Sino-Sudanese Relations: Oil & Arms in a Conflict Zone

By Natalie Wyatt

For decades China has promoted a policy of non-interference in its relationship to Africa. The Chinese government has given aid to African nations, that manifests itself in the form of basic infrastructure development: accessible electricity, safe roads, stable health care systems.  However, what happens when China’s laissez-faire policy is not enough to protect its own interests in African nations? Or even worse, when such a policy becomes an excuse for tolerating extreme human rights abuses? China’s non-interference strategy has been implemented in part because it ultimately benefits the rapidly developing nation, gaining them the trust of newly independent African countries and thus easy access to the raw materials those countries trade. But once such a strategy begins to crumble under duress, China may have to change its tune. This much is clear in the case of Sino-Sudan relations over the past decade. China’s desire to harness oil fields in South Sudan have left them bargaining the only way they know how, by selling arms to the young government, and thus propagating a decades-long war that has led to the deaths of millions.

China’s relationship to Sudan began considerably earlier than the Darfur crisis of 2004, which brought Sino-Sudan relations to public attention. China has sold arms to Sudan since 1980s, furnishing the Nimeiri regime with weapons that were used in Sudan’s two bloody civil wars in the late 20th century. However, with the discovery of oil beds in the African nation, China became more interested in securing oil than in arms dealing. By 2005, China was buying up to sixty percent of Sudan’s oil exports, and had over 10,000 Chinese workers in the country participating in the oil industry. Such exports fulfilled seven percent of China’s oil needs, making Sudan a key part of China’s energy network, which is vital to the economic expansion of the developing country. In 2007, the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation reached an agreement with the Sudanese government to begin searching for oil off the coast of the country and to be guaranteed a stake in the production of such oil for the next twenty years. Ultimately, the region is a keystone in China’s oil network.

China’s non-interference policy in Sudan has been advantageous for China since it provides a justification for the nation to adopt a tolerant stance towards Sudan’s human rights violations in the bloody Darfur conflict. In fact, China gained investment access to the region’s oil fields only when other nations like the United States and England refused to trade with South Sudan due to its human rights record. The human rights abuses in the region are well-known in the international community, yet such conflict does not prevent China from approving license applications for weapon shipments to the region. In 2014, South Sudanese Defense Minister General Kuol Manyang Juuk made it clear that South Sudan’s less than “legitimate” arms trade with China is ultimately out of necessity. He said, “If [Americans] called me now to give me weapons I will go to America,” adding, “Please tell them, if they want me now I will go today.” Instead, South Sudan has been receiving its weapons in shipments that come from the Kenyan port of Mombasa. Documents reported on by Bloomberg Business include a list that indicates the shipment of 9,574 automatic rifles, 2,394 grenade launchers, 319 machine guns, 660 pistols, and over 25,000 rounds of ammunition in the summer of 2014, although the trade continues to this day.

Ultimately, in the eyes of the United Nations, China’s actions have violated international law in two respects. The first concern stems from that fact that China, as a primary actor, does not properly regulate their arms exports to conflict regions. Furthermore, as a secondary actor, China is aiding the government of Sudan in crimes against humanity, such as when it dealt arms to regime during the Darfur conflict. One way China could sidestep international legal sanction is through looking more critically at the export licenses it grants. However, it is clear that China does not appear to plan to change the nature of its relationship to the oil region in the near future.

As Laura Barber, coordinator of the Africa Program at the London School of Economics, said in an interview, “In the context of South Sudan, where atrocities have been committed by both sides of the conflict, this position [of non-interference] may prove to be problematic for China – particularly as it continues to seek long-term peace and stability in South Sudan.” Ultimately, China’s arms dealing to South Sudan’s regime appears to be an attempt at defending China’s interests in the oil fields by making sure that the regime China’s backs comes out on top of the regional conflict. However, in the process China is furthering ethnic wars that have made the region, “the world’s most fragile state,” according to a June 26 report by The Fund for Peace, a Washington-based research institute.

Although China is certainly not the first world power to influence regimes for the sake of profit, a strategy the United States has utilized time and time again, nevertheless Sino-Sudanese relations demonstrate the ways in which China’s policy of non-interference gets distorted and compromised when put under pressure. China’s tolerance to the human rights’ abuses in Darfur at the hands of Sudan’s government, and then to those in South Sudan’s current conflict are painted as part of China’s hands-off approach to foreign policy, when in fact such an attitude is benefiting China immensely by allowing the nation to ignore such violations and continue to mine Sudan’s oil market. Such a paradigm begs the question: when does non-interference actually become a form of interference? In the current case of South Sudan, China’s ignoring of such atrocities is a form of pernicious interference that furthers instability in the region for years to come. However, China has also clearly contradicted its non-interference strategy in the region, whether it believes this or not, because the nation has sold arms to South Sudan’s regimes in the past decade. Such blatant contradictions show how China and the African nations it trades with cannot come out of this relationship unscathed. As long as China’s main concern in the region is the protection of its South Sudanese oil fields, then it is clear such a dangerous relationship will continue further.

Natalie Wyatt ’18 is in Davenport College. Contact her at