News and Views

Sudan and the myth of non-interference.

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China has faced a difficult political landscape in north and south Sudan, accused of complicity in the northern government’s human rights abuses in Darfur, and now attempting to retain its interests in the countries’ oil industries as South Sudan struggles to shake off President Al-Bashir’s control from the north. While southern succession has been achieved, South Sudan’s reliance on Port of Sudan to process its oil exports means South Sudan’s oil wealth is still not its own. The north’s heavy fees on southern oil exports prevent President Kiir from investing in the countries long neglected economy and institutions.

This was similarly the case in Zambia in the 1960s when Southern Rhodesia, Zambia’s wealthier and more powerful partner in former Rhodesia, maintained control over Zambia’s copper assets through punitive taxes on use of Southern Rhodesia’s railways for export. The response of Zambian President Kaunda was to seek a partner to develop a railway through Tanzania. After Britain, Germany and the USA refused to help Zambia was forced to turn to China. Chairman Mao was keen to support African nationalist presidents in favour of British and Portuguese influenced imperialists in the south and the west.

The Tazara railway set the tone for China’s relations with Africa after that point. The 1800km of railway built in record time at the height of the cultural revolution proved China’s credentials as a friend to Africa’s nationalist movements. Four decades later the proposed Lamu corridor project is designed to serve a similar purpose. The project’s designers intend that a new large port in northern Kenya might be connected to South Sudan by a railway and pipeline. Chinese parties have long been rumoured to be involved in the project as financiers or constructors. Charting a path through this difficult political landscape will continue to put a great strain on Beijing’s diplomatic abilities and on the premise of its relations with Africa. It will certainly prove difficult to reconcile any support for the Lamu corridor with continued relations with the north.

China’s policy of non-interference in other countries internal affairs is both ideological and pragmatic. Zhou Enlai’s original policy has its origins in China’s experiences of British imperialism, and the communist ideals of solidarity among those nations outside of the elite western world. China’s unwillingness to intervene, especially in the midst of a separatist movement, is also explained by Beijing’s fear of setting a precedent for its own separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang.

However China’s 1950s philosophy is not in step with its position in the world. China, India and Brazil have become some of the most affluent (in terms of gross GDP) countries in the world, and their scale and power mean smaller developing countries expect more of them, especially China. The scale of China’s demand and capacity causes internal political changes in countries despite its attempts to remain disengaged. The fallacy of China’s non-interference policy was most clearly exposed by the SPLM’s recent kidnapping of Chinese workers in Sudan. The kidnap attempt looks to be a clear manipulation of Chinese power in the region. By kidnapping the workers the SPLM involuntarily involved China in an internal dispute, giving China an incentive to intervene, conscious that China has the power to influence policy in the north. While Beijing may attempt to avoid internal politics, affected political actors see clearly that China is powerful and therefore finds means to involve Beijing directly.

Policy makers and senior management of state owned enterprises are increasingly coming round to the idea that Chinese companies operating in Africa need more than positive relations with central government. This is resulting in more efforts by Beijing to develop its communications and programs of corporate responsibility. Much like western multinationals before them Chinese companies have attempted to avoid politics, and concentrate on doing business. However despite the attempts to deny it, Chinese business interests carry political weight , and Beijing is slowly realising that their denials are not protecting Chinese interest from the fallout of local political disagreements.

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