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China’s Groundhog Day in Sudan

Hundreds of Chinese nationals were safely evacuated from the Sudanese capital Khartoum this week on a convoy of buses organized by the Chinese embassy. Image via Xie Jiajun.

After decades of diplomatic, economic, and security engagement in Africa, the ongoing fighting in Sudan may well remind Beijing of the 1990s classic in which TV weatherman Bill Murray covers the annual Groundhog Day in a small town in Pennsylvania, only to be forced to relive the same set of events with little opportunity for course correction.

Indeed, even a decade on, China’s government is still scarred by its 2011 experience scrambling to evacuate PRC citizens from Libya at the eleventh hour when the Qaddafi government opted for a heavy-handed response to popular protest, plunging the country into civil war.

Just last year, the film Home Coming 万里归途 — a patriotic retelling of the efforts of Chinese diplomats trying to bring Chinese citizens home from a fictional Arab country — was widely received as a dramatization of the PRC’s response to the Libyan crisis. Chinese state media lauded this portrayal of China’s heroic response, despite this portrayal glossing over just how taken aback China was by its own citizens demanding their government rescue them.

China’s response has been much swifter, nimbler, and more coordinated this time in Sudan: On 23rd April, the Chinese embassy in Sudan asked Sudan’s roughly 1000 Chinese residents to register and declare if they would like to be evacuated. The day after, China’s Foreign Office announced the first group of citizens had been taken to safety in Sudan’s neighboring countries, just as other nations were flying out diplomats and/or private citizens.

On the 25th, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared “most” Chinese nationals had been evacuated to neighboring countries or taken to one of Sudan’s harbor cities. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning was sure to emphasize the government’s preparedness and sense of duty to protect overseas compatriots.

Unsurprisingly, there have been calls for China not to stop there but step in and mediate between the warring factions around the head of the armed forces Abdel Fattah Burhan and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. After all, China had dabbled in mediation during ethnic factional clashes in South Sudan, which had split from Sudan in 2011, albeit with moderate success.

By initiating a Horn of Africa peace initiative, which included Sudan, China affirmed its public commitment as a peace broker in Africa in June 2022. Last month, much credit was given to Beijing for facilitating the restoration of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, invigorating international appeals for China as a potential promoter of stability.

China does have substantial interests in Sudan, with PRC businesses being major players in the oil industry as well as in infrastructure projects. Notwithstanding, for the time being, Beijing will have none of it: As per the last official statement on the matter — dating 21st April — PRC mediation has so far been focused on “call[ing] on the two sides to stop fighting as soon as possible and prevent further escalation.

This might be a wise course of action. After all, China’s tendency to support ruling parties diminishes Beijing’s credibility as a mediator to non-governmental actors. In Sudan, China’s leaders had had a taste of it in 2020, when Sudan’s long-term president and Beijing’s old friend al-Bashir was deposed and China decidedly treaded carefully so as not to upset states in the Gulf and beyond who had backed al-Bashir’s rivals, instead stressing continuity.

Notably, with Iran and Saudi Arabia, China stepped in when détente was well within reach. The situation in Sudan is much more protracted, with many external powers already vigorously supporting one side or the other. Most uneasy, perhaps, is the fact that conflict re-erupting fundamentally questions China’s tenet that economic development brings peace: Chinese investments and loans worth billions of dollars throughout the last two decades have not been able to prevent Sudan from descending into chaos.

Felix Brender 王哲謙 is a Project Associate at China ForesightLSE IDEAS

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