The US and China in Sudan’s great game

Nov 15, 2011 12:00 AM

by Brian M. Downing

In 1898, amid the age of imperialist acquisition, Great Britain and France confronted each other at Fashoda in the Sudan. The two powers almost went to war but happily, diplomacy prevailed.
Today, amid fierce global competition for commodities and regional influence, the US and China are facing each other in several parts of the world and the oil-rich Sudan may become one of the more complex and portentous sites of this contest. Recent fighting there is drawing greater attention to the region.

The dramatis personae are Sudanese (North and South), Kenyan, Somali, and Ugandan, with the Americans and Chinese trying to remain offstage, whispering urgent cues and offering metal props. The Ugandan group will include the odd guerrilla band known as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), against which the US has recently deployed a hundred special forces advisors.
This move will shape events in North and South Sudan and tell us much of the relations between the US and China.

Civil war, hydrocarbons, and regional powers
The Sudanese conflict entails religion and ethnicity -- a Muslim-Arab north with Khartoum as capital, and a Christian-African south with Juba as capital. However, the difference commanding international interest is, unsurprisingly, the two countries' oil reserves and pipelines.
Some 80 % of the Sudan's oil wealth is in the new southern state but the Khartoum government long ago ensured great influence over the wealth by seeing that the pipelines and refineries feeding world markets, chiefly China, were up north.

A North-South war may be in the offing and foreign entanglements abound. North Sudan is at present attacking oil-rich regions within its own territory that may wish to join South Sudan.
The North is now striking into South Sudan. The North's LRA proxy is poised to attack South Sudan from the guerrilla group's sanctuaries in the mountains of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The LRA's origins are in Uganda, though it has little presence there now. The rule of Idi Amin and his successors devastated the Acholi people in the northern part of the country, near the Sudan. Acholis were expelled from the military and state, their middle classes declined, and opposition emerged.
Though the opposition fell short of an insurgency, the Ugandan government saw the Acholis as rebellious and Ugandan troops came down hard. The violence and forced relocations led to the rise of millenarian cults, some nonviolent, some quite violent -- indeed aberrantly so.

The LRA was by far the most violent and aberrant, so much so that it could not base itself on popular support, only on pillaging hapless villages and abducting boys to replenish its ranks. Opposed by regional countries and a more accommodating Ugandan government, the LRA fled into the neighbouring DRC and the provinces of what is now South Sudan.
The LRA found support from the Sudanese government in its effort to defeat secessionist in southern provinces, but that failed and South Sudan came into being in July 2011. The LRA lies in wait in mountain sanctuaries.

Perceptions and geopolitics
In the aftermath of the bitter Sudanese civil war and amid a ruthless struggle to control commodities, the actions of both Sudanese states and their allies are being viewed warily. Misperceptions are inevitable in Khartoum and Juba -- and in Washington and Beijing as well.
North Sudan's attacks along the border with South Sudan and incursions into the South itself are an effort to intimidate the much less populous country if not a prelude to invasion and subjugation. This may be the only way to ensure the north's economic basis in refining and exporting oil products.

The South is allying with the US and Uganda, both of which have been operating against the LRA for quite some time and have recently strengthened their cooperation. This will raise concerns in Khartoum -- and Beijing -- that an alternate pipeline into Kenya or the DRC will be built, which would be a catastrophe for the North and would endanger one of China's sources of oil.
The US and China, as is well known, have been competing for oil around the world and not always in a manner put forth in business and legal textbooks. China, for example, persuaded Kazakhstan and Angola to abruptly end US rights and to sign new deals with China -- probably through generous payments, which are forbidden under US law. Beijing might well suspect that Washington is seeking a turnabout in South Sudan.

A Kenyan export route for South Sudanese oil would not necessarily keep it from going to China, though it would favour US and other Western oil companies in exploration and exportation. Most US oil imports come from the Americas and West Africa, and against expectation, US oil production is booming. Indeed, the US may surpass Russia in oil production in a few years.
United States interests in the region are not limited to oil. Washington seeks to counter Islamist movements, some of which have been aided over the years by Khartoum. It is al Shabaab, the guerrilla band that roams the largely ungoverned regions of Somalia, that is the principal concern.

Uganda and Kenya already have training and peacekeeping forces in Somalia and have endured retaliations from al Shabaab -- and face more as their involvement in Somalia has grown in recent months. Cooperation in stabilizing Somalia may be rewarded with economic benefits stemming from South Sudan.
Beyond that, the US is building up indigenous forces to counter various militant groups emerging in sub-Saharan Africa. Some are Islamist, some are not, but all may benefit from the mercenaries and weapons coming from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's defeated forces in Libya and from social problems developing from the termination of Gaddafi's generous subsidies to many African governments.

Chinese diplomacy and world image
Beijing is busily treating with the fledgling South Sudanese government in Juba to secure Chinese interests and thwart any US effort to gain influence. Contracts and export flows are longstanding and China has that in its favour.
However, China also has longstanding sales of military equipment to Khartoum, which it used against the South and against the people of Darfur, and that is not in China's favour.

China will seek to balance the two states by assuring the South that neither the North nor its LRA proxy will attack it and by pressing the South not to build a new pipeline to the south or west, despite foreign entreaties and incentives to do so. But trust between North and South does not abound and will not be easily built.
The contest in the Sudans -- and elsewhere as well -- will take on the issues of democracy and human rights as the Arab Spring has brought these concerns to the fore.

The US has of course been inconsistent on democracy and human rights, but China has consistently avoided concern with them, citing those who do as meddlers in purely domestic concerns akin to the imperialist powers that carved up the world, including China, in the 19th century.
This has served China well over the years, enabling it to gain economic and geopolitical partners, albeit unsavoury ones, throughout Asia and Africa.

As China emerges as a world power with more obligations and greater scrutiny, its record on human rights and democracy may become obstacles to its ambitions. China's policies towards Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other domestic groups and its support for North Korea, Myanmar, a host of African dictatorships, and Pakistani generals will become more salient in world affairs and become part of the calculus in future economic and geopolitical negotiations.
The Sudanese conflict may be an important test.

Brian M. Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

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