Can China do more to protect its interests in Sudan?

While Chinese workers and infrastructure projects are at risk amid escalating conflict in Sudan, China is hard put to go beyond hedging its bets. Legislation may be needed to support Chinese private security companies (PSCs) operating in Africa, who are currently filling the security gap in safeguarding China’s BRI development in the region.
People board a mini-bus as they evacuate southern Khartoum, Sudan, on 14 May 2023. (AFP)
People board a mini-bus as they evacuate southern Khartoum, Sudan, on 14 May 2023. (AFP)

While China's diplomatic efforts have surprised the world, not least its role in brokering the detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the ongoing crisis in Sudan showcases China's return to its "balanced vagueness" approach. This means that Beijing is betting on both sides, as is already happening in other areas of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Following the collapse of Gaddafi's regime in Libya, Beijing learned the hard way the price to be paid in supporting the losing side. The 2011 rushed evacuation of more than 36,000 Chinese migrant workers dispersed all over Libya is a case in point.

But in Sudan, it is evident that China's principle of non-interference in international relations is no shield against bullets from the warring parties. For the past four weeks, Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) under General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commanded by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as "Hemedti", have been engaged in combat to seize control of the capital city of Khartoum and extend their authority across the nation. The rising violence and negative regional spillovers have cast a shadow over the return of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments after the hiatus imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

...the ongoing crisis spells trouble for regional powers...

People form a convoy as they celebrate in support of the Sudanese armed forces in Khartoum on 12 May 2023, as violence between the forces of two rival Sudanese generals continues. (AFP)

At the same time, the return of a modicum of normalcy is utterly complicated by a series of overlapping regional and international interests that support one of the two Sudanese strong men or even both simultaneously. Beijing’s approach thus far has been to take note and echo the UN’s call for a sustained ceasefire and return to the negotiation table.

Since the Libyan crisis, China has selectively chosen to be more active but the return to a wait-and-see approach in Sudan means that hopes for a quick resolution of the crisis are on thin ice. Consequently, Beijing, along with other stakeholders, faces the challenge of deciphering the emergence of a dominant power broker amidst the intricate web of state and non-state actors’ overlapping interests.

Regional instability the larger concern

Sudan is the third largest country in Africa, and it is "too big to fail" not only for its size but also for its strategic position as access to the Red Sea, as a transit point of the oil pipeline from South Sudan and the proximity to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the river Nile. Therefore the ongoing crisis spells trouble for regional powers such as Egypt.

Cairo counts on Sudan as a counterbalance to Ethiopia’s control over the Blue Nile. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, which is just a hop on the other side of the Horn of Africa, looks at Khartoum’s stability to preserve the Red Sea lanes of communication. Also, from the Gulf, the UAE is presenting itself as a reliable mediator but with close links to Hemedti.

Both al-Burhan and Hemedti are bent on a decisive victory rather than a political solution.

In this respect, the RSF international network of mercenaries honed during their support to Khalifa Haftar's fight for power in Libya and the close relationship with the Russian Wagner Group stationed in Darfur means that the flow of money and guns is not going to stop anytime soon. On the other side of the barricade, the SAF’s close links to local business and international support mean it will not relinquish its grip on power willingly. Therefore, for both generals, winning is the only option on the table. 

...most external actors support a military rule instead of a civilian one.

Sudanese families protect themselves from heat and wait with their luggage at a camp center next to Coral Garden Hotel as they call for evacuation to safe countries, following the crisis in Sudan's capital Khartoum, in Port Sudan, Sudan, 14 May 2023. (Ibrahim Mohammed Ishak/Reuters)

Also, considering that the paramilitary structure of the RSF, not centred on command and control as the national army but on a loose group of units able to deploy quickly and act more independently, makes any call for a truce a daunting task. The recent Saudi-American Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan is already on shaky ground. Another contradiction in the ongoing crisis is that most external actors support a military rule instead of a civilian one.

China’s interests to protect

Chinese investments in Sudan, particularly in the extraction of hydrocarbons, have been declining following the secession of South Sudan, which is home to most of the country's oil fields. Nevertheless, as mentioned in the Financial Times, Sudan's outstanding debts to China stood at US$5.12billion in early 2022, not including oil prepayment facilities, and the ongoing crisis could insert another fracture point into Beijing’s economic engagement with Africa.

At the same time, as the Horn of Africa and the Sahel are witnessing high instability and porous borders to militant groups infiltrations, the fall of Sudan into anarchy could ignite an irreversible negative domino effect on BRI development in the region.

Anticipating China's response to the jeopardisation of its BRI interests suggests the need for new legislation to facilitate the development of capable private security companies operating overseas...

A man walks while smoke rises above buildings after aerial bombardment, during clashes between the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and the army in Khartoum North, Sudan, 1 May 2023. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters)

In Africa, the Chinese BRI projects are encountering rising uncertainties aggravated by local instability. Consequently, Beijing faces a crucial dilemma in safeguarding Chinese workers and infrastructure within a high-risk environment, prompting a reconsideration of the longstanding non-interference principle.

While China's active diplomatic engagement from the Middle East to Ukraine aligns with the Chinese notion of promoting stability through “developmental peace’’, the return towards "balanced vagueness" in Sudan indicates a lack of viable solutions and Beijing's caution in not getting too involved. The deployment of the PLA to protect the BRI is not currently under consideration and the responsibility to address these emerging yet persistently challenging issues increasingly falls upon the Chinese private security sector.

Currently, Chinese private security companies (PSCs) operating in Africa provide a security gap filler. Nevertheless, the rising threat of violence requires Chinese private security sector capabilities and budgets that are not there yet. Anticipating China's response to the jeopardisation of its BRI interests suggests the need for new legislation to facilitate the development of capable PSCs operating overseas, while also fostering collaboration with accountable local security providers. 

While China is sending a special envoy to Ukraine and Russia to help reach a political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, it is probable that in Sudan, Zhongnanhai will follow what other countries with more stake in the game are already doing, wait and see who is the winner.

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