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Peacekeeping troops from China, deployed by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), patrol outside the premises of the UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Juba, South Sudan, on 4 October 2016. AFP/Albert Gonzalez Farran
Report 288 / Africa

China’s Foreign Policy Experiment in South Sudan

China, traditionally averse to intervening abroad, is testing the role of peacebuilder in South Sudan, where it has unique leverage. This could portend a growing global security role, but further Chinese engagement will likely be tempered by self-interest, capacity constraints and aversion to risk.

Executive Summary

China’s longstanding principle of non-interference in other states’ internal affairs is evolving with its growing global footprint. As Chinese overseas investment and business links grow in scope and depth, Beijing faces increasing threats to its citizens, economic interests and international reputation. That, in turn, has confronted China with the inherent limitations of its traditional hands-off foreign policy posture. How it responds over time will have a profound impact on Beijing’s international role. The most prominent test case appears to be Africa and, within the continent, South Sudan, where Chinese measures to protect its citizens and economic interests, coupled with its support for an end to the war and pursuit of humanitarian objectives, seem a calculated trial run for a more proactive global role.

China first experimented with deeper involvement in Sudan in response to powerful international criticism (culminating in calls to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics) of its support for Khartoum, which was fighting a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur. Using its influence with the Sudanese government and in the UN Security Council, China helped ensure deployment of UN peacekeepers to Darfur in 2008. Later, when Libya’s civil war erupted in 2012, China’s evacuation of its citizens generated national pride and increased both its people’s and its investors’ expectations about Beijing’s global profile. In both instances, China extended the boundaries of its time-honoured diplomacy, suggesting growing willingness to take action when its interests are threatened.

When South Sudan’s civil war broke out in late 2013, Chinese advocates of a more flexible interpretation of the non-intervention policy saw an opportunity to try new approaches to protect their nation’s interests. Several factors were at play. Huge investments made the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) both an economic and political actor. At the same time, China’s interests were aligned with those of others – mediators and Western powers – seeking to end the conflict. Working together with the Horn of Africa’s regional body – the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), charged with mediating South Sudan’s peace process – and Western actors, Chinese policymakers believed they could intervene constructively while managing reputational risks.

This was a step beyond its traditional approach: Beijing could claim broad adherence to the non-interference principle even as it used its influence to bring warring parties together and bridge differences between Western actors and South Sudanese leaders. It engaged in the peace process held in Ethiopia, hosted discreet talks among warring factions in Sudan, shaped UN Security Council action, sent peacekeepers to the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and joined the August 2015 peace agreement oversight body.

This is a crucial time for peacemaking in South Sudan and a crucial time for China to test its newfound role. It’s important to get both efforts right.

In short, China might still oppose interference in others’ affairs, but its definition has become more elastic. It continues to draw a line at intruding on matters of domestic governance; opposes regime change or unilateral military intervention; and believes that showing respect, rather than exerting pressure or inflicting punishment, is how to elicit cooperation and improvement in governance. Having itself been a victim of sanctions and public opprobrium, it favours more discreet persuasion. But direct involvement can be justified when civil conflicts cross borders, threaten regional security and stability or create large humanitarian crises, and when regional and local authorities and the UN have granted their imprimatur. In such cases, China tends to support political dialogue without imposing outcomes, save when those directly relate to the safety of its citizens or investments.

If China’s steps are tentative, there is good reason. It is aware of its newcomer status to international peace and security efforts, particularly via multilateral institutions, and is careful not to overreach. It is actively learning from its own experiences and the successes and missteps of other would-be peacemakers. Its diplomatic corps is not yet sufficiently staffed or trained. But its considerable economic and political influence mean that, when it steps in, it inevitably brings leverage to the table that traditional mediation efforts – whether in South Sudan or elsewhere – sometimes lack.

Despite differences in approach, so far collaborating in South Sudan has benefited China, Western countries, their African partners and the South Sudanese people. They should continue along this path. This is a crucial time for peacemaking in South Sudan and a crucial time for China to test its newfound role. It’s important to get both efforts right.

Beijing/Nairobi/Juba/Brussels, 10 July 2017

I. Introduction

China’s involvement with Sudan’s southern region began when it forged a partnership with Khartoum to develop its oil industry in the late 1990s. For much of the previous decade the West had worked to isolate the Sudanese government for human rights abuses and support for terrorism.[fn]For previous reporting on China’s involvement in South Sudan, see Africa Reports N°186, China’s New Courtship in South Sudan, 4 April 2012; N°39, God Oil & Country: Changing the Logic of War in Sudan, 10 January 2002. For recent work on South Sudan, see Africa Reports N°236, South Sudan’s South: Conflict in the Equatorias, 25 May 2016; N°243, South Sudan: Rearranging the Chessboard, 20 December 2016.Hide Footnote U.S. sanctions, and the country’s prolonged civil wars (1955-1972 and 1983-2005) – fought in the vicinity of major oil deposits, mostly in the south – deterred investors.[fn]For a summary of U.S. sanctions against Sudan, see “Brief Timeline of Key of Key Sanctions Events in Sudan”, Center for Global Development, 6 October 2011; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°127, Time to Repeal U.S. Sanctions on Sudan?, 22 June 2017.Hide Footnote

In March 1997, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and a consortium of mostly Asian oil companies signed an oil development deal with the government.[fn]Luke Patey, The New Kings of Crude: China, India, and the Global Struggle for Oil in Sudan and South Sudan (London, 2014).Hide Footnote Then new to overseas investment and operations and less daunted by security and political risks than most companies, CNPC obtained concessions for largely untapped oil reserves with limited competition. Other Chinese companies followed, leading to closer bilateral political and diplomatic ties.

Khartoum’s enemies, particularly the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) fighting the government in the South, said China was enabling an autocratic regime and tied the Chinese-financed oil investments to mass displacement, gross human rights violations and environmental degradation.[fn]Crisis Group Report N°39, God, Oil and Country: Changing the Logic of War in SudanGod, Oil and Country: Changing the Logic of War in Sudan, 10 January 2002; “The scorched earth: oil and war in Sudan”, Christian Aid, 13 March 2001; “Sudan: The Human Price of Oil”, Amnesty International, 4 May 2000; “Sudan, Oil, and Human Rights”, Human Rights Watch, 24 November 2003.Hide Footnote The government sought to prevent Chinese contact with Southern rebels, and Beijing largely obliged.

Keen to tap into an underdeveloped market with, at the time, few competitors, Chinese nationals and companies flocked to South Sudan after it achieved formal independence in July 2011.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the Second Sudanese Civil War and paved the way for the South’s independence, dramatically changed the situation.[fn]Crisis Group Report, China’s New Courtship in South Sudan, op. cit., p. 2. Also see, The New Kings of Crude, op. cit.Hide Footnote Chinese businesses trickled into the South’s capital, Juba, soon after the CPA was signed, and, unbeknownst to Khartoum, the China National Petroleum Corporation surreptitiously dispatched employees to learn more about the new government. It took the Chinese government longer to adjust.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese businessman, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote Salva Kiir, then Sudan’s first vice president and now South Sudan’s president, bluntly reminded Chinese leaders during his 2007 visit to Beijing that most oil fields lie in the South and the CPA guaranteed its right to secede. Beijing opened a consulate in Juba the following year.[fn]Crisis Group Report, China’s New Courtship in South Sudan, op. cit., p. 3.Hide Footnote

Keen to tap into an underdeveloped market with, at the time, few competitors, Chinese nationals and companies flocked to South Sudan after it achieved formal independence in July 2011. But the region soon proved volatile and risky for businesses.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese businessman, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote In January 2012, Juba shut down oil production after negotiations over pipeline fees with Khartoum deadlocked. Production did not restart until April 2013.[fn]“Two Sudans’ oil disputes deepens as South shuts down wells”, The Guardian, 26 January 2012; “South Sudan restarts oil production”, Financial Times, 7 April 2013.Hide Footnote Civil war broke out in December that year and disrupted production again. Oil workers had to find shelter in UN bases until companies could airlift them to safety.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°217, South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name, 10 April 2014, pp. 15-17.Hide Footnote Chinese nationals scrambled to flee the war zone; their shops were looted and business projects halted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese officials, Juba, Beijing, 2016.Hide Footnote Beijing made the unprecedented decision to step in, with three related aims: (1) protect Chinese citizens and economic interests; (2) support an end to the war; and (3) serve humanitarian objectives.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese officials, Juba, 2014-2016.Hide Footnote Although this was an emergency response, it also became a calculated trial run for a more proactive role in step with China’s expanding overseas footprint and international stature.

This report begins with a review of the evolution of China’s non-interference principle. It analyses China’s motivation, objectives and methods for supporting the South Sudan peace process, as well as its interaction with warring parties and mediators. It studies how China – a relatively new, albeit influential arrival to international peace processes – reinforces, complements, or contradicts traditional diplomatic approaches. It also analyses lessons from the South Sudan experience about China’s evolving understanding of its role in the world and its interpretation of non-inter­ference. This report is primarily based on interviews with policymakers, diplomats, company executives and academics in Beijing, Shanghai, Juba, Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Washington. Many requested that their names be withheld.

II. Evolution of Non-interference

China’s proactive approach to South Sudan appears to be a significant departure from its longstanding principle of non-interference.[fn]安惠候,“不干涉原则与’新干涉主义’”, 《外交季刊》 [An Huihou, “Non-Interference Principle and ‘neo-interventionism’”, Foreign Policy Journal], vol. 104 no.4 (2012); 王嵎生, “中国外交的变与不变(上)”, 《解放日报》[Wang Yusheng, “Changes and continuation of Chinese diplomacy (First Half)”, PLA Daily, 29 October 2012]. An Huihou is the former Chinese ambassador to Egypt and Wang Yusheng is the former Chinese ambassador to Nigeria.Hide Footnote In fact, despite official rhetoric suggesting an unchanging doctrine, China’s interpretation of non-interference has evolved in a way that mirrors that of its definition of national interests and objectives.[fn]Proponents of a more flexible approach argue that non-interference must evolve along with China’s growing global footprint and expectations it will protect its nationals and investments overseas. Furthermore, if interpreted strictly, non-interference would compel China to accept outcomes deriving from other international actors’ interventions that are ineffective or not in China’s interests. They also argue that China’s “free riding” on global stability supposedly provided by others is neither sufficient nor sustainable. Crisis Group interviews, Chinese officials in the foreign ministry and State Council, diplomats and scholars, Beijing, Shanghai, Juba, and Addis Ababa, February-March 2014, January-April 2016. Also see, 催洪建, “‘不干涉’ 的安全观该更新了” [Cui Hongjian: “The ‘non-interference’ security concept should be updated”], Global Times, 28 July 2012; 王逸舟, 《创造性介入:中国外交新取向》[Wang Yizhou, Creative Involvement: A New Direction in China’s Diplomacy] (Beijing, 2011). For more on the evolution of the Chinese approach to peacekeeping prior to 2000, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°166, China’s Growing Role in UN Peacekeeping, 17 April 2009, pp. 3-5.Hide Footnote Even as the theoretical debate continues, Beijing has charted a middle path maintaining the broad non-interference principle while stretching its interpretation and experimenting with various ways of applying it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats and scholars, Beijing, Juba and Addis Ababa, January-April 2016.Hide Footnote

A. China Goes Out

Beginning in the 1990s, China became rapidly integrated into the world economy. In 1996, then-President Jiang Zemin first called for companies to “Go Out” and invest; in 1999, the Communist Party of China (CPC) formally adopted the “Go Out” strategy, supported by state financial institutions.[fn]Financial institutions supporting the “Go-Out” strategy (走出去战略; Pinyin: Zǒuchūqù  Zhànlüè) include China Development Bank (CDB), the Export Import Bank of China (China Exim Bank), policy banks such as Bank of China, and the China-Africa Development Fund. 陈杨勇,江泽民’走出去’战略的形成及其重要意义,人民网 [Chen Yangyong, “The creation and significance of Jiang Zemin’s ‘Go Out’ strategy”], People’s Daily online, 10 November 2008; “China goes global with development banks,” Bretton Woods Project, 5 April 2016; Karl P. Sauvant and Victor Zitian Chen, “China’s Regulatory Framework for Outward Foreign Direct Investment”, Columbia University, 22 February 2014.Hide Footnote Annual overseas direct investment grew from $2.7 billion in 2002 to $170.11 billion in 2016.[fn]The commerce ministry began recording outbound direct investment statistics in 2002. “2010 Statistical Bulletin of China’s Outward Foreign Direct Investment”, Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China, 16 September 2011. “MOFCOM Department Official of Outward Investment and Economic Cooperation Comments on China’s Outward Investment and Cooperation in 2016”, Chinese commerce ministry, 18 January 2017. By 2015, nearly 30,000 enterprises had invested overseas. “Report on Development of China’s Outward Investment and Economic Cooperation 2015”, Chinese commerce ministry, December 2015.Hide Footnote In Africa, Chinese direct investment grew from $1 billion in 2004 to $24.5 billion in 2013.[fn]Lihuan Zhou and Denise Leung, “China’s Overseas Investments, Explained in 10 Graphics”, World Resources Institute, 28 January 2015.Hide Footnote Although the over-stretched foreign ministry has no exact tally, the number of citizens residing abroad is believed to be about five million and rising, including some two million in Africa.[fn]Jonas Parello-Plesner and Mathieu Duchâtel, “How Chinese Nationals Abroad Are Transforming Beijing’s Foreign Policy”, East Asia Forum (, 16 June 2015.Hide Footnote

Driven by energy needs and backed by the state, national oil companies led the “Go Out” march. Because the most readily accessible oil deposits already had been exploited, Chinese companies often ended up in fragile states, taking on political and security risks to outflank competition from better funded, better equipped, more experienced – but also more cautious – Western oil majors. Mining and construction companies joined in, likewise often operating in underdeveloped and unstable regions.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°153, China’s Thirst for Oil, 9 June 2008.Hide Footnote

Even so, when overseas interests were in jeopardy, “rather than trying to influence outcomes in a crisis overseas, Beijing preferred withdrawal”. [fn]Mathieu Duchâtel, Oliver Bräuner and Zhou Hang, “Protecting China’s Overseas Interests”, Stock­holm International Peace Research Institute, June 2014, p. 47.Hide Footnote From 2006 to 2011, China conducted ten large-scale evacuations of nationals from foreign countries due to riots, wars or natural disasters, typically with minimum military participation.[fn]“近年来中国的重大撤侨行动”, 新华网 [“China’s major operations to evacuate nationals in recent years”], Xinhua News online, 31 March 2015.Hide Footnote The choice to withdraw rather than intervene was dictated by both principle and pragmatism. A former special representative for African affairs said, “Interference has to be backed up with capability. Although China was a big power, its capability to project power was not sufficient”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Liu Guijin, former Chinese special representative for African affairs and on the Darfur issue, Beijing, September 2014.Hide Footnote

B. Darfur: “Cleaning up the Mess”

China’s initially reluctant engagement with the Sudanese government over the Darfur war represented an early and notable departure from non-intervention and toward engagement with multilateral peace and security efforts.

In 2003, Darfur rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government. Khartoum and allied militia groups responded with a brutal counter-insurgency campaign.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°14, Sudan’s Other Wars, 25 June 2003; Crisis Group Africa Reports N°76, Darfur Rising: Sudan’s New Crisis, 25 March 2004; N°80, Sudan: Now or Never in Darfur, 23 May 2004; N°83; Darfur Deadline: A New International Action Plan, 23 August 2004.Hide Footnote Beijing’s close economic and political ties with Khartoum, particularly via the oil industry, led to Western accusations that it was bankrolling and protecting a genocidal regime.[fn]China invested billions of dollars in Sudan’s oil industry and imported 60 per cent of Sudan’s crude oil before 2011. China became Khartoum’s largest arms supplier around 2004 and helped Sudan build its domestic arms manufacturing industry. It was responsible for more than 70 per cent of total small arms and light weapons (SALM) transfers to Sudan between 2001 and 2008. Beijing also was seen as Khartoum’s protector in the UN Security Council. Crisis Group Report, China’s New Courtship in South Sudan, op. cit., p. 20; “Arms, Oil, and Darfur: The Evolution of Relations between China and Sudan”, Small Arms Survey, Sudan Issue Brief, Number 7, July 2007; “Supply and Demand: Arms Flow and Holdings in Sudan”, Small Arms Survey, Sudan Issue Brief, Number 15, December 2009.Hide Footnote Activists called for a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China’s purported coming-of-age show. Denying any responsibility for the Darfur war, yet fearing a public relations crisis, Beijing sought to “clean up the mess”.[fn]The foreign ministry argued the Darfur issue dated back to 1916, when it was under British control, and said: “It would be too far-fetched to blame China”. “外交部部长助理翟隽就苏丹达尔富尔问题举行中外媒体吹风会 [“Assistant Foreign Minister Zhai Jun Briefs Chinese and Foreign Media on the Darfur Issue in Sudan”], press release, Chinese foreign ministry, 12 April 2007. Crisis Group interview, Chinese scholar on Africa studies, Shanghai, March 2016.Hide Footnote In May 2007, it appointed Liu Guijin, a seasoned diplomat, as its special representative for African affairs and the Darfur issue.[fn]“China appoints Darfur post”, Associated Press, 10 May 2007.Hide Footnote

In 2007, through public statements and private messaging, Beijing persuaded Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to accept UN peacekeepers, hinting that Khartoum’s obstinacy could cost it China’s support at the UN.[fn]This was not an empty threat: abstentions by China and the U.S. on a 2005 UN Security Council vote to refer the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court allowed it to pass. Crisis Group Africa Briefings N°28, The AU's Mission in Darfur: Bridging the Gaps, 6 July 2005; N°43, Getting the UN into Darfur, 12 October 2006; Crisis Group Africa Reports N°105, To Save Darfur, 17 March 2006; N°134, Darfur’s New Security Reality, 26 November 2007; N°152, Sudan: Justice, Peace and the ICC, 17 July 2009; Crisis Group Report, China’s Growing Role in UN Peacekeeping, op. cit.Hide Footnote Chinese diplomats helped broker agreement for an African Union/UN hybrid mission with peacekeepers from developing nations to allay Bashir’s fear that Western forces would be used in the service of regime change.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Liu Guijin, former Chinese special representative for African affairs and on the Darfur issue, Beijing, March 2016. Former U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Andrew Natsios said China’s influence was a “critical factor” leading to Sudan relenting. Andrew Natsios, “Statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee”, 11 April 2007.Hide Footnote After the International Criminal Court (ICC) ordered Bashir’s arrest in March 2009, the envoy assured him: “China did not support ICC’s decision” but also advised him not to expel humanitarians or condone violent attacks against Westerners.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Liu Guijin, former Chinese special representative for African affairs and on the Darfur issue, Beijing, March 2016.Hide Footnote

During the 2005 CPA’s implementation, Beijing also supported negotiations over the division of oil revenues between Khartoum and the Southern Sudan regional government.[fn]While most oil is in the south, it is exported via a pipeline through Sudan. For detailed analysis of China’s role in the oil negotiations, see Crisis Group Report, China’s New Courtship in South Sudan, op. cit., pp. 26-31.Hide Footnote China acted as an influential party at the table, even as it shied away from full-fledged mediation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Liu Guijin, former Chinese special representative for African affairs and on the Darfur issue, Beijing, March 2016.Hide Footnote In the process, Beijing accumulated experience, gained regional and international players’ trust and built up capability and confidence in mediation, paving the way for its later engagement in South Sudan.

C. Libya: Catalyst for Change

In February 2011, conflict in Libya led to a massive operation to evacuate Chinese nationals working in construction and other sectors. The ten-day evacuation was the largest in Chinese history: 35,860 nationals. For transport and escort, the People’s Liberation Army and Navy (PLA/N) dispatched aircraft and frigates that sailed through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean for the first time. A dozen government agencies, nine embassies, commercial airlines and state-owned enterprises participated in the operation; multiple countries in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa facilitated the transit.[fn]马利(主编),《国家行动 -利比亚的撤离》 [Ma Li (ed.), National Operation – the great eva­cu­ation from Libya] (Beijing, 2011), pp. 199-201. “外交部:中国撤离在利比亚公民行动实现 ‘四个第一’”, 新华网 [“Foreign Ministry: China’s evacuation of nationals in Libya realises ‘four firsts’”], Xinhua News online, 6 March 2011.Hide Footnote

State media hailed the evacuation as “an unprecedented” display of military might, diplomatic leverage, financial prowess and mobilising skills.[fn]“特写: ‘回家的感觉太好了!’ – 中国撤离在利比亚人员行动圆满结束”, 新华社 [“Special report: ‘It feels too good to be home!’ – Chinese operation to evacuate nationals from Libya ends in perfect success”], Xinhua News, 6 March 2011. 王逸舟, 《创造性介入:中国外交新取向》[Wang Yizhou, Creative Involvement: A New Direction in China’s Diplomacy] (Beijing, 2011), p. 75.Hide Footnote The impressive operation inspired national pride but also raised expectations that China would protect its citizens elsewhere. Later, this would be cited as a factor justifying intervention in South Sudan.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats, Beijing, March-April 2016.Hide Footnote

The Libya evacuation also exposed the limits of China’s ability to protect its investments. Although its citizens were brought home safely,[fn]Crisis Group Report, China’s New Courtship in South Sudan, op. cit., p. 9.Hide Footnote Chinese infrastructure projects worth over $18.8 billion were damaged by fighting, NATO airstrikes, looting and vandalism.[fn]马宁, “利比亚动荡 中国企业利益损失几何?”, 新华网, [Ma Ning, “Libya Turmoil: How much did Chinese companies lose?”], Xinhua News, 25 March 2011; “陈德铭:中国在利比亚项目损失严重”, 凤凰网, [“Chen Deming: China’s projects in Libya suffer severe loss”], Ifeng, 7 March 2012.Hide Footnote Oil imports from Libya to China fell from 150,000 barrels per day in 2010 to just 19,000 by 2014.[fn]“China”, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 14 May 2015, p. 10. “Libya is a major energy exporter, especially to Europe”, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 21 March 2011.Hide Footnote Beijing, like many other countries, was convinced that NATO’s Libya campaign exceeded the UN Security Council’s authorisation (which passed with China’s abstention) and resulted in regime change “without any legal or institutional proceedings”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Chinese foreign ministry official, Beijing, February 2014. In May 2011, then-Chinese Ambassador to the UN Li Baodong twice stated China’s opposition to the NATO campaign, saying it was based on an “arbitrary interpretation” of UN resolutions. United Nations Security Council 6528th meeting, UN Document S/PV.6528, 4 May 2011. United Nations Security Council 6531st meeting, UN Document S/PV.6531, 10 May 2011. Chinese scholars spoke of a sense of “deception and betrayal” by the West, and blamed Western military intervention for the ensuing chaos in Libya. Zheng Chen, “China and the responsibility to protect”, Journal of Contemporary China, vol. 25, no. 101 (2016), p. 693. Ruan Zongze, “Responsible Protection: Building a Safer World”, China International Studies, vol. 34 (May/June 2012).Hide Footnote

Libya focused the attention of Chinese foreign policy decision-makers and thinkers and sharpened the debate on the contours of non-interference. Many began to argue that China needed to engage actively in global security affairs to prevent such chaos from arising in the first place and to shape outcomes.

III. South Sudan: The Pilot Project

South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013 with fighting and ethnically-targeted killings in the capital, Juba.[fn]Crisis Group Report, South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name, op. cit.Hide Footnote Violence soon spread across the country. Rebels with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) targeted and destroyed some oil infrastructure and killed South Sudanese workers on Chinese-owned oil facilities. Chinese workers were evacuated in emergency conditions.[fn]“97 Chinese workers evacuated from South Sudan to Khartoum”, Xinhua, 25 December 2013.Hide Footnote The Horn of Africa regional body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), immediately launched mediation efforts between the government and the rebels in an attempt to stop the war and prevent neighbouring states from being pulled into a regional conflict. Both China and Western states backed these efforts. IGAD’s chief mediator, Seyoum Mesfin, a former Ethiopian foreign minister and ambassador to China, provided Beijing a known and credible entry into the mediation. China’s interests in South Sudan and strong relations with the regional mediators made South Sudan an ideal testing ground for Beijing’s increasingly nuanced approach to non-interference.

A. Chinese Interests on the Ground

Although South Sudan accounts for only 2 to 5 per cent of China’s annual oil imports, oil is front and centre among Beijing’s concerns.[fn]“China”, U.S. Energy Information Administration, updated 14 May 2015.Hide Footnote While the volume may appear small, its political and geopolitical significance is not.

Sudan was the Chinese oil industry’s first overseas success and retains symbolic importance. It was there that China’s oil corporation and its subsidiaries cut their teeth on international operations, proved their mettle and gained operational experience.[fn]The New Kings of Crude, op. cit., p. 111.Hide Footnote The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) also demonstrated its ability to enhance China’s energy security, winning Beijing’s support for further expansion. As oil prices soared between 1998 and 2003, output from Sudan “contributed significantly to the company’s growth”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, CNCP official, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote The Khartoum refinery became a frequent stop for visiting Chinese government and party officials.[fn]The New Kings of Crude, op. cit., pp. 101-102.Hide Footnote

After the 2005 peace agreement, when it appeared likely South Sudan would gain independence, CNPC deepened its engagement with Juba – at first secretly, for fear of offending Khartoum.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese businessman with first-hand knowledge, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote But CNPC and its partners found building relations with South Sudan challenging. Juba drove a hard bargain when it came to restructuring contracts and the volatile political environment undercut production.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, officials in the petroleum ministry, businesspeople, Juba, 2013-2016.Hide Footnote As noted, the government shut down operations in January 2012 over deadlocked talks with Sudan on oil transit fees.[fn]Crisis Group Report, China’s New Courtship in South Sudan, op. cit., pp. 20-31.Hide Footnote Boom-time was over and the immediate loss of almost all government revenue was partially covered through loans taken against future oil production whose cost continues to be paid.[fn]Crisis Group Report, South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name, op. cit.Hide Footnote South Sudan’s economic downturn had begun.

Although oil flow resumed in April 2013, the civil war that broke out in December shut down production in three fields in Unity state (the larger Upper Nile state fields remained operational).[fn]Both are near the border with Sudan and near areas where fighting has taken place. “South Sudan restarts oil production”, Financial Times, 7 April 2013. Crisis Group interview, CNPC managers, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote The global decline in oil prices in 2014, combined with the war, presented a dual challenge for the oil companies. In January and February 2016, when benchmark crude oil prices dipped to lows below $30 per barrel, CNPC lost nearly $2 million a day, although it still is banking on South Sudan stabilising and oil prices have since increased.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CNPC managers and Chinese diplomats, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Although CNPC officials routinely downplay the company’s influence on Beijing’s decision-making, executives of national oil majors are prominent members of the elite decision-making class. The Communist Party’s Central Organisation Department appoints these top executives, who typically hold vice ministerial rank. It is not uncommon for oil company executives to ascend to prominent political positions.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°275, Stirring up the South China Sea (IV): Oil in Troubled Waters, 26 January 2016, p. 5. Zhou Yongkang, CNPC general manager 1996 to 1998, played a crucial role in CNPC’s venturing into Sudan. He became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 and security czar. In retirement, he was arrested on corruption charges in 2015. “Profile: China’s fallen security chief Zhou Yongkang”, BBC, 11 June 2015.Hide Footnote Although CNPC is primarily a profit-seeking corporation, it can be called upon by the party to fulfil policy or political goals such as employment and diplomacy. Diplomats said CNPC was asked to absorb the loss and stay put in South Sudan. The company in turn sought and expected protection from the Chinese state.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Beijing, March 2016; Addis Ababa, April 2016; Chinese scholar, Shanghai, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Operational costs, with cheap rent and labour, were low and profit margins were as high as 50 per cent before the current economic crisis.

Oil companies were not alone in investing in South Sudan. Other companies followed suit, accompanied by Chinese loans.[fn]In January 2012, Kiir received Li Yuanchao, member of the Politburo, in Juba. The two sides discussed additional loans potentially guaranteed against future oil reserves. Crisis Group Report, China’s New Courtship in South Sudan, op. cit., pp. 10-11.Hide Footnote Bilateral trade reached $534 million in 2012; by 2013, roughly 100 Chinese companies were registered in South Sudan, covering energy, engineering, construction, telecommunications, medical services, hotels, restaurants, and retail.[fn]“中国和南苏丹合作简介”[“Brief introduction to China-South Sudan Cooperation”], official website of the Economic and Commercial Counsellor’s Office of the Chinese Embassy in South Sudan, updated 8 December 2013.Hide Footnote Some saw South Sudan as a “paradise for investors”: a country rich in oil income, with huge infrastructure needs, nearly no industry and no Western competition.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Zhong Jianhua, then special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, 8 March 2016. Zhong retired from the position in August 2016.Hide Footnote Operational costs, with cheap rent and labour, were low and profit margins were as high as 50 per cent before the current economic crisis.[fn]Crisis interviews, Chinese businessmen, Juba, April 2016; correspondence, Chinese businessmen, July 2016.Hide Footnote

Yet risks also are plentiful. Beyond war and political instability, robberies, kidnapping and petty crime threaten property and personal safety. Both government and rebel groups have sought to protect Chinese businesspeople and infrastructure, expecting (and sometimes receiving) financial benefits in exchange.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, South Sudanese government officials and rebel leaders, Juba, Addis Ababa, 2014-2015.Hide Footnote But the government, which has been running a deficit and mortgaging future oil revenue since 2012, is chronically delinquent on contractual and loan payments. Investors are therefore increasingly hesitant to make substantial investments.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese businessmen in construction, telecommunications, and hospitality, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote

B. A Pilot Project for Diplomacy

When civil war broke out in December 2013, CNPC evacuated many employees on company airplanes. Other Chinese citizens fled via self-organised caravans. Although not specifically targeted, Chinese retail shops and restaurants were looted or burned down in the fighting.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CNPC managers and other Chinese businessmen, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Chinese officials debated whether to leave or stay with lessons from Libya fresh in their minds. Another withdrawal would mean leaving oil fields and other investments behind, likely to be damaged by war; it also would mean forfeiting economic and political leverage to influence events.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats and scholars with state-affiliated think-tanks, Beijing, January-March 2016.Hide Footnote Diplomats said Beijing was also driven by “a sense of responsibility” to preserve South Sudan’s economic future, which lives or dies with the oil industry.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Zhong Jianhua, then special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, 8 March 2016.Hide Footnote Zhong Jianhua, who replaced Liu as special representative on African affairs in 2012, arrived in Nairobi as IGAD launched its mediation process. In response to IGAD’s request for China’s engagement, Beijing stepped up its involvement. Between 2014 and the signing of a peace agreement in August 2015, China was consistently engaged and supportive of the mediation process.

For Beijing, South Sudan became a real-world laboratory to test the boundaries of its non-interference principle. It did so in what, domestically, was a relatively less contentious arena: unlike conflicts and disputes in Asia, Africa seldom falls under Beijing’s domestic media spotlight or becomes the subject of nationalist passion. A Chinese scholar on African affairs said:

China can afford to stomach the cost of trial-and-error of new approaches in Africa. China hopes to form “Chinese solutions”. In comparison, Myanmar and the South China Sea are much more sensitive and mistakes there are much more costly to China.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese scholar on African affairs at a government-affiliated think-tank, Beijing, January 2016.Hide Footnote

As a result, the foreign ministry’s Africa Department has more room to manoeuvre, undertake policy initiatives and delegate authority and influence to the field.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese foreign ministry official, Beijing, March 2014.Hide Footnote Diplomats in Juba and Addis Ababa were ready to engage with the South Sudan mediation, which one diplomat described as “a pilot project for Chinese diplomacy”. It was expected that this experience would shape the debate in Beijing about non-interference and thus contribute to formulating “Chinese solutions”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese diplomat, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. China in Action

The government sees itself as a newcomer to conflict resolution, and is viewed as such by partners. Though vaguely defined and still evolving, an outline of what “Chinese solutions” might look like is beginning to emerge from its engagement with South Sudan.

A. Chinese Solutions

1. Setting the table, not forcing outcomes

China appears most comfortable in the role of a table-setter, leveraging its political and economic influence to bring parties together. Its flexibility in providing aid has helped ensure the quick release of small in-kind donations covering transportation and accommodation for participants in negotiations.[fn]“During mediation between Darfur and Sudanese government for example, Chinese funding support always came in handy. It allowed people to travel and convene,” said a UN official involved in the process. Crisis Group interview, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote But Beijing, is only slowly becoming comfortable with directly setting agendas, proposing terms in agreements or drafting documents – and even then tends to do so behind the scenes.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Beijing displayed such table-setting to good effect in January 2015 when Sudan-South Sudan relations were strained over support for one another’s rebels.[fn]Tensions between the two Sudans escalated in December 2014 as Sudan’s defence minister, Abdel Rahim Hussein, and intelligence chief, Mohamed Atta, claimed that Juba had continued to harbour and support Sudanese rebel groups. Atta warned South Sudan that any incursion by rebel forces from its territory would be treated as an “assault”, and threatened to pursue rebels inside South Sudanese territory. In response, SPLA spokesperson Philip Aguer said Khartoum’s comments amounted to a declaration of war. “Khartoum again warns Juba against supporting Sudan’s JEM rebels”, Sudan Tribune, 17 December 2014. “Sudan warns South Sudan against ‘hostile moves’ by rebels in its territory”, Reuters, 17 December 2014.Hide Footnote Leveraging its longstanding ties with the Sudanese government, Beijing sent Foreign Minister Wang Yi to convene a “special consultation meeting” in Khartoum that included South Sudan’s warring parties, Ethiopia, Sudan and IGAD.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats, Beijing, March 2016, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote Zhong Jianhua, then special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs said:

We hoped to help elevate Sudan’s international status. Choosing Khartoum gave the Sudanese government considerable recognition and encouragement. We acknowledged Sudan’s role in addressing the conflict and believed that it should play an important role. Sudan very much welcomed the decision and felt that we paid enough respect by making it the host.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Zhong Jianhua, then special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, 8 March 2016.Hide Footnote

The meeting did not produce concrete resolutions, but Beijing secured renewed commitments to oil infrastructure security, melding its economic interests with those of Sudan and South Sudan. It “put Sudan and South Sudan on notice … China sent a message to the Sudanese government that supporting conflict in South Sudan would go against Chinese interests. Western countries were not in a position to do so”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, Washington, May 2016.Hide Footnote The event also “made IGAD refocus its attention and added new momentum to the peace process”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote Chinese influence encouraged Khartoum to exercise restraint in South Sudan, which also helped set the Sudanese government up in 2016 for its negotiations over sanctions relief from Washington, which was counselling the same approach.

Beijing considered this a “ground-breaking” initiative. “It was the first time that we called upon leaders of countries in the region to discuss conflict resolution in another country”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Zhong Jianhua, then special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, 8 March 2016.Hide Footnote Western and African partners increasingly have urged Beijing to take on more responsibility, given its permanent seat on the UN Security Council and leverage over parties concerned.[fn]“South Sudan’s famine is China’s chance to lead”, Bloomberg, editorial, 27 February 2017.Hide Footnote According to one UN official: “It can punch way more weight … China can put its foot down on deadlines. It can be tougher. It can insist on implementation”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote

2. Chinese interests as global interests

China was as surprised as the rest of the world when the civil war began, and scrambled to secure its oil infrastructure in the volatile Greater Upper Nile region. Some installations were destroyed in the first weeks of the war and opposition forces threatened to attack and destroy others.[fn]The war started in Juba and quickly spread throughout Greater Upper Nile. Crisis Group Report, South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name, op. cit.Hide Footnote

China hedged between the government and SPLM/A-IO (the rebel grouping negotiating with the government), providing financial and other support to both parties conditioned upon their guaranteeing the security of oil infrastructure or, in the case of the rebels, not attacking it. Beijing may have overestimated the SPLM/A-IO’s capabilities after the first few months of war; it was in the rebels’ interests to overstate their ability to threaten the fields, a case they continue to make.[fn]Attacking the oil fields again would have put them at odds with Khartoum, which was their primary source of arms. Crisis Group interview, SPLM-IO member, December 2016.Hide Footnote

China, alongside most of the international community, also overestimated SPLM/A-IO leader Riek Machar’s command and control over the forces operating in his name. When Johnson Olony, a rebel turned government general in 2013, defected (again) to the opposition in 2015, his first act was to march on the oil fields – flouting Machar’s agreement with the Chinese.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°228, South Sudan: Keeping Faith with the IGAD Peace Process, 27 July 2015, p. 14.Hide Footnote His forces briefly captured Melut town and were poised to launch an offensive on the well-defended Palioch oil fields nearby. Chinese and Western diplomats rushed to avoid an oil shutdown amid calls to pull out foreign workers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials, Washington, May 2015.Hide Footnote In the end, Olony’s forces were turned back by South Sudanese government forces. But the incident demonstrated the limits of China’s arrangement with Machar.

The wider international community supported China’s efforts to protect oil infrastructure; few could envision war-ravaged South Sudan rebuilding without oil revenue.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western and regional diplomats, Addis Ababa, 2014-2015.Hide Footnote However, China was the only actor prepared to provide direct help to keep the oil flowing. Quiet understandings with both the government and rebels offered China the prospect of benefits beyond wartime security – good relations with Juba and, on the ground, with the leadership of oil-producing states that former rebels would have governed had the peace agreement been fully implemented.[fn]Crisis Group Report, South Sudan: Rearranging the Chessboard, op. cit. The 2015 IGAD peace agreement provided that the two major oil-producing states of South Sudan were to be governed by Machar’s rebels. “Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan”, IGAD, 17 August 2015, pp. 17-18.Hide Footnote

3. African solutions to African problems

China has called for “African solutions to African problems”, an approach that gives Beijing’s policy considerable room to evolve.[fn]Premier Li Keqiang debuted China’s commitment to the concept in May 2014. “第十五届’蓝厅论坛’在外交部举行, 外交部长王毅发表主旨演讲” [“The 15th ‘Lanting Forum’ takes place in the foreign ministry; foreign minister Wang Yi delivers keynote speech”], press release, Chinese foreign ministry, 26 November 2015; Crisis Group interviews, Beijing, Juba and Addis Ababa, January-April 2016.Hide Footnote In South Sudan, it insists on IGAD’s lead role and is reluctant to reach for the reins even when the process falters. “We have to let local people decide their own fate, even though they might end up with nothing”, said a senior diplomat.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Beijing, March 2016.Hide Footnote It also can be swayed by African endorsements. In May 2011, following fighting in Abyei, a region disputed between Sudan and South Sudan, an African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council communiqué helped put an end to Beijing’s resistance to the idea of intervention by external actors. China subsequently voted at the Security Council in June to authorise peacekeepers for Abyei.[fn]As one diplomat said: “When China and Russia saw it was African text, they were okay”. Crisis Group interview, EU diplomat, Addis Ababa, April 2016; “Communiqué: The Peace and Security Council of the African Union (AU), at its 280th meeting held on 20 May 2011, in Addis Ababa, considered the implementation status of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Sudan”, PSC/PR/BR (CCLXXX), 20 May 2011; “Communiqué of the Consultative Meeting between Member of the Council of the United Nations and the Peace and Security Council of the African Union”, United Nations, 21 May 2011. “Resolution 1990 (2011)”, S/RES/1990 (2011), 27 June 2011.Hide Footnote

Western diplomats found that the most effective way to win China’s (and Russia’s) approval of – or acquiescence to – Africa-related UN Security Council resolutions is to obtain backing from the body’s African members.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote When African council members are divided, for instance over whether to support an arms embargo for South Sudan, China has urged the bloc to find a common position it can support.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Juba, June 2016.Hide Footnote

That said, there are signs China’s approach is evolving. As it becomes more familiar with, and invested in, international peace and security mechanisms, it has begun to try to shape regional positions behind the scenes rather than passively follow them. This has been most notable with respect to Sudan and South Sudan.

4. Persuasion not punishment

China typically resists sanctions, shuns open criticism and prefers behind-the-scene persuasion. Itself once a target of sanctions, Beijing retains an ideological aversion to them, seeing them as instruments of Western coercion.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese scholar, Beijing, 26 January 2016.Hide Footnote It also argues sanctions rarely achieve the intended effect and often backfire.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese diplomat, 21 April 2016.Hide Footnote In practice, however, China has often adopted a more nuanced approach.

When sanctions are discussed, China occasionally mediates between the government and Western powers. “The Troika often raised the threat of sanctions”, a Chinese diplomat recounted, “China would play the role of ‘good cop’ to ease tensions”, urging patience from Western partners while counselling the targeted party to make concessions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats, April 2016. The U.S., UK and Norway, have operated as one unit when mediating conflicts in and between the two Sudans, coordinating policymaking and speaking with one voice. The term “Troika” first surfaced in early 2001 as the three countries began to pursue concerted efforts in the Sudan peace process.Hide Footnote Functioning as messenger rather than enforcer allows Beijing to leverage its political influence without risking it.[fn]Other governments – including Ethiopia, Japan and Uganda, among others – have played this role with the South Sudanese government in recent years. Crisis Group interviews, Juba, Addis Ababa, 2014-2016.Hide Footnote China has used this approach on several occasions in recent years, including in efforts to secure the release of some of the thirteen senior SPLM members Kiir arrested and accused of plotting a coup in 2013.[fn]“S. Sudan releases two political detainees, calls for ceasefire”, Sudan Tribune, 27 December 2013; “Communiqué of the 23rd extra-ordinary session of the IGAD assembly of heads of state and government on the situation in South Sudan”, communiqué, IGAD, Nairobi, 27 December 2013; “Direct talks on South Sudan open in Ethiopia”, BBC, 5 January 2014; “South Sudan rejects call to free detainees as troops defect”, Bloomberg, 6 January 2014.Hide Footnote

On 3 April 2014, with four still in custody (and as war and atrocities continued) the U.S. announced a sanctions regime on South Sudan.[fn]“Executive Order – Blocking Property of Certain Persons With Respect to South Sudan”, the White House, 3 April 2014.Hide Footnote Chinese diplomats subsequently met with senior South Sudanese officials, including Kiir, advising flexibility and pragmatism rather than “taking the West head-on”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese diplomat, April 2016.Hide Footnote Juba announced the remaining detainees’ release on 25 April “to promote peace and reconciliation”.[fn]“South Sudan frees alleged rebel leaders”, Al Jazeera, 25 April 2014.Hide Footnote Although the U.S. imposed individual sanctions the following month due to alleged involvement in atrocities and for undermining peace negotiations, they targeted lower ranking individuals than initially envisaged.[fn]“John Kerry visits South Sudan, warns gov’t and rebels to avert ‘genocide’”, Associated Press, 2 May 2014; “U.S. sanctions both sides of South Sudan conflict”, Reuters, 6 May 2014. The U.S. had threatened to sanction top leaders on both sides but instead sanctioned two operational generals. The number later rose to six, the most senior sector commander.Hide Footnote

China’s somewhat ambivalent relationship to sanctions is evidenced by its record at the Security Council. On 3 March, China voted in favour of a U.S.-sponsored resolution laying the groundwork for targeted sanctions in advance of a 5 March peace process deadline.[fn]UNSC S/2015/2206, 3 March 2015.Hide Footnote Initially, China objected, due to ongoing negotiations, but it ultimately voted in favour, to “send a unified message”.[fn]“中国反对通过联合国南苏丹制裁决议” [“China opposes passing UN resolution imposing sanction on South Sudan”], BBC, 27 February 2015; “UN sets up sanctions regime for S. Sudan”, VOA News, 3 March 2015. The resolution also established a UN Panel of Experts to provide regular reporting to the Security Council on South Sudan.Hide Footnote Subsequently activists called for sanctioning both Kiir and Machar. In talks with the U.S., Beijing agreed not to block Washington’s efforts to sanction moderately high-ranking commanders in July 2015 in return for taking more senior officials off the sanctions list.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Addis Ababa, 22 April 2016.Hide Footnote This allowed Beijing to both stand with the international community and mollify Juba. Before the vote, South Sudan’s Vice President James Wani relayed Kiir’s “high regards and sincere gratitude” for Beijing’s “objective stance” to the Chinese ambassador.[fn]“南苏丹副总统瓦尼紧急约见马强大使” [“South Sudanese Vice President Wani requests emergency meeting with Ambassador Ma Qiang”], Chinese embassy in Juba, 3 March 2015.Hide Footnote

The flexibility also reflects back-and-forth between the capital, more concerned about principles, and the field, more preoccupied with influencing developments on the ground. With intimate knowledge of the conflict, peace process and parties involved and influenced by daily interactions with other international players, frontline diplomats may see the utility of sanctions. “Sometimes in order to have the process moving, you need to show teeth. Ultimately you need some leverage”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese diplomat, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote While never quite identical, the diplomats’ views also began to converge with those of counterparts in Beijing in seeing sanctions, or their threat, “as leverage to influence future behaviour instead of punishment for past behaviour”.[fn]The first round of U.S. and UN sanctions were for past human rights abuses and ceasefire violations, and not designed to shape future behaviour. Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, Washington, May 2016.Hide Footnote

5. Development-focused governance vs. liberal democratic governance

Beijing generally sees underdevelopment as the root cause of instability and believes its governance model better suited to cure this than Western democracy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats, Juba and Addis Ababa, April 2016. Liu Guijin, speech, “Protecting Interests and Nationals in Africa: Chinese and European Approaches and Experiences”, CICIR-SIPRI, Beijing, 12 September 2014. Also see, “Peacekeeping, Mediation, Assistance, Escort, Development – Wang Yi Talks about Five Keywords of China’s Assistance to Peace and Security in Africa”, Chinese foreign ministry, 11 August 2016.Hide Footnote As one diplomat said: “People don’t have enough to eat. Most are illiterate. Does Western democracy really work [in South Sudan]?”[fn]Crisis Group interview, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote Some Chinese analysts believe the West places “too much emphasis” on “procedural legitimacy” at the cost of stability, which they argue requires a strong regime, especially in nation-building’s early stage.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese analysts of African affairs at a state-affiliated think-tank, Beijing, January 2016.Hide Footnote

China believes its own post-Mao model of governance and development – a hybrid of planned and market economy under one-party rule – fits the Horn of Africa and is more appealing than Western democracy.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Chinese diplomat, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote As one scholar put it, African nations (or at least their leaders) are attracted to the Communist Party’s ability to make decisions, mobilise resources and speedily launch ambitious endeavours thanks to its concentration of power and absence of effective dissent.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese scholar on Africa Studies, Beijing, January 2016. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front is among the most enthusiastic African adherents to aspects of the Chinese model. Others include ruling parties in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Yun Sun, “Political Party Training: China’s Ideological Push in Africa?”, Africa in Focus, Brookings Institute, 5 July 2016.Hide Footnote

Rather than pushing its model, Beijing soft-sells it. An official said: “We don’t have slogans like the West does. We only share experiences”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Liu Guijin, former special representative for African affairs and on the Darfur issue, Beijing, March 2016.Hide Footnote Between 2010 and 2013, the Communist Party organised workshops for senior SPLM cadres in Juba and Beijing on topics including poverty alleviation, social and economic development, public opinion guidance and party-building.[fn]Zeng Aiping, “China-Africa Governance Exchanges and Experiences”, Chinese Institute of International Studies (, 3 December 2015.Hide Footnote The embassy also “explained China’s governance principle and practice” to South Sudanese officials.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese diplomat, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote

B. China’s Assets

Chinese diplomats and African officials also say Beijing has gained the trust of parties because it is seen as the most neutral among mediators.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Beijing, Juba, Addis Ababa, January-April 2016.Hide Footnote Its interests are clear and, rather than pushing particular paths, it is more focused on the end state of peace and economic stability. Beijing assiduously avoids the appearance of taking sides, shuns public denunciation and is reluctant to resort to pressure or punishment. As its primary concern appears to be protecting its commercial interests, maintaining amicable relations with all sides constitutes a hedge against risks: “keeping a low profile” helps ensure it “makes no enemies”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats and scholars, Beijing, January-March 2016.Hide Footnote Moreover, loans and assistance typically come with no strings attached, which governments see as welcome alternatives to Western donations that are tied to human rights conditions or governance standards.

There are historical affinities as well. China shares with many African countries “painful memories” of humiliation and oppression by Western powers,[fn]Crisis Group interview, Zhong Jianhua, then special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, 8 March 2016.Hide Footnote a similarity that both helps guide Beijing’s approach and appeals to its African counterparts. All in all, this combination of factors provides Chinese diplomats with access to important players, access often appreciated by its Western partners, who are frustrated and concerned about their own lack of leverage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Beijing, Juba and Addis Ababa, January-April 2016.Hide Footnote

Even as it deepened ties with Juba, Beijing maintained close relations with Khartoum. Its access to both sides was valuable to the IGAD mediation.

South Sudan is a case in point. Initially, its leaders viewed Beijing with suspicion and resentment due to its support for Khartoum. However, after the 2005 peace agreement, pragmatism drove both Beijing and Juba to establish and solidify political, economic and party ties. Kiir visited Beijing in 2005 and 2007. Even as it deepened ties with Juba, Beijing maintained close relations with Khartoum. Its access to both sides was valuable to the IGAD mediation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, U.S. official, Washington, May 2016.Hide Footnote

1. Economic leverage

Oil accounts for almost all South Sudan’s exports.[fn]At independence, oil accounted for 98 per cent of government revenue. “South Sudan – Over­view”, World Bank, updated 9 April 2016.Hide Footnote The consortium led by China’s oil corporation accounts for most of the investment in its oil industry; its withdrawal would render it impossible to maintain production levels and could prompt a collapse of the formal economy. Therefore, Beijing’s message to Juba was relatively clear-cut, “if you want us to stay, you have to keep us safe …. In the short run, you must ask the troops to safeguard our oil fields. In the long run, you have to stop fighting and implement the ceasefire”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Zhong Jianhua, then special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, March 2016.Hide Footnote

Beijing delivered a similar message to the opposition, and secured an unwritten promise that it would not attack the oil fields.[fn]The promise was cemented through ongoing engagement with senior rebel leaders and financial inducements. Crisis Group interviews, Zhong Jianhua, then special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, March 2016; SPLM/A-IO officials, Addis Ababa, 2014-2015; Nairobi, 2016.Hide Footnote China’s National Petroleum Corporation “at the Chinese government’s behest” continued production and, at some points, paid Juba higher-than-market prices, even when running a loss.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats, Juba and Addis Ababa, April 2016. China was granting such terms in hopes of renewing its contracts and winning future concessions.Hide Footnote

In the same spirit, Beijing leveraged its loan policy. Before the civil war, the Ex-Im Bank had pledged loans and credit for at least three projects; it subsequently held off from disbursing the money because of the conflict and related economic challenges.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese businessman, Juba, 12 April 2016; Peter Bashir Gbandi, South Sudanese acting foreign minister, Juba, 13 April 2016. See also, “进出口银行与南苏丹签署融资合作文件” [“Ex-Im bank and South Sudan sign financing cooperation document”], China Ex-Im Bank, 28 July 2014; “Republic of South Sudan Staff Report for 2014 Article IV: Debt Sustainability Analysis”, International Monetary Fund (IMF), 2 December 2014; “Even China has second thoughts on South Sudan after violence”, Los Angeles Times, 20 February 2014.Hide Footnote Other loans and investments also are on hold. China insists that: “Without peace, our money would go down the drain”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Zhong Jianhua, then special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, 8 March 2016.Hide Footnote

Ultimately, Beijing’s economic clout translates into political influence, and both Juba and the opposition have learned to respect China’s interests and messaging.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese, Western and African diplomats, Juba and Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote This extends to Khartoum, according to one UN official: “Whatever China said was listened to very carefully [by] both Sudan and South Sudan”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote

2. Humanitarian assistance

Beijing has skilfully tailored the timing and manner of delivery of modest donations to produce maximum impact. Since the outbreak of civil war, China has provided at least $49 million in humanitarian assistance, with $10 million going to the World Food Programme (WFP), other in-kind aid and occasionally as emergency cash.[fn]For a breakdown of major pledges totalling $21 million between December 2013 and July 2014, see Zhou Hang, “China’s emergency relief to South Sudan”, The Diplomat (, 26 October 2014. Additionally, China has pledged or delivered humanitarian assistance of at least $29 million and 8,750 tons of food since then. “China pledges 10 mln USD aid to South Sudan”, Xinhua, 24 August 2016; “China to provide S. Sudan with financial, food aid amid famine; envoy”, Xinhua, 26 April 2017; “China contributes US$5 million to WFP’s emergency operation in South Sudan”, press release, World Food Programme, 6 June 2017.Hide Footnote

While comparatively small,[fn]By comparison, the U.S. – the single largest contributor – has pledged $2.4 billion in humanitarian assistance since late 2013 for aid to South Sudanese in-country and in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. “South Sudan – Crisis: Fact Sheet #8 Fiscal Year (2017)”, United States Agency for International Development 25 May 2017.Hide Footnote assistance tends to be free from restrictive regulations, conditionality, or domestic media scrutiny, affording Beijing flexibility and manoeuvring room that OECD Development Assistance Committee member states typically lack; by the same token, China can be more responsive to Juba’s requests. For example, China provided food, shelter and water for the temporary SPLA-IO military assembly areas used when its members returned to Juba to form the transitional government. It worked in coordination with Western countries that could not provide such assistance to a military encampment but could transport soldiers to Juba.[fn]This was permissible in-line with the Troika’s approved mandate to spend funds in support of implementation of the August 2015 peace agreement.Hide Footnote “The embassy drew a list of things needed worth about $1 million. We built prefabricated houses, provided generators, mosquito nets … [which were] in place just in time for the return of the 1,300 soldiers”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese diplomat, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Juba has been more likely to listen to China – which has turned a blind eye to human rights violations – than to Western countries, whose relationships with the government dramatically deteriorated in recent years. This appears to have been the case with regards to ensuring continued humanitarian access; access to rebel-held areas. The Chinese ambassador secured Juba’s consent for China to support UN WFP operations and its agreement to the WFP’s sensitive cross-line food deliveries to rebel-held areas. A Chinese diplomat said:

I went to talk with the foreign minister and the minister of humanitarian affairs. I told them that China was going to give the government $8 million in humanitarian assistance. I also said we can’t neglect people in the three northern states and that China wanted to provide them $5 million of food assistance.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese diplomat, April 2016.Hide Footnote

C. China’s Limitations

1. Experience and capability

Compared with its Western counterparts, the Chinese foreign ministry is only in the early stages of building institutional infrastructure, acquiring expertise and establishing its authority on matters related to conflict resolution. “The British and French have been here more than 100 years. We are learning. For many years we were very careful and only interested in economic and trade issues” said a senior diplomat in Addis Ababa.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Beijing also is handicapped by a shortage of field capacity. Embassies across Africa face a dramatic increase in their workload as the number of nationals and companies grows, but without a concomitant increase in staff or resources.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Liu Haifang, Associate Professor, Peking University, Beijing, January 2016.Hide Footnote When the civil war broke out in 2013, the Chinese embassy in Juba had about twenty staff, compared with about 300 American and local employees in the U.S. embassy.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese diplomat, Beijing, March 2016. U.S. figure is from “Report of Inspection Embassy Juba, South Sudan, Report Number ISP-I-13-29A”, United States Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors Office of Inspector General, May 2013.Hide Footnote Supporting South Sudan’s peace efforts placed additional demands on the mission, but it was not given supplementary resources. The Chinese special envoy does not have a dedicated support team; instead, he relies on desk officers at the Western Asia and North Africa Department when in Beijing, and on embassies while in the field.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats, Beijing, March 2016, Addis Ababa, April 2016. For a sense of the scope of the U.S. diplomatic effort, see Princeton N. Lyman and Robert M. Beecroft, “Using Special Envoys in High-Stakes Conflict Diplomacy”, Special Report 353, United States Institute of Peace, October 2014.Hide Footnote

2. Expertise

Chinese diplomats also suffer from a relative paucity of first-hand information. The foreign ministry is one of the very few reservoirs of expertise and field intelligence, yet positions in Africa are less coveted than those in Europe or North America, resulting in a comparatively shallow bench for talent. Diplomats rarely have the freedom, time or authority, to go on fact-finding trips.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, foreign ministry officials, Beijing, March 2014, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote Nor does China possess a network of field-based NGOs to complement diplomats’ knowledge.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats, Beijing, March 2016, Addis Ababa, 22 April 2016. Ambassador Liu Guijin said early in his involvement in Darfur he had read everything China had produced on Sudan, but was “shocked” that his Western counterparts “even knew how many concubines each of them [rebel leaders] had and which one was pretty”. Crisis Group interview, Beijing, March 2016.Hide Footnote Western NGOs on the ground are often nervous about engaging China, fearful that sensitive information could be passed on to Juba (a concern many also express about IGAD member states).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NGO staff, Juba, 2014-2016.Hide Footnote

Outside the foreign ministry, conflict resolution is a nascent discipline and country-specific expertise remains underdeveloped. Although African studies has gained prominence in recent years in think-tanks, most are state-affiliated and the field is underfunded and overlooked compared with U.S.-China relations or hot-button issues in Asia. African studies have tended to focus on broad cross-cutting subjects, rather than country-specific analysis. Moreover, field research by scholars faces both funding constraints and bureaucratic hurdles – a trip abroad of more than five days requires special approval.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, scholars in think-tanks and universities, Beijing, January 2016 and March 2017.Hide Footnote “China has increasing political will but feels constrained …. It doesn’t have many experts who truly understand South Sudan. The reservoir of expertise in China is small”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, scholar in a state-affiliated think-tank who specialises in Sudan and South Sudan, Beijing, January 2016.Hide Footnote

3. The costs of peacemaking

China has paid a price – both economic and in terms of human lives – as a result of its greater role in peacemaking in South Sudan. In 2014, a $38 million, multi-year arms contract between the South Sudanese government and the China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) was made public.[fn]“China halts arms sales to South Sudan after NORINCO shipment”, Bloomberg, 30 September 2014.Hide Footnote Senior diplomats said the contract was signed before the war began and that NORINCO, although a state-owned enterprise, was seeking profit rather than advancing any state agenda.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Beijing, March-April 2016. China’s ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) does not have formal authority over state-owned enterprises. The largest, including China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO), are overseen by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), which is of equal bureaucratic rank with the MFA.Hide Footnote The embarrassment caused by the publicity led China to halt the remainder of the contract on grounds it was “inappropriate”.[fn]“China halts arms sales to South Sudan after NORINCO shipment”, Bloomberg, 30 September 2014.Hide Footnote It was the first public indication that China was willing to sacrifice economic gains – in this case a relatively small contract – in the interest of its peacemaker role. Whether this becomes more standard policy remains to be seen.

China’s peacekeeping role also has security implications. Following rushed evacuations and fearful for its workers’ safety, China included protection of workers on oil installations in the UN peacekeeping mission’s mandate in 2014.[fn]S/RES/2155 (2014), 27 May 2014.Hide Footnote Backing this up with action, China deployed its first-ever peacekeeping infantry battalion to South Sudan in January 2015.[fn]Previously, China had 350 engineers, medical and other non-combatant personnel in the mission. The additional 700-strong battalion made UNMISS home to the largest number of Chinese peacekeepers. “Chinese peacekeepers start deployment in South Sudan”, Reuters, 16 January 2015. “UN Mission’s Contributions by Country”, United Nations, 31 July 2016.Hide Footnote But when fighting broke out in Juba in July 2016, Chinese peacekeepers were caught in the crossfire. Five were wounded and two eventually died.[fn]Luo Zheng, “艰难一日,我南苏丹维和步战车遇袭事件始末” [“A hard day: recount of the attack on Chinese peacekeeping infantry fighting vehicle in South Sudan”], China Military, 19 July 2016.Hide Footnote The deaths shocked the nation and the soldiers were publicly mourned.[fn]“维和英雄李磊忠魂归乡 万余群众冒雨相送” [“Peacekeeping hero Li Lei’s soul returns home, thousands brave rain to attend funeral ceremony”], Xinhua, 22 July 2016; “南苏丹维和士兵中秋为两位牺牲战友摆碗筷” [“Peacekeepers in South Sudan set the table for two deceased comrades for Mid-Autumn Festival dinner”], China Central Television, 16 September 2016.Hide Footnote Nonetheless, Beijing subsequently reaffirmed its growing commitment to multidimensional peacekeeping operations.[fn]“综述:中国愿为联合国维和事业作出更大贡献” [“Review: China is willing to make greater contribution to UN peacekeeping”], Xinhua, 28 July 2016.Hide Footnote China is expanding the peacekeeping categories in which it is deploying troops and making multi-year commitments to seven missions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese diplomat, New York, February 2017.Hide Footnote It also is exploring how it can further develop its role and has set up a task force supported by the $1 billion UN Peace and Development Fund that President Xi announced in September 2015.[fn]Remarks by H.E. Xi Jinping President of the People’s Republic of China at the United Nations Peacekeeping Summit, 28 September 2015; “China to set up $1b peace fund”, China Daily, 29 September 2015.Hide Footnote

V. Road Ahead: Collaboration and Competition

China and the West have largely worked collaboratively on South Sudan and their approaches broadly have complemented each other – providing a model for future cooperation. Beijing’s softer, more private forms of persuasion benefit from the contrast with the Troika’s (the U.S., UK and Norway) harder line. Both Chinese and U.S. diplomats express optimism regarding prospects for coordinated and complementary efforts and are in close contact. Yet overarching U.S.-China tensions colour this engagement and IGAD and its member states must also ensure they do not get dragged into geopolitical rivalries that could undermine their peace efforts.

A. Different Approaches on Economic Issues

Coordination likely will prove more challenging on questions of governance and accountability, and collaboration will coexist with competition. On economic issues, challenge likely will intensify as South Sudan faces a politically-induced economic crisis (prolonged instability has cut oil production by nearly half; international oil prices have fallen; the country experiences hyper-inflation; and corruption is rife)[fn]“Press Release: IMF staff completes 2016 Article IV Mission to South Sudan”, International Monetary Fund, 1 June 2016.Hide Footnote and needs budget support to cover a $300 million fiscal gap in FY 2016-17.[fn]Before the civil war, donors almost never provided direct budget support and development aid was administered through the UN, NGOs or private contractors. Very little of this proved effective, making donors even more wary. “South Sudan seeks $300 mln in external support for budget”, Reuters, 29 August 2016.Hide Footnote Western donors seek to leverage Juba’s requirement for a fiscal bailout to extract commitments to economic reform and fiscal responsibility.[fn]There are questions as to whether the new U.S. administration will pursue the same policy. In 2012, it was reported that South Sudan’s elite had stolen $4 billion. “South Sudan officials have stolen $4 billion: president”, Reuters, 4 June 2012.Hide Footnote While Western nations insist any rescue package “will come with extremely intrusive demands” (which Juba rejects),[fn]Crisis Group interview, EU official, Addis Ababa, April 2016. These conditions include revenue and spending transparency to ensure a bailout does not line the pockets of corrupt officials or finance more violence. “What we want to see is real-time information on how much the government is getting, how much and where it is spending. We do not want to tell it where to spend. We want to ensure that money is not going into some elite’s bank accounts. We can’t justify spending our taxpayer dollars that way”. Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, Washington DC, May 2016.Hide Footnote Beijing is uncomfortable with what it deems direct interference in South Sudan’s domestic affairs and demurs on demanding fiscal transparency.[fn]In this, it is shaped by its own unhappy experience, having faced its share of Western criticism over its lack of transparency on military spending. Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats and scholars, Beijing, January-March 2016; Chinese analyst at a state-affiliated think-tank, Beijing, January 2016; senior U.S. official, Washington, May 2016.Hide Footnote For now, China generally has hewed the Western line, echoing the IMF’s advice to the government and refrained from pledging more credit or loans.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior U.S. official, Washington DC, May 2016.Hide Footnote But some Western countries fear China could unilaterally help Juba, weakening their leverage.

B. Strategic Cooperation on Political and Security Issues

On political and security issues, China prefers to work through regional actors rather than directly with the West. That is the case with South Sudan’s Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (JMEC), for instance, which oversees the peace agreement and embodies “three-party [China-Africa-West] cooperation under a multilateral framework” that Beijing feels “comfortable with”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote A Chinese representative is present at JMEC meetings, but “only listens”, one African diplomat noted.[fn]Crisis Group interview, African JMEC member, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote At the same time, China has calibrated its contribution to maintain sway, providing financial and material support, and ensuring Chinese personnel are in influential positions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior African diplomat and senior Chinese diplomat, Juba, April 2016. “中国政府向JMEC提供30万美元资金支持” [“Chinese government offers $300,000 financial support to JMEC”], Chinese embassy in Juba, 18 April 2016. Crisis Group interview, UN official, Addis Ababa, April 2016; Chinese diplomat, Juba, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Mechanisms like JMEC allow China to justify a form of intervention under the mantra of “African solutions for African problems”. It likely will continue insisting on IGAD’s lead role, even as Western diplomats express doubt about the regional grouping’s commitment.[fn]China is comfortable working through IGAD, particularly given its close relations with Ethiopia, the organisation’s chair. Crisis Group interview, UN official, Addis Ababa, April 2016.Hide Footnote This approach enables China to both secure its influence within boundaries acceptable to its African partners and cooperate with the U.S. While this offers prospects for cooperation, it also carries the risk that South Sudan could suffer from any broader deterioration in U.S.-China relations.

VI. Conclusion: Engagement with Chinese Characteristics

Although China remains largely risk-averse, the degree of its involvement in South Sudan would have been “beyond imagination” even a few years ago.[fn]Chinese diplomats and scholars, Beijing, Juba and Addis Ababa, January-April 2016.Hide Footnote Its experience in the field will continue to inform the debate in Beijing about what level and kind of policy approach is possible, consistent with the non-interference principle.

The new boundaries of Beijing’s interpretation of this principle are yet to be officially delineated, but its rhetoric and actions in South Sudan suggest a rough outline. Specifically, Beijing appears to see direct involvement as legitimate when:

  • Civil conflicts threaten to spill over across borders, jeopardise regional security and stability and cause large-scale humanitarian crises. They are then “no longer internal political affairs but regional security affairs”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese scholar, Beijing, 26 January 2016; Liu Guijin, former special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, March 2016. Also see 王逸舟, “创新不干涉原则,加大保护海外利益的力度”, 《国际政治研究》 [“Introduce new ideas on the non-interference principle, increase efforts to protect overseas interests”], International Political Studies, (Feb. 2013), p. 3.Hide Footnote
  • UN authorisation, regional approval and local consent are obtained.[fn]For instance, during the Darfur crisis, Beijing conditioned its involvement on “AU approval, UN resolution, and the Sudanese government’s acceptance”. Crisis Group interviews, Liu Guijin, former special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, March 2016; Zhang Chun, Senior Fellow, Centre for Africa and Middle East Studies, Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, Shanghai, March 2016. Also see Wang Yizhou, “New Direction for China’s Diplomacy”, Beijing Review, 8 March 2012.Hide Footnote
  • Actions are taken to facilitate political dialogue without imposing outcomes. “We would not meddle with … who should be the president and who should not. We only care about achieving a ceasefire and getting everyone to the table”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Zhong Jiahua, then special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, 8 March 2016.Hide Footnote

In contrast, Beijing sees intervention as illegitimate interference when:

  • Attempts are made to influence domestic politics, such as dictating regime types, siding with political parties or figures or shaping political outcomes.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese scholar, Beijing, January 2016; Zhong Jianhua, then special representative of the Chinese government on African affairs, Beijing, March 2016; Also see Lu Shaye, “中非新型战略伙伴关系的几点思考” [“Some Thoughts on the New Strategic Partnership between China and Africa”], speech given at the Institute of International Strategy at the Party School of the Central Committee of the CPC, Beijing, 19 September 2012.Hide Footnote
  • Demands are made on governance issues, such as revenue, spending, political freedom and accountability.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chinese diplomats and scholars, Beijing, January-March 2016.Hide Footnote
  • Intervention is made unilaterally or with a minority group of nations without UN authorisation or regional consent.

Finally, China considers that a “red line” is crossed with the initiation of:

  • Unilateral military intervention in a country’s domestic affairs.
  • Regime change.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chinese foreign ministry official, Beijing, March 2014.Hide Footnote

For the most part, China’s engagement is driven by self-interest although to a lesser degree it has taken into account the desire to export its own governance and development model and shape global norms. Such a distinction increasingly may blur if Beijing comes to see cultivating local political allies who share its views as the most effective means to protect Chinese interests and if it gains the confidence and capability to do so. In South Sudan and the wider Horn of Africa, where Beijing senses political affinity with governments, China has been discreetly promoting its model of governance and development through exchanges and training while resisting actions advancing Western values and political models.

Rather than the hard-edged doctrine its official rhetoric may suggest, non-inter­ference is likely to remain elastic and will continue evolving as China balances newfound activism and traditional risk-avoidance and maintains theoretical flexibility to accommodate experimentation.

China increasingly is being called upon to act, perhaps more than it would like.

As this evolution occurs, contradictions and tensions are bound to surface, in South Sudan and elsewhere, among competing Chinese interests, but also between China’s approach and values and those espoused by the West. At a minimum, Beijing will need more sophisticated expertise on peace and security issues, including peacebuilding and complex emergencies. China has a ready-made rationale and means for doing so – its increased engagement in UN peacekeeping as well as the China-UN Peace and Development Trust Fund, which could be accompanied by funding for more training, research and international exchange opportunities for Chinese practitioners and scholars.[fn]President Xi announced on 28 September 2015 that China would establish a $1 billion China-UN peace and development fund. Subsequently, on 7 May 2016 representatives of China and the UN signed an agreement China would provide $200 million in annual funding over ten years for a UN Peace and Development Trust Fund. “China signs agreement with UN to finance peace, security activities”, Xinhua, 7 May 2016.Hide Footnote China increasingly is being called upon to act, perhaps more than it would like. South Sudan is a first test case and, so far, it has illustrated a simple point: that, by working together and melding their at times distinct approaches, China and the West can form a more effective force for stability than either could separately.  

Beijing/Nairobi/Juba/Brussels, 10 July 2017

Appendix A: Map of South Sudan

Map of South Sudan. International Crisis Group/KO, July 2017.
Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir attends a press conference after the oath of the prime minister and first vice president Bakri Hassan Saleh, at the palace in Khartoum, Sudan, 2 March 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah​
Briefing 127 / Africa

Time to Repeal U.S. Sanctions on Sudan?

The clock is ticking for President Trump who must decide by 12 July whether to lift decades-long U.S. sanctions on Sudan. The failure of economic penalties to alter Khartoum’s behaviour so far means Washington should repeal some sanctions and continue a process of conditional engagement.

I. Overview

Decision time is fast approaching for U.S. policy toward Sudan. By 12 July 2017, the Trump administration must determine whether to permanently lift the economic and trade sanctions its predecessor suspended in January. This is not an easy choice. Sudan’s government has gone some way toward meeting U.S. criteria for sanctions relief. But its progress, particularly on humanitarian access and ceasing hostilities in its internal conflicts, at best is partial and President Omar al-Bashir’s government remains autocratic, corrupt and abusive. To lift sanctions would reward a regime that must do much more to improve governance and end its wars; not to do so could lead to a reversal of advances made and discourage further cooperation. On balance, lifting sanctions is the better of two imperfect options, particularly if coupled with clear signals that far more is needed for the government to escape those sanctions that will remain in force and obtain debt relief. The U.S. should also make clear that it stands ready to impose new targeted financial sanctions should Khartoum renege on its commitments.

By 2015, after decades of an estranged and hostile relationship, the U.S. opted for a cautious engagement strategy. Thanks to a series of high-level bilateral meetings, the two sides clarified steps Khartoum would take. This culminated in the 13 January 2017 announcement by the U.S. that it temporarily would lift certain specified sanctions based on positive actions that had been taken over the preceding six months, and would permanently repeal them if progress were sustained over the subsequent six months. It listed five tracks on which advances would be gauged: counter-terrorism cooperation; addressing the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); ending hostilities in the “Two Areas” (South Kordofan and Blue Nile) and Darfur; improving humanitarian access; and ending negative interference in South Sudan. The arrangement broke an impasse born of mutual mistrust – Washington’s deep scepticism that Khartoum’s conduct would ever change, and Sudan’s profound doubts that the U.S. would ever be satisfied if it did.

Criteria for obtaining a passing grade are open to interpretation, which simultaneously gives the administration some leeway and guarantees a hotly contested decision no matter where it ends up. The first track appears to be the clearest cut: for years Sudan has cooperated with the U.S. on counter-terrorism, mostly through intelligence sharing; it also apparently has ceased for some time to lend support to groups the U.S. designates as terrorists. On the LRA, now a much-diminished force, Sudan appears to be cooperating with, or at least not hindering, regional and U.S. backed counter-insurgency efforts. Khartoum likewise appears to have almost entirely refrained from channelling significant military support to armed groups fighting the South Sudan government.

Questions arise regarding the remaining two tracks – Sudan’s internal wars and humanitarian access. Most observers likely would conclude that Khartoum has made some, albeit incomplete, progress. Over the past six months, the government has not launched any new military offensive in the Two Areas or Darfur and has largely – albeit not entirely – maintained its unilateral ceasefire. That said, insecurity and violence remain in both regions, in part because Khartoum is unable or unwilling to adequately control pro-government militias it armed to fight the rebels. In terms of humanitarian access, the government has begun, in cooperation with international organisations, to implement a new system gradually making it somewhat less onerous for relief organisations to reach new areas in need. But it is far from the unfettered access that Washington wants and the Sudanese people deserve.

The effectiveness of economic penalties in isolating Sudan is doubtful.

In short, this comes down to a difficult judgement call: will repealing sanctions encourage progress, or will it play into the hands of an unreconstructed regime? There is understandable reluctance to take this step. Yet it would be a mistake to stop this process in its tracks. The record of the past several decades explains why the U.S. chose to test the path of deliberate and conditional engagement, and why it still is worth pursuing today. The steps taken by Khartoum are altogether real, modest and reversible, far from what would be needed for Sudan to correct its behaviour but more than comprehensive trade and economic sanctions had achieved in years past. The effectiveness of economic penalties in isolating Sudan is doubtful, especially now that it has improved ties with its direct neighbours, with Europe and – in exchange for a serious downgrade in Khartoum’s relations with Tehran – with Gulf Arab states.

But the strongest argument to repeal the sanctions flows from what would happen if the U.S. chose not to. With some justification, Khartoum and its regional allies believe Washington has a history of moving goalposts in issuing demands; in their eyes, a decision to reinstate sanctions would further confirm this, discouraging any future steps and jeopardising those already taken. Worse, it might even bolster the argument in Khartoum that restraint has not paid off, and that the better course is to seek a military solution against weakened rebels in the Two Areas and Darfur.

Some have argued for an alternative option: to suspend sanctions for another six months, thereby signalling both dissatisfaction with Khartoum and hope that it could still meet the requisite bar. The compromise solution has merit, but it would be a half measure and, like all half measures, fail to entirely satisfy anyone: some would argue that Sudan still was being rewarded, others that the U.S. once again was breaking its word. Rather than give the process added impetus and set the stage for a more ambitious set of benchmarks, it would perpetuate an inadequate status quo.

Besides, repealing the sanctions would not leave the U.S. bereft of economic and political tools. There is much that Sudan wants that it still will not get: the return of a U.S. ambassador to Khartoum; removal of the country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism; and Washington’s acquiescence to badly needed debt relief. For Sudan to achieve those goals, the U.S. could both make clear Khartoum needs to do far more (including verifiable, unfettered humanitarian access and good faith efforts to end conflicts in the Two Areas and Darfur) and – with a repeal decision behind it – credibly assert that Washington will reward better behaviour. Finally, should the regime backtrack on the steps it has taken, the U.S. could do more than merely re-impose the suspended sanctions; it could put in place more effective, targeted financial sanctions for which some in the advocacy community have been calling.

There are no guarantees that this approach will work. At best, a decision to lift sanctions would be only the first and partial step on a much longer road. But the sanctions were not producing their intended effect, were disproportionately hurting ordinary Sudanese, and provided the government an excuse for its poor economic performance. The process of suspending them has prompted at least some improvements, without squandering Washington’s leverage to achieve more. Repealing these particular sanctions is a risk worth taking.

II. U.S. Sanctions on Sudan

As with other U.S. sanctions regimes, those imposed on Sudan throughout the 1990s and 2000s generated a complex web of penalties which will prove hard to disentangle. Imposed successively in 1993, 1997 and 2006, they were a response to reprehensible and in some cases egregious foreign and domestic policies, with the aim of changing both Khartoum’s support for international terrorism and the widespread human rights violations it committed fighting internal opponents.

After the National Islamic Front (NIF) seized power in 1989, Khartoum developed links with and in some cases hosted Islamist movements and individuals implicated in attacks abroad.[fn]Among groups and individuals deemed to be terrorists by the U.S. and that benefitted from Sudanese support: Hamas; the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ); Hizbollah; the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and Osama Bin Laden, who resided in Khartoum between 1991 and 1995. Sudan also was accused of harbouring individuals suspected of attempting to assassinate Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak during a 1996 visit to Addis Abeba. Al-Qaeda operatives living in Sudan likewise allegedly were involved in the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Hide Footnote In 1993, largely on grounds that Sudan was harbouring Osama Bin Laden, the U.S. State Department designated it a state sponsor of terrorism.[fn]This designation imposes restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance; bans defence exports and sales; imposes controls over exports of dual use items; and imposes miscellaneous financial and other restrictions. U.S. Department of State, “U.S. Country Reports on Terrorism”, ( Footnote In 1997, in response to Khartoum’s continued support for U.S.-designated terrorist groups and its long-running brutal war against the mostly Christian and animist South as it battled the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A),[fn]The SPLM/A attracted strong support from U.S. advocacy organisations and enjoyed, at different times, the backing of regional states, particularly Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda, concerned about what they viewed as Khartoum’s expansionist Islamist agenda. See “How to Handle Your Neighbour’s Conflict: Ethiopia’s Relations with Sudan and South Sudan”, UNISCI Discussion Papers, no. 33, October 2013. Khartoum responded in part by supporting other armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, to destabilise its near enemies.Hide Footnote President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order (EO) 13067 which described Sudan as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”. As a result, individuals serving in the government were blocked from owning property in the U.S.; Sudanese people or companies were prevented from exporting or importing goods to and from the U.S.; and U.S. citizens were banned from participating in the work of any organisation or company that did this.[fn]EO 13067, Federal register, vol. 62, no. 5, 5 November 1997.Hide Footnote EO 13067 is one of two executive orders at issue in the ongoing review process.

Later, in 2002, the U.S. Congress passed the Sudan Peace Act, also motivated primarily by the war in the South, which required U.S. representatives in international financial institutions to vote against – and thus in effect block – any loans or credits to Sudan.[fn]U.S. Department of State, “Sudan Peace Act”, 21 October 2002.Hide Footnote Four years later, in 2006, the administration of President George W. Bush imposed yet another set of sanctions –EOs 13400 and 13412. EO 13400 targeted both government and rebels involved in the Darfur conflict, preventing them from owning property in the U.S.[fn]EO 13400, Federal Register, vol. 71, no. 83, 1 May 2006.Hide Footnote

EO 13412 – the other order implicated in the current review process – tightened earlier sanctions, blocking the Sudanese government from holding property or other interests in the U.S, and banning all transactions by U.S. citizens related to the country’s oil industry.[fn]EO 13412, Federal Register, vol. 71, no. 200, 17 October 2006.Hide Footnote The U.S. justified these measures by pointing to the brutality of Khartoum’s militia-led counter-insurgency response to the Darfur rebellion, which provoked a powerful public outcry in the U.S. and Europe, and which the U.S. labelled a genocide in 2004.[fn]“U.S. calls killings in Sudan genocide”, Washington Post, 10 September 2004.Hide Footnote That same year, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on non-state actors in Darfur (targeting both government-backed militia and rebels).[fn]Resolution 1556, UNSC S/RES/1556, 30 July 2004. The EU also expanded its 1994 arms embargo on Sudan to include technical military assistance. European Union Council Common Position 2004/31/CFSP, 9 January 2004.Hide Footnote It extended sanctions in March 2005 by adding an arms embargo on government forces in Darfur, as well as a travel ban and assets freeze on individuals designated by the sanctions committee.[fn]Resolution 1591, UNSC S/RES/1591, 29 March 2005. A separate resolution referred the situation in Darfur to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Resolution 1593, UNSC S/RES/1993, 31 March 2005.Hide Footnote In 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted President Bashir, and several other senior political and security officials on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.[fn]Warrant of Arrest for Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir”, ICC, 4 March 2009.Hide Footnote

At the same time Khartoum was fighting in Darfur, it was negotiating the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in the South.[fn]The U.S. was heavily involved in facilitating the CPA. Because negotiations were well advanced when war broke out in Darfur, it was decided to treat that conflict separately.Hide Footnote The CPA included a provision for the South to hold a referendum on self-determination in 2011. It was in this context that, in return for Sudan’s allowing the referendum to proceed unhindered, the Obama administration offered to review Sudan’s listing as a state sponsor of terrorism, along with incentives ranging from modest steps such as delivery of agricultural equipment to more sweeping measures, including debt relief and normalised diplomatic relations.[fn]James Copnall, A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts: Sudan and South Sudan’s Bitter and Incomplete Divorce (London, 2014), pp. 184-185.Hide Footnote On 9 July 2011, South Sudan gained independence. However, both sides quickly proceeded to breach the terms of the agreement on secession that grew out of the CPA – Juba continued to provide salaries and military support to SPLA forces remaining in Sudan while Khartoum sent troops into the disputed Abyei region.

The combination of those actions, continued fighting in Darfur and the resumption of war between the regime and what became the SPLA-North in the Two Areas diminished Washington’s willingness to remove sanctions even though Sudan had allowed South Sudan’s independence. This led Khartoum to accuse the U.S. of “moving the goalposts” and reneging on its promises.[fn]“U.S.-Sudan Relations”, Special Envoy Princeton Lyman speech at the Michael Ansari Center of the Atlantic Council, 1 August 2012.Hide Footnote U.S. officials reply that, in reality, Khartoum had “shift[ed] the playing field, rather than us moving the goalposts”.[fn]“U.S. Special Envoy Speaks on Sudan and South Sudan”, Special Envoy Donald Booth at the U.S. Institute of Peace, 18 January 2017.Hide Footnote Sanctions were kept in place. Sudanese leaders and some others in the region, including U.S. allies, saw this as backtracking, a legacy that colours their perceptions of the U.S.[fn]See A Poisonous Thorn in Our Hearts, op. cit. pp. 184-185.Hide Footnote

Washington was motivated in part by the desire to ensure continued cooperation on counter-terrorism, but it demanded shifts in other areas as well

After intense debates within the Obama administration, Washington beginning in 2015 decided to test whether engaging Khartoum through a series of bilateral talks could produce an agreed pathway toward sanctions repeal contingent on specific Sudanese steps. Washington was motivated in part by the desire to ensure continued cooperation on counter-terrorism,[fn]As early as 2004, Sudan had been removed from a list of countries that were “not fully cooperating” in counter-terrorism efforts, and in 2007, the State Department said that Sudan had become “a strong partner in the War on Terror”, U.S. Department of State, “U.S. Country Reports on Terrorism 2004”, 27 April 2005; 2006, 30 April 2007.Hide Footnote but it demanded shifts in other areas as well. In June 2016 the two sides agreed on a roadmap that entailed a series of steps and a process for assessing whether these had been taken.

The first results appeared in January 2017. Citing “sustained progress by the Sudanese government on several fronts, including a marked reduction in offensive military activity, a pledge to maintain a cessation of hostilities in conflict areas in Sudan, steps toward improving humanitarian access throughout Sudan, and cooperation with U.S. on counter-terrorism and addressing regional conflicts”, President Obama issued EO 13761 which revoked key sections of EO 13067 and EO 13412.[fn]“EO 13761 – Recognizing Positive Actions by the Government of Sudan and Providing for the Revocation of Certain Sudan-Related Sanctions”, 13 January 2017; “Sudan and Darfur Sanctions”. On 17 January, the treasury department issued a general license authorising all transactions previously prohibited under the Sudan Sanctions Regulations. EO 13761 “provides for revocation of sanctions provisions in EOs 13067 and 13412 on 12 July 2017 if the Government of Sudan sustains positive actions it has taken over the last 6 months”. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) within the U.S. Treasury Department also amended relevant regulations, meaning that “U.S. persons will generally be able to transact with individuals and entities in Sudan, and the property of the Government of Sudan subject to U.S. jurisdiction will be unblocked”.Hide Footnote At the same time, he deferred the decision on lifting those sanctions permanently until 12 July to allow more time to test whether their easing would promote continued improvement. Important sanctions related to Darfur have remained untouched as does, importantly, Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism and the congressional sanctions imposed by the 2002 Sudan Peace Act, which includes a block on crucial U.S. support for debt relief.[fn]Ibid. The Sudan Peace Act (2002) instructs “U.S. executive directors [of international financial institutions] to vote against and actively oppose loans, credits, and guarantees by international financial institutions”. Sudan Peace Act, op. cit.Hide Footnote

III. Assessing Sudan’s Progress on the Five Tracks

The decision whether to permanently lift those sanctions currently suspended, which is to be made by 12 July, rests on Sudan having sustained through the first half of 2017 the “positive actions” U.S. officials assessed it had made in the latter half of 2016. As defined by Washington, that assessment is to be measured along five tracks: cooperation on counter-terrorism; addressing the LRA threat; ending hostilities in the Two Areas and Darfur; improving humanitarian access; and ending negative interference in South Sudan. According to a senior Sudanese official, meetings to assess progress on the five tracks involved one official from each of the two sides, with locations alternating between Khartoum and Washington.[fn]Crisis Group interview, June 2017.Hide Footnote

The yardstick the U.S. plans to use in this determination has been left deliberately vague; it is not clear how much progress must be made nor whether the evaluation will be holistic or require minimum progress on each individual track. This provides the administration with flexibility but also inevitably will make its decision a target of criticism from one side or the other. As of this writing, the U.S. administration was in the midst of an interagency review of progress on the five tracks. The end result is expected to be a public report, with classified annexes, which will inform a senior level decision on whether to permanently lift the sanctions.

A. Track 1: Counter-terrorism

Many of Bashir’s domestic and international opponents believe that the imperative of ensuring continued counter-terrorism cooperation was the principal factor motivating the U.S. to consider repealing sanctions; certainly U.S. intelligence agencies were among the most forceful advocates of a change in approach.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sudanese opposition-aligned civil society; SPLM-N leadership, Nairobi, Kampala, London, January-March 2017; former U.S. officials, Washington, January-June 2017.Hide Footnote Khartoum has been keen to advertise its credentials as an ally against ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups, though how valuable its help has been is a matter of debate.[fn]Crisis Group email exchange, former senior U.S. diplomat, 15 October 2015; interview, expert on Islamist groups in Somalia, 22 March 2017.Hide Footnote On this score at least, Khartoum has met U.S. requirements with cooperation being described as “active”.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, U.S. official, 18 April 2017.Hide Footnote Khartoum’s counter-terrorism cooperation predates by many years the past six months’ sanctions repeal process, having begun soon after the 11 September 2001 attacks. If anything, it is Sudan’s designation as a terrorism sponsor that appears ever more an anachronism.[fn]According to the U.S., State Department: “In 2014, members of Hamas were allowed to raise funds, travel, and live in Sudan. However, in 2015 the use of Sudan by Palestinian designated terrorist groups appeared to have declined. The last known shipment was the Israeli-interdicted KLOS-C in 2014”. U.S. Department of State, “State Sponsors of Terrorism”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

B. Track 2: Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)

Khartoum is expected to prevent the Ugandan rebel LRA from operating within its territory. On this front, too, the record seems broadly positive. Much of this has less to do with Sudan’s performance than with the LRA’s decline; while it still represents a threat to the region, it is a much-diminished force, with latest estimates suggesting only a few hundred fighters remaining.[fn]Sudan Joins African Union Anti-LRA Meetings”, Sudan Vision, 30 March 2017; “Dominic Ongwen’s Domino Effect”, LRA Crisis Tracker, January 2017.Hide Footnote  Eradicating the LRA remains a U.S. goal, although both U.S. and regional efforts, particularly Uganda’s, are being scaled back.[fn]“Hunt for Joseph Kony, no longer seen as a threat, may shrink”, New York Times, 22 March 2017. In April 2017 Uganda began to withdraw its troops from the CAR, where they had been stationed since 2009 as part of the Lord’s Resistance Army-Regional Task Force (LRA-RTF). “UPDF withdraws from Central African Republic”, Daily Monitor, 19 April 2017. The African Union warns the LRA remains a threat. “Why is the AU going it alone in fighting the LRA?”, ISS Peace and Security Council Report, 24 May 2017.Hide Footnote Sudan used the LRA in the 1990s as a proxy to fight the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in southern Sudan and Uganda. It also reportedly gave the group sanctuary from 2009-2013 in Kafia Kingi, a disputed region under Sudanese control on the border with South Sudan and the Central African Republic.[fn]Hidden in Plain Sight: Sudan’s Harboring of the LRA in the Kafia Kingi Enclave, 2009-2013”, The Resolve, Invisible Children and the Enough Project, 20 April 2013. Sudan reportedly allowed U.S. personnel to visit Kafia Kingi. Crisis Group interviews, Washington, January-March 2017.Hide Footnote Since then, however, Khartoum is believed to have distanced itself from the LRA and, in March 2017, showed signs of willingness to cooperate with regional efforts to eradicate the group when the chief of the armed forces attended a meeting of the Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army (RCI-LRA).

C. Track 3: Ceasing Hostilities in Darfur and the Two Areas

If progress can be ascertained with relative clarity for the first two tracks, the third – refraining from military offensives in the Two Areas and Darfur – is more complex.[fn]This is also a precondition of the African Union (AU) peace process between the government and the Sudanese opposition based on the August 2016 Roadmap agreement, which set out a series of principles for further negotiations. “AUHIP Roadmap Agreement”, African Union Peace and Security Council, 8 August 2016; Crisis Group Skype interview, U.S. government official, 18 February 2017; “U.S. Special Envoy Speaks on Sudan and South Sudan”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Beginning in January 2016, Khartoum announced a series of unilateral ceasefires both in the Two Areas and in Darfur. The most significant outcome was the government’s decision not to launch a “dry season” offensive in the Two Areas in 2016-2017 (an annual occurrence since the war’s start in 2011). Since January 2017, there has been little fighting, with only a few relatively minor recorded incidents.[fn]See “South Kordofan and Blue Nile Coordination Unit Humanitarian Updates”, South Kordofan and Blue Nile Coordination Unit (, February-May 2017.Hide Footnote

Violent incidents that have occurred – for example mid-February clashes in South Kordofan that the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) initially described as the start of a Sudanese military offensive (an accusation it later withdrew) – seem to have been localised skirmishes over resources (generally cattle raids) between loosely aligned militias.[fn]“The Sudanese army and its allied militias started their military offensive against the SPLA/N in Kadougli area”, SPLM-N Press Release, 21 February 2017.Hide Footnote These may on occasion have involved members of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) or the SPLM-N, although they should not be construed as significant offensive operations launched by either side.[fn]Crisis Group email exchange, South Kordofan-focused humanitarian monitor, 22 February 2017.Hide Footnote Fighting also broke out in camps in Maban county, South Sudan, which house refugees from Blue Nile state. This appears to pit the Mabanese host community against the refugees, with unconfirmed allegations of involvement by Sudanese-government-aligned militia.[fn]Crisis Group interview, humanitarian official, 1 June 2017; Sudanese opposition-aligned researchers, Kampala, January 2017.Hide Footnote This violence is a result of long-term conflict in the state, but does not appear to be the direct result of government action.

The security situation in Darfur also remains fragile, despite broad adherence to the ceasefire by both rebels and the government.

The security situation in Darfur also remains fragile, despite broad adherence to the ceasefire by both rebels and the government. The last major government offensive occurred in February-June 2016 and was led against Sudan Liberation Movement-Abdelwahid (SLM-AW) forces in the Jebel Marra. Although the fighting displaced more than 100,000 civilians and government forces reportedly committed brutal human rights violations, it took place prior to the start of the sanctions repeal process.[fn]Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air: Sudanese Government Forces Ravage Jebel Marra, Darfur”, Amnesty International, 29 September 2016.Hide Footnote Since then, there has been little conflict. Having suffered major setbacks in 2015 and 2016 the rebel groups presently are weak and mostly based outside of Darfur, in either South Sudan or southern Libya.[fn]Final report of the Panel of Experts on the Sudan”, UNSC, S/2017/22, 9 January 2017.Hide Footnote

There is one exception: a series of battles in May 2017 between the Sudan Liberation Movement-Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) and SLM-Transitional Council (a splinter group from the SLM-AW) on one side and the Sudanese army and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia on the other. The circumstances are complex: clashes occurred after a large SLM-MM contingent that was ordered by Juba to leave South Sudan (a step that reflected improved security cooperation between Sudan and South Sudan) entered Darfur in armed convoys.[fn]The SLM-MM leadership asserts that the group already was based within Darfur.Hide Footnote Simultaneously, or shortly thereafter, a second SLM-MM armed convoy entered North Darfur from bases in southern Libya, presumably in an effort to help their comrades.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, SLM-MM Chairman, Minni Minawi, 23 May 2017.Hide Footnote Both convoys were attacked, and defeated, by significantly larger and more powerful government forces in the area.[fn]Crisis Group interview, South Sudanese security official, May 2017. The SLM-Transitional Council (SLM-TC) also participated in the fighting. Crisis Group Skype interviews, SLM-MM official, 22 May 2017; Sudanese journalist with knowledge of the events, 23 May 2017; Western military official, 26 May 2017; SLM-TC members, 27 May 2017.Hide Footnote Whether this was a government offensive or a defensive reaction to an armed rebel incursion is debatable.

More broadly, violent incidents regularly are reported in Darfur, including during the sanctions review period, attributed to either “unknown gunmen” or unspecified militia groups, most likely including undisciplined pro-government militia such as the Rapid Support Forces. Whether or not Khartoum has knowledge of, or directs such attacks, its responsibility is both heavy and unmistakable: it has long used such militia groups to augment its security forces in Darfur while doing little to control them.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°110, The Chaos in Darfur, 22 April 2015.Hide Footnote

While the government’s record on this track is far from flawless, it has displayed restraint and, in particular, refrained from offensive actions that could provoke large-scale civilian displacement. What it still must do – and, should the U.S. repeal the sanctions, what Washington should condition lifting of remaining sanctions on – is dismantle or firmly integrate government-backed militias into the security forces and hold their leaders accountable for abuses committed by their fighters. Moreover, a ceasefire on its own is neither sufficient nor sustainable in the absence of political resolution of the underlying conflict. In this respect too, Khartoum’s policies have been far from adequate, failing to offer opposition groups a realistic political future.[fn]Its current proposal – to have the opposition join the next stage of the National Dialogue by offering it places on the High Implementation Committee which is responsible for implementing its outcomes – is unlikely to be attractive to armed groups that remain highly sceptical of a process they see as government dominated. Crisis Group Skype interview, AU official, 21 April 2017.Hide Footnote

D. Track 4: Humanitarian Access

Humanitarian access arguably is the most problematic of the five tracks, although the requirement to “[take] steps toward the improvement of humanitarian access throughout Sudan” seems deliberately vague.[fn]EO 13761, op. cit.; Crisis Group Skype interview, U.S. government humanitarian officials, 24 February 2017; email correspondence, U.S. government official, 29 April 2017.Hide Footnote Sudan’s past behaviour itself is an obstacle. For decades, it has sought to block or manipulate humanitarian access; as a result, it faces huge impediments of its own making. This is true particularly at the local administrative and security levels, where officials who habitually have engaged in obstructionism may not adequately apply new rules and procedures or work constructively with humanitarian organisations.

There as yet has been insufficient time for either serious advances in humanitarian access or a serious assessment of Khartoum’s performance.

Too, there is the legacy of serious distrust among government, rebels and humanitarian officials dating back to the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), when Khartoum accused humanitarian organisations of supplying rebel groups with food and other resources. Conversely, distrust on the part of humanitarian organisations stems from years of near constant battles with the government just to carry out basic functions.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interviews, humanitarian official, 23 February 2017; international humanitarian official, 4 May 2017.Hide Footnote Finally, there is the impact of conflict between government and rebels. In some cases, notably that of rebel-controlled areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, humanitarian access is stymied by disagreements between the government and the SPLM-N rebels over the route, origin and delivery mechanism for aid.[fn]August 2016 talks between the government and SPLM-N stalled due to disagreement over the issue of humanitarian access to rebel-controlled areas. The U.S. proposed that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) airlift medical supplies from Sudan into rebel-controlled areas. This was rejected by the SPLM-N, which insisted it would only permit humanitarian relief from Sudan if access also were permitted from South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. The SPLM-N accepted a proposal by the mediating African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) for a single point of external access from Ethiopia, but this was rejected by Khartoum, which insisted on the USAID’s proposal. The SPLM-N continues to push for an access deal that includes aid being delivered from outside Sudan as it fears Sudanese government control and manipulation of relief efforts from within the country. Crisis Group interview, U.S. government humanitarian official, 24 February 2017; SPLM-N officials and supporters, Kampala, March 2017. Humanitarian access negotiations are further impeded by current leadership discord within the SPLM-N.Hide Footnote Given this context, and more so than with the other tracks, there as yet has been insufficient time for either serious advances in humanitarian access or a serious assessment of Khartoum’s performance. Under the circumstances, what emerges is a mixed picture: some improvement in an otherwise deplorable overall situation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. government officials and humanitarian aid agency representatives, Washington, April-June 2017.Hide Footnote

One positive step is the 15 December 2016 issuance by Sudan’s Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), the regulatory body entrusted with humanitarian and civil society activities, of amended Directives and Procedures for Humanitarian Action, with the stated intent of putting “the contractual relationships between the Government and Humanitarian Aid partners into clear and agreed frameworks”.[fn]“AMENDED – Directives and Procedures for Humanitarian Action”, Republic of the Sudan Ministry of Welfare and Social Security Humanitarian Aid Commission, 15 December 2016.Hide Footnote Humanitarian officials concur that, if fully implemented, these new directives would constitute a meaningful step forward. On paper, they say, the system is simpler and more streamlined; general interactions with Humanitarian Aid Commission officials reportedly have become more harmonious – particularly as compared to early 2016, when the government effectively expelled the UN’s most senior humanitarian official in Sudan.[fn]“UN says Sudan has ‘de facto expelled’ humanitarian official”, Sudan Tribune, 23 May 2016; Crisis Group Skype interview, Sudan-based humanitarian official, 23 February 2017.Hide Footnote The new directive also includes a shared database thanks to which UN officials monitoring humanitarian access and Sudan’s Humanitarian Aid Commission can compare the situation prevailing in different areas.

The real test, of course, will be whether these new directives, which only became effective at the end of February 2017, are fully implemented. To date, reports from the ground are inconclusive. Putting aside legitimate concerns that the government will manipulate the issue of access to achieve sanctions repeal by making small although ultimately insignificant initial improvements to the official system (but not to the situation on the ground), international organisations see at least some improvement in the operating environment, particularly the ability to move within non-conflict areas where access already had been permitted.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interviews, international humanitarian official, 23 February 2017; international humanitarian official, 24 February 2017; diplomat, February 2017. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian officials, Sudan, U.S., Kampala, February-March 2017.Hide Footnote Khartoum has opened up access to Kurmuk (Blue Nile state), Golo (Central Darfur state) and Belle El Serief (South Darfur state),[fn]“Sudan Humanitarian Situation Report”, UNICEF, op. cit.; Crisis Group email correspondence, Sudan-based humanitarian activist, 28 April 2017; “Sudan authorises humanitarian and medical assistance to Jebel Marra areas”, Sudan Tribune, 21 January 2017.Hide Footnote as well as two humanitarian corridors to South Sudan as part of an international effort to avert famine in its neighbour.[fn]“Bashir directs to facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid to South Sudan”, Sudan Tribune, 24 February 2017; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°124, Instruments of Pain (II): Conflict and Famine in South Sudan, 29 April 2017.Hide Footnote Overall, in April 2017, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that “[the] landscape has gradually opened out since the beginning of 2017”.[fn]Sudan Humanitarian Situation Report”, UNICEF, April 2017.Hide Footnote

These modest advances constitute only “necessary first steps”, rather than a sea change in the government’s approach.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, U.S.-based humanitarian official, 4 May 2017.Hide Footnote Moreover Sudan starts from such a low base that even real advances may yield an unsatisfactory outcome. The bottom line is that some advances have been made, but access continues to be restricted in many areas, and the new system put in place by the Humanitarian Aid Commission still is not entirely functional. It remains to be seen whether these modest improvements constitute the start of a much-improved relationship between the humanitarian community and the government or simply a minor uptick in cooperation in response to U.S. inducements. To answer this question, humanitarian organisations will need to more rigorously test the system by attempting to gain access to new areas. To that end, they will have to overcome their understandable reluctance to force the issue and their preference for delivering relief to areas where access already is established.[fn]Crisis Group Skype interview, senior humanitarian official, 27 April 2017.Hide Footnote

E. Track 5: Ending Negative Interference in South Sudan

Since the December 2013 onset of the South Sudanese civil war, Sudan has carefully calibrated its military support for armed groups.[fn]Though Sudan provided weapons and ammunition, it limited both the quantity and quality of ammunition. It did not provide enough for the Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) to seriously threaten Juba’s overall control. Crisis Group Report, Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts, op. cit., pp.22-23; Crisis Group interviews, SPLA-IO generals, Addis Ababa, 2015.Hide Footnote For the U.S. and other external actors, ensuring Khartoum cease such interference and avoid a renewed proxy war is of primary importance, particularly given the danger of famine.[fn]Crisis Group Report, South Sudan: Rearranging the Chessboard, op. cit., pp. 6-8; Crisis Group Briefing N°124, Instruments of Pain (II) …, op. cit.Hide Footnote

On the whole, since October 2016 Khartoum has refrained from providing significant military support to South Sudanese armed groups opposed to the Juba government. Moreover, when fighting broke out in Juba in July 2016, Khartoum maintained contacts with opposition leaders but did not arm their factions.[fn]Initially Sudan provided only limited support to the forces during their flight from Juba to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) leading SPLA-IO forces to speculate they were given just enough to enable their escape but not enough to remain and fight. By October, with Machar and other leaders moved to Sudan and their troops disarmed and under the care of UN peacekeepers in the DRC, support halted. Crisis Group Report, South Sudan: Rearranging the Chessboard, op. cit., p. 6; Crisis Group telephone interviews, General James Koang Chuol, SPLA-IO members who fled fighting in Juba, General Peter Gatdet Yaka, 2016.Hide Footnote In return, Khartoum gained public assurances from Juba that it would expel from its territory Sudanese rebels that sided with South Sudan’s government during the civil war.[fn]Initially, Juba failed to act on those assurances, which elicited complaints and accusations from Khartoum. Sudanese rebel presence inside South Sudan has become more discreet and, as noted above, Juba expelled a large SLA-MM contingent in May 2017. Crisis Group interviews, SPLA officers, Juba, May 2017; telephone interview, SLM-MM member, 23 May 2017.Hide Footnote

Several senior South Sudanese opposition leaders still reside in Khartoum, but they say they are frustrated by lack of military support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Generals Simon Gatwech Dual, James Koang Chuol, and Peter Gatdet Yaka, 2017. All three are senior opposition leaders who currently live in Khartoum.Hide Footnote This does not include former First Vice President Riek Machar, who leads the largest recent rebellion and enjoys historic ties to the Sudanese government. He has lived in South Africa since late 2016, subject to restrictions on his political activities.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Riek Machar, February 2017.Hide Footnote

The situation remains fragile, however. Khartoum accuses Juba of continuing to support the SPLM-N and Darfur armed groups, allowing them to resupply within South Sudanese territory, arguing this is why the rebels have not agreed to a cessation of hostilities.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Sudanese official, June 2017. See also “Khartoum renews accusations over Juba’s support to rebels but SPLM-N denies”, Sudan Tribune, 24 April 2017.Hide Footnote South Sudan’s May 2017 expulsion of SLM-MM forces based in its territory was the first evidence of Juba’s willingness to cooperate on security and take the hard decisions necessary to avert a new proxy war.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, South Sudanese security official, May 2017.Hide Footnote But it will be harder for Juba to halt support for the SPLM-N, most of whose leaders and fighters belonged to the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) – the southern rebels who fought Khartoum prior to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and now sit as the government in Juba – and still retain personal and, to some extent ideological links with former comrades in Juba. If Khartoum believes Juba is not doing enough to stop Sudanese rebels from crossing into South Sudan for supplies, it could decide once again to arm South Sudanese rebels in response.

IV. To Lift or Not to Lift?

As the discussion above makes clear, this will be a difficult decision for the Trump administration. The Executive Order is vague both in terms of the metrics used and the array of potential policy responses. There are two clear options, one at each end of the spectrum: the Trump administration could lift these specific sanctions permanently or it could re-impose them. There also is an intermediate option pursuant to which the administration could again suspend sanctions temporarily while deferring the decision on whether to lift them permanently until a clearer picture emerges. Valid arguments exist for all of these options, coloured by the Sudanese government’s history of brutal behaviour and human rights violations.

To state the obvious: permanently lifting the sanctions in question will be seen by many as rewarding a regime whose record, limited progress aside, remains dismal, diminishing U.S. leverage and potentially allowing Khartoum to continue to manipulate the process by doing just enough to extract benefits without effectuating genuine change. They have a point. President Bashir remains under indictment by the International Criminal Court, his government continues to commit egregious human rights violations and it is guilty of both poor governance and political repression, notably in the country’s neglected peripheries.[fn]For prior Crisis Group reporting on Sudan’s behaviour, see Crisis Group Africa Reports N°198, Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (I): War in South Kordofan, 14 February 2013; N°204, Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (II): War in Blue Nile, 18 June 2013; N°209, Sudan: Preserving Peace in the East, 23 November 2013; N°194, Sudan: Major Reform or More War, 29 November 2012; Briefing N°110, The Chaos in Darfur, 22 April 2015.Hide Footnote

For the U.S. administration, there also are potential political downsides. A decision to lift sanctions inevitably would provoke a backlash from many non-governmental organisations, human rights activists, constituencies concerned about the religious persecution of Christians, and important members of Congress.

Yet, at bottom, the position of those advocating re-imposition of sanctions appears to have more to do with their opposition to the initial decision to launch this engagement process than with whether Sudan in fact has met the relevant bar, and in that respect their preferred response is likely to do more harm than good.[fn]Indeed, many of the groups advocating re-imposition of sanctions, or a reassessment of the criteria on which the current review will be made, opposed the Obama administration’s original decision to suspend sanctions. See hearings held by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and the House Foreign Affairs Sub-committee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations.Hide Footnote As Sudanese and regional leaders repeatedly have made clear, they would view such a decision as yet another instance of moving the goalposts, backtracking on a U.S. commitment that – even opponents of lifting the sanctions acknowledge – elicited at least some modicum of progress. Failure to recognise these advances could jeopardise the engagement process, prompt Khartoum to reverse its steps and make it virtually impossible to extract new concessions in the foreseeable future.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sudanese and regional officials, June 2017. Western envoys working on Sudan made the same point. Crisis Group interviews, June 2017.Hide Footnote

An intermediate position – one that recognises limited progress, sees Khartoum as having only partially met the conditions, and fears loss of leverage in a permanent lifting of sanctions – argues for another time-limited, six-month suspension to further test the Sudanese government’s good will. It presents a closer call. The Executive Order can be read as implicitly contemplating such an outcome in the event the administration cannot conclude Sudan has sustained progress on the five tracks. However, given the steps Khartoum has taken, there remains the danger that Sudan and its regional allies will view this as a U.S. breach of faith that calls into question the reliability of Washington’s promises. This would slow down, if not reverse, progress on the many critical issues still at stake.

More broadly, the regime’s evolution toward a (relatively) more pragmatic posture would be weakened should sanctions not be repealed. The January lifting of sanctions has played well in Khartoum and bolstered those within the regime who back the engagement process – notably Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour, Presidential Assistant Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid and army Chief of Staff Imad al-Adawi[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sudanese political analyst, 19 May 2017; former U.S. official, 29 April 2017.Hide Footnote  – as well as those in the region and beyond (particularly in the Gulf) who have pressed Khartoum toward improved relations with the U.S. and other Western powers.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°119, Sudan’s Islamists: From Salvation to Survival, 21 March 2016.Hide Footnote How Khartoum would react to a decision not to repeal sanctions is uncertain, but at a minimum it could strengthen those who believe that Sudan should seek an outright military victory, especially at a time when it enjoys a serious advantage over isolated, weak and (in the case of the SPLM-N) internally divided armed groups.

Sudan [...] has made real (albeit modest) progress, certainly more than when sanctions were not coupled with practical, realistic benchmarks for their removal.

On balance, the weight of the argument lies with repealing sanctions as contemplated in EO 13761. There is a positive case for this position: Sudan, as seen, has made real (albeit modest) progress, certainly more than when sanctions were not coupled with practical, realistic benchmarks for their removal. This progress should be encouraged. But the negative case arguably is even more persuasive: that a decision not to lift sanctions would set back those advances, erode trust and undercut U.S. influence which has been carefully built up over two years with some success.

Besides, there is good reason to question the value of these sanctions, which have affected the Sudanese people more than a regime that has become adept at surviving them.[fn]Many academics have illustrated how economic sanctions hurt ordinary people more than elites, who have the means to evade sanctions. See, eg, Thomas G. Weiss, David Cortright, George A. Lopez, Larry Minear (eds.), Political Gain and Civilian Pain: Humanitarian Impacts of Economic Sanctions (Lanham, 1997).Hide Footnote If the goal was to isolate Khartoum, this has become ever more elusive as Sudan gradually improves ties to both neighbours and nations outside the region. Relations with Juba are complex, but are better than many predicted at independence in 2011 or a year later, when the two countries briefly went to war over disputed areas and oil revenue sharing.[fn]After South Sudan gained independence, several issues still required negotiating, including delineation of borders, status of disputed regions and future oil export arrangements. In January 2012, South Sudan shut down oil production in a dispute over its transit fees and, in March and April, the two countries fought a short border war. It took over a year to reach the still 0nly partially implemented September 2012 Cooperation Agreements. “The Cooperation Agreement between The Republic of the Sudan and The Republic of South Sudan”, 27 September 2012. Crisis Group interviews, South Sudanese officials, Juba, 2016-2017.Hide Footnote Sudan’s pivotal but relatively restrained role in South Sudan’s civil war – extending limited support to the rebels after Uganda intervened to back President Salva Kiir – gave it a strong position in the regionally-led process that culminated in the August 2015 peace agreement. It also enabled Khartoum to insist that Juba stop backing rebel groups from Darfur and the Two Areas, thereby further bolstering Sudan’s military position.

Likewise, relations have improved with Uganda, which Sudan engaged in a long proxy conflict during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). Bashir and Ugandan President Museveni still regard each other warily, but diminished tension has enabled both to pursue shared interests in the region, especially limiting conflict in South Sudan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sudanese official, Addis Ababa, August 2015; Ugandan official, Juba, October 2016. See Crisis Group Report, South Sudan: Rearranging the Chessboard, op. cit., p.6. Officials say Uganda will not send its army back into South Sudan. Crisis Group interviews, Ugandan security officials, Kampala, September 2016, May 2017; Ugandan official, Juba, May 2017.Hide Footnote Tellingly, Uganda backs sanctions relief as a means of sustaining Sudan’s improved regional behaviour.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Ugandan security official, Kampala, 17 May 2017.Hide Footnote

Sudan’s relations with the European Union (EU) and Gulf Arab states also have followed an upward trajectory. Khartoum has become a key, if controversial, partner in Europe’s attempts to limit migration from the Horn of Africa.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, EU officials, January-February 2017.Hide Footnote Sudan is both a source and transit country (particularly for Eritreans and Somalis) and serves as a base for people-trafficking networks. It plays a central role in the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative (known as the Khartoum Process), and in bilateral cooperation with EU member states.[fn]See “Human Trafficking and Smuggling on the Horn of Africa-Central Mediterranean Route”, Sahan Foundation and IGAD Security Sector Program, February 2016. Funding comes via the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, including $100 million through a “Special Measure for Sudan”. Crisis Group interviews, EU officials, Brussels, January 2017.Hide Footnote This has meant increased European development assistance and support for border security as well as normalisation of relations between Khartoum and the EU, whose key members, including the UK, Germany and Italy, support U.S. sanctions repeal.[fn]Europe’s migration initiative has faced significant criticism on grounds that it has formed partnerships with states whose human rights abuses and other policies helped provoke the crisis in the first place. Regardless of its fate, Sudan likely will remain an important partner for Europe on migration issues. “European Union considers the easing of the sanctions on Sudan as an important step”, European Union External Action Service, 17 January 2017; Crisis Group interviews, European diplomats, January-May 2017; senior UK diplomat, 5 May 2017; Italian diplomat, 8 March 2017. For a critique of the migration initiative, see “Border Control from Hell: How the EU’s migration partnership legitimizes Sudan’s ‘militia state’”, Enough Project, 6 April 2017.Hide Footnote

Among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have taken the lead, particularly since 2014, investing in Sudan and serving as strong advocates for an improvement in U.S.-Sudan relations.[fn]Saudi and Emirati officials sought to mediate, and help devise forward a roadmap for improved relations. Crisis Group interviews, U.S., Saudi and Emirati officials, May-June 2017.Hide Footnote Their motivation was transparent – essentially, through pressure and inducements, to get Khartoum to pivot from Iran to Saudi Arabia – and the results quite significant: Sudan broke what had once been very close ties to Iran and joined the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance as well as the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen, going so far as to provide several hundred troops in 2015 and strengthening the contingent to as many as 1,500 in early 2017.[fn]“Is a bromance brewing between Sudan, the Saudis?”, Al-Monitor, 5 February 2017.Hide Footnote As a result, not just Gulf states, but also Israel, in a remarkable turnabout, have encouraged Washington to engage and improve relations with Sudan.[fn]“Israel urges U.S., Europe to bolster ties with Sudan, citing apparent split with Iran”, Haaretz, 7 September 2016.Hide Footnote

A decision to end these particular sanctions will not mean that the U.S. has relinquished all leverage.

Critically, a decision to end these particular sanctions will not mean that the U.S. has relinquished all leverage. To the contrary: it still will retain powerful cards, including several Khartoum most values. Among these are sanctions on individuals involved in the Darfur conflict, Sudan’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST), the congressional bar on debt relief imposed by the Sudan Peace Act in 2002 (Khartoum’s external debt amounts to a crushing U.S. $50 billion) and the absence of a U.S. ambassador in Khartoum. As Sudanese officials are quick to point out, the engagement process makes sense only to the degree that it can lead to normalisation of relations on those fronts as well.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Sudanese official, June 2017.Hide Footnote

In other words, the U.S. would retain significant leverage, which it should use to keep pressure on Khartoum. Progress on issues Sudan cares about should be contingent on moving toward a political solution to the conflicts in Darfur and the Two Areas. These steps should begin with convening new Cessation of Hostilities talks with armed groups, based on the August 2016 Roadmap Agreement, and include unfettered humanitarian access to government-controlled areas, with progress regularly reviewed by the UN, and tested by humanitarian organisations.

In this respect, critics of the current sanctions-lifting process are correct: “it does not address basic governance issues in Sudan, it does not include crucial human rights and religious freedom issues, and it [does not] requir[e] any peace agreement for the multiple wars being waged today in Sudan”.[fn]“Testimony of Brad Brooks-Rubin: The Questionable Case for Easing Sudan Sanctions”, U.S. Congress House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, 26 April 2017 ( Footnote If Sudan wants to further improve its relations with Washington, those are some of the additional yardsticks to be employed.

Finally, should Khartoum backtrack on its current commitments, the U.S. promptly could re-impose the sanctions. It could even go further and impose the type of sanctions critics of the current process advocate: “state-of-the-art financial pressures that target key elements of the regime and the corporate and banking networks that underlie it”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

Reluctance to lift sanctions on Sudan before it demonstrates genuine, verifiable commitment on basic issues – not just humanitarian access, but also helping resolve conflicts in its own peripheries – is understandable. But it ultimately makes sense only if one believes the policy of seeking to change Khartoum’s behaviour by isolating and punishing it economically worked. It did not in the past and is less likely to do so today. Changing that approach should not be mistaken for misguided unilateral concessions. Successful engagement with Sudan could yield real dividends, increase Washington’s leverage and better position it to push for broader reforms as well as continued restraint in regional conflicts, notably South Sudan; pursued cautiously, without giving too much away but without being overly tight-fisted either, is worth the try. For now, that means showing the Sudanese government that their initial positive steps will generate reciprocal action from Washington.

Nairobi/Brussels, 22 June 2017