China wades into African politics

China was thanked recently in the somewhat ineffective South Sudan peace accord alongside the US, UK, EU, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. While it’s unclear who has been doing the heavy lifting in the diplomatic efforts, China was mentioned in the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement.

In statement by IGAD Executive Secretary Ambassador Maalim, China wasn’t mentioned. Maalim expressed IGAD’s appreciation “to Member States and development partners who have supported the mediation process, particularly the European Union and the Governments of Norway, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA) that provided generous support.”

Whatever China’s role in the process, its incentive for getting involved in the African nation is clear. It has invested deeply in oil in the South Sudan and has every incentive to ensure it keeps flowing. That means shrugging off its much-touted non-interventionist principles and taking a seat at the table of another country’s politics.

Even the Global Times admit that “doubts over China’s ‘non-interference’ principle continue.”

The same opinion piece says: “Beijing has to make such a choice. The era in which China could stay silent and exempt itself from crises on remote continents has gone..”

“To the Chinese, the unrest in South Sudan is reminiscent of Libya in 2011. The blitz of the Libyan evacuation of Chinese citizens was not able to outshine the plight and huge losses facing Chinese enterprises in Libya. The lesson was clear: Besides crisis management by Chinese companies, the government has to be involved more in global security issues so as to protect its overseas citizens and assets.”

Importantly, China doesn’t see itself going down the path of the US.

“While Beijing does not seek to copy the US style of intervention, which has led to its predicament in recent years, it still has to carefully craft its policy adjustment of greater engagement with other regions.” The piece concludes that China has to “carefully figure out the regional situation and pursue a cautious approach.”

So much for non-intervention which has been a mantra of sorts for China until now.

South Sudan, China, Japan – four things to know

  1. China intervention While China has long professed its non-interventionist intentions in the developing world, including Africa. But now is attempting to broker peace in the South Sudan, where a political struggle in the world’s youngest nation threatens to descend into civil war. For China, the decision to get involved is likely less geopolitical than geo-economic. China buys an estimated 80 per cent of South Sudan’s oil exports. Anything that blocks energy access to China is a threat to the Chinese Communist Party, because it could upset the economy and by extension society in China.
  2. China confidence Quite possibly China feels emboldened to test its hand at intervention in African affairs as it perceives a power vacuum in South Sudan and a US that is absorbed by problems in the Middle East. As the Globe and Mail writes, the US has been blamed for being “far too indulgent” to the human rights abuses and corruption in South Sudan. Meanwhile:
  3. China has already been “making mediation efforts,” the Chinese minister told a news conference, calling for an “immediate cessation of hostilities and violence.” He is expected to meet delegations from both sides during his visit to the Ethiopian capital….By taking a role in the South Sudan crisis, Beijing could help to weaken U.S. influence in the oil-dependent country.  That would seem to be a bonus to China’s goal of assuring steady supply of oil.

  4. Japan in Africa Japan is ramping up its diplomatic and aid efforts in Africa as well. As Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi tours Ethiopia, Djibouti, Ghana and Senegal, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visits Mozambique, the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Oman, according to AFP. Abe will have officials from 50 Japanese companies pledge $577 million worth of loans to Mozambique for infrastructure supporting Japanese mining.
  5. Japan’s peacekeeping Japan’s participation in peace-keeping operations in the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) and anti-piracy missions in Africa give Japan a laboratory to showcase the use of its military in modern way. That is, well within the bounds of international norms. This in turn helps advance Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s goal to revise the nation’s constitution to allow its military to function normally, free of the purely-defensive constraints imposed on it, after WWII. Currently, the Japanese Self-Defense Force isn’t legally allowed to use force to defend South Sudanese civilians, for example.As Jeremy Taylor and Michael Walsh at the US-based Nation Bureau of Asian Research write:

     “UN-sanctioned operations in East Africa continue to provide Abe with a distinct political advantage in pushing forward military normalization measures. The product of the policy decisions of five separate administrations, these missions remain difficult to politicize given that the two dominant parties have endorsed them.”

    Importantly, Japan’s deployment in South Sudan gives Japan an opportunity to demonstrate a central plank of its new National Security Strategy. Japan says it’s seeking to be a “proactive” contributor to peace “based on the principle of international cooperation.” The strategy should hardwire Japan into multilateral arrangements such as these. The flap over the ammunition sent to South Korean troops notwithstanding, Japan’s participation in the UN Mission runs counter to the notion of a remilitarized nation acting as a destabilizing force.