Sudan’s General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan suspended constitutional power-sharing with civilian authorities and arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other members of the government on October 25, 2021. The US and other members of the international community condemned the coup. Through its silence, China is an accomplice to Burhan’s power-grab.
It is not surprising that China is running interference for Burhan and Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC). China is focused on continuity, noninterference and respect for state sovereignty, which define China-Sudan relations. Beijing sees economic engagement as the primary way to gain influence in Sudan and the Red Sea region.
There is a long history of collusion between China and Sudan’s military authorities. On June 5, 2019, China blocked the UNSC from adopting a resolution condemning the brutal killing of more than one hundred civilian protesters by security forces in Khartoum. China’s Premier Xi Jinping strongly opposed an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for the deposed dictator, Omar al-Bashir. Xi may fear the same fate.
More recently, China opposed a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution imposing sanctions on Sudan, maintaining it violated Sudan’s sovereignty. Absent consensus in support of a resolution by the UNSC, Kenya’s UN Ambassador Martin Kimani settled for a chairman’s statement “calling for all parties to exercise the utmost restraint, refrain from the use of violence, and respect human rights, including the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”
China is focused on stability and resource exploitation. Sudan lies on a vital trade route between Asia, Europe, and Africa. Its physical location makes it central to the success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s global infrastructure development scheme, financed mostly by Chinese state banks. BRI provides short-term benefits, while saddling the “beneficiary” with debt. BRI also fuels corruption, adverse environmental impacts, and sub-standard labor practices.
Even prior to the adoption of the BRI program, China was heavily involved in Sudan’s development. Between 2000 and 2011, China supported 65 infrastructure projects in Sudan, including construction of the presidential palace, the laying of railway lines between Khartoum and Port Said, construction of power stations, and the upgrading of the local electricity grid.
China and Sudan recently signed a memorandum of understanding to construct the Sudanese portion of a planned 3,200-kilometer (1,990-mile) railway link between Port Sudan and N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.
Chinese products have a market share of 24 percent, double that of the UAE. Approximately $700 billion worth of trade transits its strategic waterways and choke points annually, as do millions of barrels of oil daily.
The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), Beijing’s state-owned energy giant, helped Sudan’s emerging oil industry in the 1990s. Oil exports began to decline in 2011 after the split with South Sudan. And although, today, China is less dependent on Sudanese oil, China fears any disruption in the operations of the Sudan Petroleum Project, as well as other joint venture mining and energy enterprises.
China's trade with Sudan also involved arms trafficking. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, it was the only country to supply weapons to Bashir’s armed forces in 2018.
China is agnostic on Sudan’s leadership, so long as the country aligns with China’s interests. When Bashir was ousted in 2019, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “No matter how the situation changes, China will remain committed to maintaining and developing friendly relations and cooperation with Sudan.” When China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Hamdok on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2021, he reiterated that stability was China’s “overriding priority”. When Burhan dismissed civilian members of the government and declared a state of emergency, China focused on its own interests urging dialogue “to maintain peace and stability of the country”.
Soft power is also used to leverage China’s interests. It has provided funding to thousands of African officials, students, and journalists to study and train in China. It is also making diplomatic inroads through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF). The International Department of China’s Communist Party has worked with foreign political parties across Africa for decades.
China and Russia often act in tandem when their national interests overlap.
Unlike China, which prioritizes stability and economic priorities, Russia pursues an authoritarian and security agenda. Burhan’s governance model is closely aligned with Russia’s authoritarian tendencies. Russia and Sudan signed an agreement on military cooperation in May 2019, calling for a Russian naval base on the Red Sea. Close cooperation exists between Burhan’s Rapid Reaction Forces and the Wagner Group of Russian mercenaries. Russian intelligence also launched a malign influence operation that resulted in the closure of three Facebook accounts.
The US should be wary of China and Russia in Sudan. Their growing military presence has direct implications for US economic and security interests. Freedom of navigation is a vital US strategic interest. Like Chinese incursions in the South China Sea, the proximity of US and Chinese forces in Djibouti is a flash point.
Conversely, such presence could also cause additional instability within Sudan, that even the Russians and Chinese could not contain. Lest we forget, al-Qaeda used Sudan to train and organize terrorist attacks for many years.
The US supports the restoration of Sudan’s civilian leadership to advance human rights and democracy, as well as its strategic interests. The Horn of Africa has become a hub of competition between Great Powers. The US is not the only country with security and economic interests in Sudan and the Red Sea region.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He leads the Transitional Justice in Sudan Project.