South Sudan Wants China to Pick Sides in Dispute

South Sudan, a major Chinese oil trading partner, says Beijing’s foreign policy failing.

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hu Jintao of China talk at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 25, 2009
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Hu Jintao of China talk at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 25, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

A South Sudanese government official criticized China on Tuesday for refusing to take a stand in his country’s oil and territorial dispute with the north.

Both China and Russia have signaled their opposition to the United Nations Security Council urging restraint on the part of both Sudans. Beijing is perhaps Khartoum’s strongest ally but doesn’t want to alienate the South and jeopardize access to critical oil imports.

South Sudan gained independence last year after decades of civil war but hostilities with the overwhelmingly Arab and Muslim north flared anew in January when Sudan’s government confiscated Southern oil exports in compensation for unpaid transit fees.

Landlocked South Sudan has two-thirds of the former unified Sudan’s oil output but needs access to pipelines and port facilities in the north to sell overseas.

South Sudan pumps around 350,000 barrels per day, according to government data. Last year, 260,000 barrels were sold to China daily. The north needs the entirety of its oil production, some 115,000 barrels per day, to meet domestic demand.

The Chinese have to maintain stable relations with both governments if they are to continue buying Sudanese oil. The recent conflict, which saw border towns bombarded by north Sudanese air force, puts China’s energy security at risk and could increase its dependence on another country that Western oil majors rather avoid — Iran.

The South’s minister in charge of reconciliation, Pagan Amum Okech, told a think tank in London that China’s balancing act was not paying off. “By trying to move away from Khartoum so as to get closer to South Sudan and trying not to get too close to South Sudan so as not to cause displeasure to Khartoum — neither Khartoum nor Juba will be happy with China,” he said.

We would want to see China playing a more active role. Their role has not been very active. Maybe China also (needs) to catch up its foreign policy with its international position, having huge investments abroad.

China is reluctant to do so, fearing a backlash against what is sometimes already perceived as economic exploitation or neocolonialism in the African states where Chinese companies do business.

Moreover, Beijing insists on a foreign policy of noninterference which corresponds with their professed respect for the sovereignty of states. It says to oppose intervention in wartorn Syria for the same reason. It remains to be seen whether any sudden disruptions in Sudan’s oil sales will convince it to change that position.

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