As one of the most active international players in Sudan, China is closely following Sudan’s recent escalating crises resulting from the country’s radical internal shifts following the political deadlock between the chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his deputy and the leader of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as "Hemedti." On 15 April 2023, violent armed clashes broke out between the two sides in several areas inside and outside the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. China’s position on these rapid developments can be interpreted in light of a set of indicators and factors that govern China’s goals and interests with respect to Sudan.
Since the beginning of the crisis in mid-April of 2023, China’s position toward developments in Sudan’s internal state of affairs can be defined within the framework of several key indicators, including the following:
1. Affirm the pursuit of dialogue between the two parties to the crisis: On 16 April 2023, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement indicating China’s hope that the Sudanese parties will promote dialogue and move jointly toward the political transition process. The statement also expressed China’s grave concern regarding developments in Sudan and urged both sides to declare a ceasefire to prevent the escalation of the situation.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that—based on official statements—China has not yet shown any intent to mediate to influence the parties to the crisis. China is closely monitoring the situation and developments, yet without any type of intervention in Sudan’s internal affairs.
2. Adopt a neutral approach towards both parties to the crisis: To date, China has not declared alignment with either side, nor issued any official statements indicating connections that would tip the balance toward one party at the expense of the other. This is perhaps consistent with China’s close relationships with the ruling Transitional Sovereignty Council during the stage following the regime of former President Omar al-Bashir, to whom China had offered various forms of support. This is also consistent with China’s balanced and cautious approach based on "the diplomacy of de-escalation" in its overall foreign policy toward Africa.
This approach had been previously confirmed in the context of a statement by the Chinese government’s special envoy for Middle Eastern affairs, Zhai Jun, during his visit to Sudan, March 21-23, 2022, when he met the chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. He emphasized China’s firm and clear position regarding Sudan’s internal affairs, based on supporting the state’s stability to overcome its problems independently. The statement stressed China’s confidence in Sudan’s ability to handle its internal affairs effectively and called on Sudan’s internal parties to narrow their differences through dialogue and reach a consensus that preserves the interests of the people and national stability. China’s envoy also called on the international community to support Sudan economically again and help it overcome its difficulties with economic and social development.
3. Rapid evacuation of Chinese citizens and diplomats: The Chinese embassy in Sudan issued security warnings to Chinese citizens and institutions and helped respond to requests for emergency assistance immediately after the crisis broke out. On 27 April 2023, the Chinese ministry of defense deployed its naval fleet to rescue Chinese citizens and embassy staff in Sudan and protect the lives and property of the estimated 1,500 Chinese citizens in Sudan at the outset of the crisis.
The Chinese foreign ministry announced a timeframe for the naval evacuation of approximately 800 Chinese citizens from April 25-27, 2023, adding that more than 300 people had crossed into countries bordering Sudan by land. In the same vein, the ministry confirmed that it had activated an emergency mechanism to protect the consulate and was communicating and coordinating closely with various local administrations and governments, embassies and consulates in Sudan, and neighboring countries in order to formulate an evacuation plan and transport Chinese citizens out of Sudan.
There are several factors shaping China’s position on Sudan’s internal situation since the beginning of the crisis in mid-April, including the following:
1. Growing shared economic interests: China has close economic relationships with Sudan and was its second largest trading partner in 2022—with bilateral trade reaching $2.9 billion that year compared to the previous year’s total of $2.6 billion. Moreover, the two countries signed economic and technology cooperation agreements in November 2022, valued at nearly $17 million, and launched an express shipping service in the same year.
Furthermore, China is one of the largest investors in Sudan, with statistics indicating the presence of more than 130 Chinese investor companies through mid-2022. Chinese companies participate in various infrastructure sectors and have a market share of more than 50% in the contracted work. In addition, Sudan was among the first countries to strongly respond to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, launched by China’s current president, Xi Jinping, in 2013, aimed at building a trade and infrastructure network linking Asia with Europe and Africa.
Sudan is also an important investment destination for China’s foreign energy investments. It benefits from processing facilities and pipelines for transporting oil from South Sudan, especially since China is the largest purchaser of oil from South Sudan, which represents about 2% of China’s oil needs. China has a major presence in oil companies in both Sudan and South Sudan, covering a broad range of sectors, including oil exploration, pipeline construction, and so forth. It should be said that relations between China and Sudan have strengthened greatly in the area of oil since the 1990’s, especially through the role played by the China National Petroleum Corporation, and Chinese entities signed oil exploration agreements with Sudan in 1994.
2. Ongoing support for Sudan at international assemblies: On March 8, China and Russia abstained from voting on the UN Security Council’s draft resolution confirming and renewing the imposition of an arms embargo and other sanctions on Sudan until 12 September 2024, at which time the Council indicated that it would decide whether to renew these sanctions again. The resolution also extended the mandate of the UN Panel of Experts that monitors the arms and travel embargo and the freezing of assets of specified individuals. Thirteen of 15 members of the Security Council voted in favor of this resolution.
In the same context, the Security Council confirmed its intention to review these sanctions, either by modifying, suspending, or progressively lifting them, by 12 February 2024, provided that the government makes progress on two benchmarks identified in Secretary-General António Guterres’s report of 31 July 2021: namely, progress on transitional security arrangements in Darfur and progress on the National Plan for Civilian Protection.
It is worth noting that, in February, Sudan asked the Security Council to immediately lift all sanctions imposed during the ongoing conflict in Darfur. In this regard, China’s deputy UN ambassador, Dai Bing, stressed that these sanctions should be lifted in light of the improved conditions on the ground, and he indicated that preserving the sanctions limits the government’s security capability and negatively effects its ability to maintain stability.
3. Stable political ties with the ruling Sovereignty Council: China endeavored to maintain strong relations with Sudan after the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, by publicly supporting the transitional government in the country. China’s relationships with the Sudanese ruling elite also remained intact following the decisions announced by the chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on 25 October 2021, perhaps most notably the declaration of a state of emergency throughout the country, the dissolution of the Transitional Sovereignty Council and the dismissal of its members, the dissolution of the Council of Ministers, the formation of a new independent government of competencies, and the suspension of the work of the Empowerment Removal Committee until it could be reviewed. These decisions caused significant internal turmoil in the relationships between the military and civilians in Sudan.
The political ties between the two sides were reinforced by a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and the chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on 8 December 2022, on the sidelines of the China-Arab summit held in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. During this meeting, the Chinese side confirmed its support of all internal parties to continuously and consistently advance the political transition process through dialogue and consultation. China also noted its opposition to outside interference in Sudan’s internal affairs and continued to speak on behalf of Sudan at international events, support fundamental common interests, and deepen exchanges and cooperation in various fields to promote the strategic partnership between the two countries.
During the meeting, the Chinese president also confirmed his country’s continued development aid to Sudan, cooperation in the areas of oil, agriculture, mining, and others, and encouragement of specialized Chinese companies to participate in construction projects in Sudan in order to help the country achieve economic and social development. In exchange, the chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, al-Burhan, congratulated his Chinese counterpart on the success of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party and the re-election of the Chinese president as the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CCP.
4. Resistance to American influence in Sudan: China is attempting to benefit from the unstable relationship between the US and the Transitional Sovereignty Council in Sudan, especially since the drastic decisions announced by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan on 25 October 2021. The US categorically rejected these decisions, describing what happened from the outset as a military power grab, and halted $700 million in aid to Sudan. By contrast, the US supported the Sudanese elite after the overthrow of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and revoked the longstanding economic sanctions against Sudan in 2017 to allow Americans generally to trade and do business with individuals and entities in Sudan. The US administration also decided to remove Sudan from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism on 14 December 2020.
China can oppose American influence in Sudan in the context of their fierce competition in various parts of the African continent, particularly considering US President Joe Biden’s attempt to re-forge a relationship with Africa after years of retreat during the term of former President Trump. The current US administration has adopted a new American strategy for sub-Saharan Africa, announced by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in August 2022, aimed at achieving four key goals: encouraging openness and open societies, distributing the gains of democracy and security, supporting recovery from the pandemic and economic opportunities, and supporting environmental preservation, climate adaptation, and a just energy transition. Furthermore, the second US-African Leaders Summit was held in Washington, DC, in December 2022, and US officials recently made a flurry of visits, including Secretary Blinken’s trip to Ethiopia and Niger, March 14-17, 2023, and US Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia, March 26-April 2, 2023.
5. Potential effect on Chinese interests in neighboring countries: China worries that the current crisis in Sudan will impact the stability of neighboring countries in the region, most notably Egypt and Ethiopia, which are linked to China by a set of strategic goals and interests, particularly at the economic level. Egypt was one of China’s top five African trade partners in 2021, alongside South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2021, the volume of trade between China and Egypt amounted to $19.9 billion, and Egypt acquired $28.5 billion in Chinese investments between 2018 and 2019, making it the largest recipient of Chinese investment in the Arab world.
China is also the main supplier to Ethiopia, making up 18% of Ethiopia’s total imports, to the tune of $2.2 billion in 2022. Chinese companies invest heavily in infrastructure and industrial complexes in Ethiopia, and there are currently 400 Chinese construction and manufacturing projects in Ethiopia, with an estimated value of more than $4 billion. Chinese investors also fund and build many air, road, and railway infrastructure projects in Ethiopia.
In conclusion, it can be said that China’s position on developments in Sudan is primarily based on adopting a strategy based on cautious anticipation, especially given the recent course of events and major instability. This situation is likely to persist considering China’s eagerness to stand by its approach based on the principle of non-interference in Sudan’s internal affairs in order to preserve China’s set of strategic goals and interests, especially economic ones. China is also likely to support options for peaceful settlements proposed under the umbrella of multilateral institutional mechanisms, whether at the international level (UN), pan-African level (African Union), or the regional level (IGAD).