China's role in South Sudan a learning curve


Things are not easy for China’s combat troops in war-torn South Sudan. The same goes for the other troops in the United Nations Mission for South Sudan (UNMISS), says veteran Chinese diplomat, Zhong Jianhua.

‘I visited their camps and I was very impressed by the thousands of troops there under UN command. Conditions are difficult, but this is also an important opportunity for our troops to get trained,’ Zhong said during a press briefing at the second Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit in Johannesburg on 4 December 2015.

China’s role in peace and security issues on the continent was one of the topics of the historic summit – the first of its kind on African soil. In his opening speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that the ‘China-Africa peace and security plan’ will be one of the 10 pillars of cooperation between China and Africa launched at the summit.

‘China will provide US$60 million of grants to support the building and operation of the African Standby Force and the African Capacity for the Immediate Response to Crises,’ said Xi. China will also support African countries ‘in areas such as defence, counter-terrorism, riot prevention, customs and immigration control,’ he said.

China’s involvement in Africa is driven by its desire to be seen as a ‘responsible power’

China-Africa experts point out, however, that while Chinese business links with Africa have grown massively over the last two decades – with trade increasing to US$220 billion in 2014 – China’s role in peacekeeping is still fairly new. The 700 troops deployed in South Sudan in April this year is the first deployment of a Chinese infantry battalion on the continent.

UNMISS is made up of just over 11 000 troops. In total, China has 2 100 troops in several peace missions on the continent, including in Mali, but these have up to now served in a non-combat role.

Institute for Security Studies senior researcher Gustavo de Carvalho points out that China deploys considerably more peacekeepers than any other of the permanent members on the UN Security Council. In Africa, China is second only to France among the permanent members when it comes to putting boots on the ground. French troops serving in its anti-terrorism Operation Barkhane in the Sahel are not part of the UN’s peacekeeping troops.

Overall, China is the sixth largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget, with the United States being the largest. At the recent summit on UN peacekeeping, held in New York in September this year, China also pledged to increase its troop contribution to 8 000 troops, which would make it one of the top three troop-contributing countries, says de Carvalho.

The US$60 million financial support to African Union (AU) peace support operations that China announced at the summit is, however, a drop in the ocean compared to what Europeans and other funders are dishing out. The European Union Peace facility, for example, funds the African Union Mission for Somalia (AMISOM) to the tune of €23 million per month. In October this year, the EU agreed to pay an additional €165 million to ensure that AMISOM makes ends meet. Again, pledges made at the UN peacekeeping summit in September could mean more support for Africa from China’s global commitment to peacekeeping.

As China becomes a bigger investor and more and more Chinese people move to the continent, it is also likely to get more involved in peace and security issues and mediation efforts, predicts China-Africa expert Daniel Large. China’s involvement is driven by its desire to be seen as a ‘responsible power’ in Africa and the world, but also through push-factors in China, said Large, a research associate at the South African Institute for International Affairs. ‘There is domestic pressure in China for the government to protect its citizens abroad,’ he said.

China's policy of 'non-interference' in African affairs is coming under pressure

The death of three Chinese nationals in the terrorist attack on the Raddison Blu hotel in Mali last month sparked strong reaction in China. In 2011, the Chinese government also had to evacuate around 3 000 citizens from the war in Libya.

These events underscore the need for greater emphasis on peace and security in China’s engagement with Africa.

Former United States ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, agrees that China’s role in this regard will increase. ‘Security has become an increasingly important concern for China due to the increasing number of Chinese nationals living in Africa and the increased possibility that they will get in harm’s way,’ Shinn said in an interview with the Chinese cable network CCTV on the margins of the summit.

At the FOCAC press briefing, a Chinese journalist asked Zhong how Chinese working in Africa could be protected – referring to the Mali incident. Zhong, a former Chinese ambassador to South Africa, said some media reports about safety in Africa are exaggerated.

‘Where is a perfectly safe place to do business? Even in China business people can get hijacked, but we need to do business,’ he said. There are around 200 000 to 300 000 Chinese doing business in South Africa, and they do complain about crime. ‘I do not believe Chinese are asking for special protection’.

Clearly, China’s often-repeated foreign policy doctrine of ‘non-interference’ in African affairs is increasingly coming under pressure. Trying to make peace and build a stable Africa would imply some form of political involvement over the longer term.

In this regard, South Sudan is a test case for China’s involvement in Africa, says Large. Here, China is not a newcomer. In fact, it has been one of the biggest importers of South Sudanese oil for over two decades – way before South Sudan’s independence in 2011. When South Sudan decided to stop oil exports through Sudan in 2012 due to a dispute over the costs to transport the oil, China was compelled to take emergency steps and evacuate oil installations.

The troops in South Sudan is the first deployment of a Chinese infantry battalion in Africa

When the civil war in South Sudan broke out at the end of 2013, China again had to evacuate workers and has since stepped in to support mediation efforts by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). In January this year, China organised its own talks between the various South Sudanese belligerents in Khartoum, Sudan, but this did not bear much fruit. To be fair, over the last two years, none of the mediation attempts – either by the AU or regional powers – have been successful and the South Sudanese conflict remains one of the most devastating on the African continent.

Large said this mediation attempt in South Sudan could be seen as an example of China trying to step into the role of a big player in the crisis. However, this was more of an ‘ad hoc experiment’ and China has now stepped back into a supportive role. China’s credentials as a neutral player were also dealt a blow following revelations that it had sold weapons worth US$20 million to the South Sudanese military in mid 2014, at the height of the war. It has since halted its arms exports to the country.

Zhong, who was key to the mediation efforts, said China is fully supportive of the IGAD mechanisms to try and make peace in South Sudan. It is part of the so-called IGAD-plus that also includes the United States, the United Kingdom and Norway.

China has dismissed rumours that the 700 troops it sent to South Sudan were to protect Chinese oil installations. Large concurs that these troops have been deployed far from the Chinese oil fields in Unity and Upper Nile states. Most of these operations have been closed due to the war, or are operating with a skeleton staff.

South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir was one of the delegates at the FOCAC summit. His Minister of Foreign Affairs, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, told journalists that his country welcomes the deployment of peacekeepers. ‘China’s deployment of Chapter 7 [combat] troops in South Sudan is a major change of China’s foreign policy,’ he said. ‘We have no problems with the Chinese troops, as long as they are part of UN peacekeeping operations.’

Benjamin said his country is eager to get its share of the massive investments in infrastructure China is making on the continent. ‘South Sudan is described as virgin territory because it has enormous resources. China already imports 40% of its oil from South Sudan, but we have agricultural products, livestock, wildlife and many other things,’ he said.

‘China can get a lot from South Sudan. What we need now is infrastructure. The Chinese say, if you want to be rich, you have to build roads’. Whether the building of much-needed infrastructure materialises in the short term would depend on the capacity of the South Sudanese warring parties to implement the latest peace agreements, signed in August.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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