The president of newly independent South Sudan is lobbying China for investment in his country’s oil industry and diplomatic support in an escalating conflict with Sudan, which is threatening to become an all-out war.
Sudan and South Sudan, which broke away from its neighbor and became independent last year, have been unable to resolve disputes over sharing oil revenue and determining a border. Talks broke down this month and a Sudanese military bombing in South Sudan killed at least two people on Monday.
China’s energy needs make it deeply vested in the future of the two Sudans and Beijing is uniquely positioned to exert influence in the conflict, given its deep trade ties to the resource-rich south and decades-long diplomatic ties with Sudan’s government in the north.
Both have tried to win Beijing’s favor, but China has been careful to cultivate ties with each nation. Like others in the international community, China has repeatedly urged the two sides to return to negotiations.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir is making his first visit to China since taking office. He opened a new embassy and met Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) yesterday, and is set to see Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) today.
The Financial Times on Sunday quoted South Sudan’s lead negotiator, Pagan Amum, as saying Kiir would be seeking Chinese financing for a long-planned oil pipeline that would bypass Sudan. The report said Beijing has already pledged technical assistance for the pipeline, which would allow land-locked South Sudan an alternative export route for its large oil reserves.
Jiang Hengkun (姜恒昆), a professor with the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University, said that if the pipeline happens, China would contribute heavily, from labor to loans.
“China will surely participate in the construction,” Jiang said. “Chinese construction companies or oil companies can join the bidding for the project, while the Chinese government may provide development aids or loans to [the] South Sudan government.”
Jiang said the project was likely to take three to four years, or longer.
Zach Vertin, the senior analyst on South Sudan for the International Crisis Group, said that while the pipeline is sure to be the agenda, it is just one piece of what is expected to be a comprehensive bilateral cooperation. Vertin said China invited Kiir last year with the broad aim of cultivating political and economic ties with the new nation.
“Economic cooperation is first and foremost about oil, but also about a potential role for Chinese banks and commercial actors in financing and facilitating the closure of South Sudan’s colossal infrastructure gap,” Vertin said in an e-mail.
Though Beijing’s principal objective has been good relations with both Sudans, Vertin said the balance has proven delicate.
“Because the visit comes amid dangerous hostilities, Beijing will try to navigate a course that both satisfies its own interests and steers the parties toward peace,” he said.
During his five-day stay, Kiir might also seek to mend differences over the expulsion in February of a senior Chinese oil executive alleged to have helped Sudan divert the South’s oil.
Jiang said kicking Liu Yingcai (劉英才) out of South Sudan might have been meant to prod Beijing into exerting more pressure on Sudan to stop the oil diversions, but that it was unlikely to impact China-South Sudan relations in the long run.