China evacuates its citizens out of Sudan
A small number of Chinese nationals remain outside Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum, Mao Ning added. China’s Foreign Ministry estimated that more than 1,500 Chinese citizens were in Sudan at the start of this month’s conflict. No Chinese fatalities have been reported.
On April 15, fighting broke out between two rival factions — the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the paramilitary group battling for control of the country, and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). Escalating violence has led to at least 459 deaths as of April 25, the World Health Organization reported, with at least 4,072 people injured.
Shootings and bombings have destabilized Khartoum, disrupting the supply of energy and internet services, as well as blocking safe access to food and water. Sudan’s main airports remain closed, as foreign ministries rush to evacuate their citizens using truck convoys.
“So far, we’ve helped the nationals of five countries to leave Sudan by Chinese ships,” Mao Ning said.
The third attempt at a 72-hour cease-fire fell apart with the sounds of gunfire and fighter jets on Tuesday. The U.S.-brokered truce, which started on April 24 to honor the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, was aimed at opening up routes for civilians to escape. The refugee agency UNHCR estimates that some 270,000 people could flee into South Sudan and Chad alone. Some Sudanese are fleeing by foot.
Sudan was the gold standard of China’s engagement with Africa
China is one of the biggest investors in Sudan, particularly in oil. China established relations with Sudan as early as 1959. Cooperation took off in the 1990s due to Beijing’s keen interest in tapping the country’s vast oil resources. Chinese entities signed oil exploration deals with Sudan in 1994. Two years later in 1996, state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation acquired a 40% majority stake in Sudanese oil consortium the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co.
China had sought to become a viable alternative to many Western nations, which refused to build relations with certain countries in Africa due to rampant corruption and human rights abuses: While China was strengthening its presence in Sudan’s oil sector under its “non-interference” foreign policy, the United States added Sudan to its list of states sponsoring terrorism in 1993. Those sanctions have since been lifted.
“Engagement with Sudan was a hallmark of an earlier phase of Chinese engagement with Africa. As a latecomer, Chinese actors frequently had little choice but to work in high-risk environments because they were crowded out by competitors in safer ones,” Cobus van Staden, managing editor of the China-Global South Project, told The China Project today. “At that time, China also wanted to secure supplies of oil and other commodities, and Sudan played an important role there.”
South Sudan cedes, and China’s interest in Sudanese oil drops
But in 2011, South Sudan seceded from Sudan to become an independent nation, taking about three-quarters of the oil fields with it. These fields still relied on pipelines through Sudan to export the oil. But oil production plummeted due to internal conflicts and widespread corruption in South Sudan.
“While Chinese companies remain invested there and China still contributes a significant number of peacekeepers to the UN operation in South Sudan, Sudanese oil is no longer the important issue for China that it once was,” David Shinn, a professorial lecturer in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, told The China Project today. “This development has almost certainly reduced the importance of Sudan as China contemplates its policies in the region.”
Prior to the split, China imported about 6% of its crude oil from Sudan. Today, China imports less than 1% of its oil from both South Sudan and Sudan, opting instead to get the majority of its energy resources from Russia and Saudi Arabia.
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“In the 2010s, China worked hard to diversify its supply of oil, and the development of the Belt and Road Initiative aided this goal. China’s intense subsequent diplomatic engagement with Russia and Saudi Arabia was part of this process of securing more diverse, efficient, and dependable oil supplies, as Sudan and South Sudan also never found a way of making their oil cooperation work,” van Staden told The China Project.
“Essentially, China moved on to the rest of the world,” van Staden added.
For China, there’s a lot more to Sudan than just oil
Despite losing its taste for Sudanese oil, China maintains a strong presence in Sudan. China’s ambassador in Khartoum, Mǎ Xīnmín 马新民, said last May that more than 130 Chinese companies are operating in the country.
“The China-Sudan relationship remains strong and enduring despite the fact that Chinese imports of Sudanese oil have dropped in recent years,” Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University, told The China Project today. “China still has a stake in what happens in Sudan (and South Sudan) because Chinese firms continue to operate the oil infrastructure in the two countries.”
For China, what began largely as an interest in oil has expanded into a diverse trade partnership with Sudan. Sudan is a key partner in China’s Belt and Road Initiative: China inked a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to help build the Sudanese portion of a 3,200-kilometer (1,990-mile) railway link between the city of Port Sudan and N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, as part of a network of trade corridors spanning the African continent. Meanwhile, Chinese firms have tapped into Sudan’s mining, real estate, services, and agriculture sectors.
Sudan also purchases large quantities of Chinese weaponry, technology, and national security wares, including surveillance technologies like drones, Nantulya added. Reports have claimed that the Sudanese army is seeking to buy Chinese J-10C fighter jets to boost its military in case of war with Ethiopia.
Those military ties came under fire during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when Beijing was heavily criticized by international human rights groups and other organizations for selling weapons to the Sudanese military to be used in the Darfur conflict. China also continued to receive oil from Sudan throughout the Darfur conflict that began in the early 2000s, with imports hitting a record near $1 billion worth of Sudanese crude oil in 2010.
Beijing faces a more complicated diplomatic task in Sudan
Beijing has not taken sides in this month’s conflict in Sudan to date. Much of its focus has been on getting its citizens out of danger, and has shown little interest in taking up the role as a mediator in the conflict.
While China has stepped up its global diplomacy — Beijing brokered a landmark normalization agreement between archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran last March — there are slim chances that Beijing will repeat that success in Sudan.
“Ending the fighting in Sudan is more complex and difficult than convincing the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran to reestablish normal relations,” Shinn told The China Project. “China’s success in this case offers few lessons for the challenge posed by Sudan’s generals. In any event, China alone does not have the leverage to end the conflict, although it could join a much-broader international coalition to help bring this tragedy to a close.”
In June 2022, China’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Xuē Bīng 薛冰, organized a peace conference in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to mediate conflicts in the region. However, no tangible results have come from the conference.
“China has treaded very carefully among Sudan’s warring factions since the removal of Bashir…Beijing seems to be pursuing a cautious strategy of continuity, which means they will not be willing to antagonize any actor in Sudan, whether it is the warring generals or the civilians demanding for a return to the transitional process,” Nantulya told The China Project. “As such, I do not foresee Ambassador Xue Bing doing anything more than balancing between all sides and avoiding getting drawn into a complicated and unpredictable negotiations process. I expect him to sit this one out and watch from the sidelines.”
China has tried to mediate conflicts in Sudan in the past. In 2004, China made a significant but discreet diplomatic push to resolve the crisis in Darfur. Beijing’s behind-the-scenes efforts played an integral role in persuading the Bashir administration to allow international peacekeeping efforts into the country.
“Some serious high-level diplomacy was used to secure Sudan’s acceptance of these forces, including direct, face-to-face talks between then Chinese President Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛 and his Sudanese counterpart in Khartoum, at which Hu reportedly applied economic pressure on his host,” Nantulya told The China Project.
While China also worked closely with the U.S. and other Western countries to help facilitate peace talks between Sudan and South Sudan in 2013, it remains unlikely that Beijing will choose to reprise its role in the current conflict — despite its vested interests.