Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 25 June 2014

South Sudan-China Relations: A reversed courtship


By Luka B. Deng Kuol

June 26, 2014 — The International Crisis Group (ICG) came with a comprehensive report in April 2012 about a new China’s courtship in South Sudan in the wake of the independence of South Sudan in 2011. However, since the eruption of conflict in South Sudan in December 2013, the situation has changed drastically and that puts South Sudan in rather awkward diplomatic challenges that change the direction of diplomatic courtship.

Within the four months of the crisis, more than one million of citizens of South Sudan got displaced, a quarter of million took refuge in the neighbouring countries, 32 percent of the population are in “emergency” category of food insecurity with 37 percent population whose survival is in question, 60,000 children may perish because of lack of food and thousands of innocent people have been killed in brutal way that is so alien to values and customs of people of South Sudan. Above all, mistrust between and among various communities deepened, social fabric weakened, pride and dignity of our great people as well as the image of the new nation have been tarnished.

This devastating development shocked the world and international community that unanimously welcomed the newest country to the UN family with optimism and high hopes of contributing to global peace and stability. Within a very short period of time, South Sudan lost its good relations with international community, particularly United Nations and its closest friends such as USA. US President Obama, whose origin is traceable to Nilotic ethnic group in South Sudan, issued an executive order to impose sanctions on individuals involved in obstructing the peace process or gross human rights abuses. UN Security Council threatens to impose similar sanctions. One Sudanese diplomat was jokingly telling me that you (South) have outperformed, in a very short period of time, the NCP in antagonizing international community and getting sanctions from USA.

With the deteriorating humanitarian situation, the initial mandate of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to support peace-building, state-building and capacity development has been changed to refocus on protection of civilians, aiding the delivery of humanitarian assistance, monitoring human rights and preventing renewed violence. In other words, the UN assistance for strengthening the capacities of government is no longer part of the new mandate. Hilde Johnson, the head of UNMISS and a friend to the people of South Sudan who came to contribute towards building the new nations, decided not to continue heading UNMISS with its new mandate.

The recent donors conference in Oslo on South Sudan clearly indicated the shift of international community’s focus from state-building support to humanitarian assistance. Many long-standing friends of South Sudan are disappointed to seeing such a nation that they attached high hopes has degenerated again to humanitarian situation rather than building a new nation to fulfill the aspirations and selfless sacrifices of its people.

In the light of such deteriorating relations with international community, South Sudan started to look for new friends such as China and Russia. The Minister of Foreign Affairs paid special visit to Moscow to forge new relations with Russia and to convince it to support the government of South Sudan in the UN Security Council over issues related to South Sudan. The invitation extended to President Putin to visit South Sudan shows the diplomatic desperation of Juba to get support from Russia. Although Russia does not have a vested interest in the affairs of the South, it has huge investment potentials, particularly in the oil sector and infrastructure development.

On the other hand, China has huge economic and diplomatic leverage and potentials to assist Juba during this difficult period. Given the enormous challenges facing Juba, South Sudan has to forge a new courtship in China. As part of its new diplomatic outreach, the Vice President will visit China towards the end of this month. As this visit has been cautiously arranged by Chinese Communist Party rather than by the Government of China, Juba will have an uphill task to be successful with its new courtship in China.

This visit will come by the time South Sudan faces a serious conflict that is threatening not only lives and livelihoods of people but also investment opportunities, particularly in the oil sector. Also the IGAD peace talks on South Sudan have been adjourned indefinitely because of lack of political will by the warring parties. Also IGAD is currently making serious consultations with African Union Peace and Security Council and UN Security Council of possibility of imposing punitive measures and sanctions against the warring parties. Even in the upcoming 23rd Ordinary Session of the African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea, where the status of peace and security in Africa will be discussed, South Sudan conflict will be on the agenda and possible punitive measures and sanctions as may be recommended by IGAD may be considered.

In fact this visit will come at rather awkward time when China will be discussing with other members of the UN Security Council the possibility of imposing sanctions on the warring parties in the light of stalled peace talks in Addis, Ethiopia. As such we may not expect the visit to achieve much. It is likely that the Vice President may not meet with his counterpart in the government but probably his counterpart in the Chinese Communist Party.

Despite the challenges facing this visit, the Vice President may need to exert considerable efforts to convince Beijing to listen to him. On the top of the issues that Beijing will be interested in is a credible commitment by Juba to peace process as well as implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement. China as member of UN Security has detailed and full report of the violations committed by the two parties of the cessation of hostilities agreement. Also China will be interested to know whether South Sudan has a credible investment strategy with a clear set of priority projects thoroughly assessed and duly approved by the relevant institutions. Importantly, China may like to know the thinking of Juba of how to protect the oil installations and other foreign investments and the role it can play.

If Juba could provide credible assurances to the concerns of Beijing, it is likely that a loan package from Chinese Export-Import (Exim) Bank may be concluded during this visit. With the conclusion of such loan, the Vice President may have opportunity to request Beijing to ensure the Chinese companies operating in South Sudan to adhere and abide by good business practices such as transparency and cost-efficiency through competitive bidding process, corporate responsibility, social, environmental and quality standards, partnership with local companies, training and employment of South Sudanese nationals and quality delivery.

As mentioned by Francis Deng that foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy with its success and effectiveness depending on a positive domestic “commodity to sell” in promoting international cooperation. It is apparent that the Vice President during his visit to Beijing is in shortage of positive domestic commodity to sell to China to make his diplomatic courtship effective. Rather than looking for new partners, South Sudan should put first its house in order with a positive domestic policy on which to base its foreign policy outreach. When our house is in order, South Sudan will not only consolidate and strengthen its relations with traditional partners and friends but it can create new partnership with new partners such as China and Russia.

The author is Associate Professor at University of Juba, Global Fellow at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and Associate Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.

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