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Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts
Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
To Intervene or Not? China’s Foreign Policy Experiment in South Sudan Raises Questions
To Intervene or Not? China’s Foreign Policy Experiment in South Sudan Raises Questions
A boy returning to this burnt family house in Leer. CRISIS GROUP/Jérôme Tubiana
Report 223 / Africa

Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts

Talks led by East Africa’s IGAD offer the best chance to end South Sudan’s spreading war. International partners must put aside their disillusionment and rally to the regional body’s new IGAD-PLUS mechanism to help mediators reach a deal.

Executive Summary

For more than eighteen months, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the regional body mediating peace negotiations to end South Sudan’s civil war, has struggled to secure a deal in the face of deep regional divisions and the parties’ truculence. To overcome these challenges, it announced a revised, expanded mediation – “IGAD-PLUS” – including the African Union (AU), UN, China, U.S., UK, European Union (EU), Norway and the IGAD Partners Forum (IPF). The initiative is designed to present a united international front behind IGAD to the warring sides but so far it has failed to gain necessary backing from the wider international community, much of which is disillusioned with both IGAD and the South Sudanese. Rather than distance itself from IGAD, the international community needs to support a realistic, regionally-centred strategy to end the war, underpinned by coordinated threats and inducements. Supporting IGAD-PLUS’ efforts to get the parties’ agreement on a final peace deal in the coming weeks is the best – if imperfect – chance to end the conflict and prevent further regionalisation.

South Sudan’s war has brought underlying regional tensions to the fore. It is part of yet another chapter of the historic enmity between Uganda and Sudan, while rivalry between Uganda and Ethiopia over their respective influence on regional security has coloured the mediation process. Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan have dedicated envoys mediating the process while Uganda is only involved at the IGAD heads of state (HoS) level. Kampala’s military deployment in support of Juba creates facts on the ground and precluded it sending an envoy to the talks, while Addis Ababa seeks to control the mediation and eventual balance of power in the region. One of IGAD’s achievements has been to manage these tensions, thus contain the conflict, but rivalries prevented the HoS from agreeing on final aspects of power-sharing and security arrangements, enabling the warring parties to continue without agreeing.

Three major factors limited IGAD’s mediation and remain a challenge: 1) regional rivalries and power struggles; 2) centralisation of decision-making at the HoS level and related lack of institutionalisation within IGAD; and 3) challenges in expanding the peace process beyond South Sudan’s political elites. Following the oft-violated January 2014 Cessation of Hostilities agreement, the HoS mediation strategy focused on deploying a regional force to create conditions for peace negotiations. When the wider international community stymied the prospective regional force and the situation stabilised by June 2014, leaders could not overcome their divisions to agree on an effective alternate strategy. This undermined the IGAD special envoys, and the warring parties opted instead to engage directly with individual HoS in a series of initiatives in Kampala, Khartoum and Nairobi. IGAD itself had little leverage. For example, despite public threats, the warring parties understood some member states were reluctant to support sanctions, repeatedly called IGAD’s bluff and refused to compromise.

IGAD is important as a forum to regulate the regional balance of power, but it needs high-level support if the region is to reach a unified position on peace. IGAD-PLUS should become a unifying vehicle to engage the ever-shifting internal dynamics in South Sudan more effectively and address the divisions among IGAD members that enable the parties to prolong the war. In particular, the AU high representative might lead shuttle diplomacy within the region to gain consensus on the way forward. A dedicated UN envoy for South Sudan and Sudan should represent the UN in IGAD-PLUS and coordinate the various UN components’ support to the process.

IGAD-PLUS is the proposed bridge between an “African solution” approach and concerted high-level, wider international engagement. If it is to overcome the challenges that bedevilled IGAD, its efforts must be based upon regional agreement and directly engage the South Sudanese leaders with greatest influence through both pressure and inducements. To end this war, a process is needed that seeks common ground, firmly pushes the parties to reasonable compromises, builds on rather than is undermined by the Tanzanian and South African-led reunification process within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM, the dominant political force in South Sudan), and whose outcome is guaranteed by IGAD, the AU, the U.S and China. The coming weeks will require concerted international action, coordinated with IGAD, to take the final, necessary steps to secure an agreement. Failure to do so will lead to further violence and fracturing in South Sudan and leave the region without an effective mechanism to mediate its own internal divisions, with devastating consequences for the people of South Sudan and the region.

Op-Ed / Africa

To Intervene or Not? China’s Foreign Policy Experiment in South Sudan Raises Questions

Originally published in South China Morning Post

China’s growing involvement in South Sudan’s civil war differs from its past approach to non-interference, though there is debate on the long-term implications as its role in African, and global, security affairs expands.

China’s announcement of plans to vastly expand its first-ever overseas military base in Djibouti follows a dramatic display in July, when two Chinese navy vessels steamed across the Indian Ocean towards the dock. On both counts, Asia’s pre-eminent power declared in no uncertain terms that it will sit on the sidelines no longer. China’s growing naval capacity is being put to use in its deepening involvement in the Horn of Africa’s security. For years, it has been testing, refining and growing its clout in turbulent South Sudan – an indication that its adherence to the long-standing policy of non-interference is becoming less doctrinaire.

China initially found itself in South Sudan’s conflicts more by default than design. Just two years after it gained independence, civil war broke out in December 2013. Beijing was faced with the choice of stepping in and supporting mediation or withdrawing and abandoning its assets – most significantly oilfields – to looting and destruction.

It wasn’t an easy decision, as greater involvement went against decades of caution and the aversion to responsibility ingrained in China’s foreign policy doctrine. Since its “Go Out” policy in the 1990s, Chinese companies and diaspora had spread far and wide, often to unstable regions. But when instability turned into crises, Beijing had invariably opted for withdrawal. From 2006 to 2011, China conducted 10 large-scale evacuations of nationals from foreign countries due to unrest, wars and natural disasters. Chinese diplomats had reasoned that the best course was to pack up and cut losses as China had neither the desire nor the capabilities to interfere in another country’s affairs.

Beijing’s sheer economic heft in the region naturally translated into influence over otherwise intransigent parties and their regional backers.

The calculation began to change as Beijing’s diplomatic and military clout grew and its willingness to passively accept loss – and outcomes “imposed” by “meddling” Western powers – shrank. When Horn of Africa nations asked China to help with mediation in South Sudan, China seized the opportunity.

Beijing’s sheer economic heft in the region naturally translated into influence over otherwise intransigent parties and their regional backers. Both Juba and South Sudan’s rebels are well aware that Sudan’s and South Sudan’s economies live and die with Chinese investment in oil, which constitutes almost all of South Sudan’s exports and government revenue. When China speaks, they can ill afford to ignore.

In 2015, the Chinese foreign minister brought together South Sudan’s warring parties and regional mediators to talk in Khartoum. The meeting did not produce concrete new agreements, but secured pacts not to attack oil infrastructure and jolted into life a stalling peace process. More importantly, it framed Sudan – still sore from South Sudan’s independence – in the role of a responsible player and implicitly warned it against inflaming the South’s conflict. For Beijing, convening peace talks was a “groundbreaking” experiment.

Beijing has also skilfully tailored the timing and manner of humanitarian assistance to maximise impact and influence. Since 2013, US$49 million has been given in aid, often in response to Juba’s direct requests and delivered in visible fashion to ensure political goodwill. It was able to leverage its influence over Juba to ensure continued humanitarian access for the UN into rebel-held territories.

Undoubtedly Beijing has been at least partially driven by self-interest, as protecting the oilfields has been a priority. But Beijing also felt the time was ripe to test a new, more proactive foreign policy so it could better protect its overseas interests, assert its influence over international security affairs and live up to the expectations of a responsible power.

As the experimentation continues, China’s role as a peace-builder remains challenged by its aversion to risk. Beijing is comfortable as a table-setter for talks but unwilling to publicly offer solutions or enforce outcomes. It is reluctant to apply pressure, even when necessary, instead deferring to “African solutions” or leaving the tough-talking to African or Western mediators.

Beijing still holds on to “non-interference” [...] as a foreign policy doctrine, but there is a broad-based agreement that its interpretation and application should be more flexible.

China’s risk aversion reflects a calculation to preserve its access and influence but also capacity constraints. When the conflict in South Sudan broke out, China had merely 20 staff members in its embassy in Juba, while the US boasted around 300. Conflict resolution remains a nascent discipline, even for the foreign ministry, and, unlike Western nations, China does not have independent NGOs on the ground that can complement the government’s expertise and support its agenda.

Beijing’s experimentation in its new role has inspired curiosity and even some suspicion among Western powers and regional nations. Not least because China prioritises development over accountability and democratic procedures, and it naturally believes its own model of development and governance is better suited to the region than Western democracy. Yet so far, reviews of Chinese contributions have been positive. Beijing has largely pulled in the same direction as other powers that want peace in South Sudan, and has brought influence and access that others do not have.

The relative success of its South Sudan endeavour is shaping China’s foreign policy debate. Beijing still holds on to “non-interference into one another’s internal affairs” as a foreign policy doctrine, but there is a broad-based agreement that its interpretation and application should be more flexible. “Internal affairs” can be more narrowly defined, and acceptable interference more broadly applied, particularly in cases where regional security is threatened and parties consent to outside mediation. China’s role in African, and even global, security affairs is growing. Although it complements the traditional power players, it also requires accommodation and adjustment.

Contributors

Former Senior Analyst, China
YanmeiXie
Senior Analyst