underpinnings came to the fore after provocative political rhetoric, resulting in widespread ethnic conflict. In the three years since the American government “midwifed” the birth of South Sudan, the nation has deteriorated to new levels of violence.

The Chinese Sphere of Influence

In the midst of this unexpected volatility, China has positioned itself as a key patron and ally of South Sudan. This decision is consistent with Beijing’s current goal of enlarging its influence on the world stage. In a bid to find new markets and resources, the Chinese government is especially determined to broaden its presence in Africa. With large oil reserves and a government in need of outside help, South Sudan has emerged as a viable candidate to propagate China’s aims on the continent.

The China-South Sudan alliance began as a strategic economic partnership. There are currently 120 Chinese enterprises conducting business in the newly-founded country, a surprisingly large number given that South Sudan’s industries are notoriously under-developed. These Chinese companies are estimated to have invested over $10 billion in the South Sudanese government, with the promise of more support over the next few years. The Chinese National Petroleum Corporation is also one of only three companies that pump oil in South Sudan. This broad-based economic assistance gives China a large amount of leverage with the government, which depends on foreign aid to fund its administrative and military burdens.

Beijing has already used its influence to mediate talks between South Sudan and its northern rival, Sudan. After South Sudan was accused of encouraging rebellion in Sudan, the Sudanese government threatened to close down southern oil pipelines to ports in Africa. The mutual hostility threatened to escalate as undiminished suspicion re-emerged, but China’s intervention helped both sides come to an understanding. It also highlighted Obama’s lack of focus on South Sudan, the country his predecessor helped create.

A Sino-American Struggle

The advent of the civil war in 2013 adds a new dimension to the US-China rivalry in South Sudan. The fledgling nation is certainly not a priority for Obama, who is more concerned with deteriorating stability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In fact, the American government has reduced its support to South Sudan, earning it little praise in Juba. Although American aid amounts to $100-300 million per year, it is a pittance compared to China’s massive commitments. China, meanwhile, has the dubious distinction of being Juba’s largest weapons supplier. It has also proclaimed its intention to send 700 peacekeeping troops to those regions of the nation most embroiled in conflict. While this announcement has led to speculation that China is mobilizing to protect its investments in depleting oil fields, it has given China heightened power in South Sudan.

The United States is also hampered by its duplicitous stance on Kiir and Machar. Kiir was a White House favorite during the Bush era, visiting the Oval Office three times even though he did not become a national leader until 2011. He has also maintained cordial relations with the State Department under the Obama administration. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry presented him with his ever-present Stetson cowboy hat, a constant reminder of American support. However, the United States has also continued to hold talks with Machar; this is a sore point for the government in Juba. China has been more successful in appeasing both sides, perhaps due to their enormous aid packages. As a result, South Sudan is increasingly looking to China for diplomatic support and mediation in talks with the North.

This trend is particularly worrisome for the United States because China is challenging US policy in the country. Recently, it opposed a US-drafted resolution imposing sanctions against South Sudan. While the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, suggested that China might be willing to bring punitive measures against Juba to kick-start peace talks, the ambassador to the United Nations questioned the logic of sanctions. He went on to claim that resolution might send out the “wrong message”, though he declined to elaborate on the cryptic statement.

The disparate viewpoints of the Chinese and American governments are damaging to the negotiation process as a whole. As the two most influential foreign governments in South Sudan, the United States and China need to cooperate to find a consistent strategy. If there was ever a time for consensus, that time is now, with nearly 10,000 civilians having already been killed as part of this entirely unnecessary conflict. Unless the United States and China can put aside their rivalry and bring collective pressure to bear on Juba, the conflict has the potential to escalate further. Unfortunately, this seems increasingly unlikely as the Sino-American tug of war over South Sudan continues.

About the Author

Mili Mitra '18 is an International Relations concentrator and a senior staff writer for BPR.