Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden are the duo behind the /www.chinaafricaproject.com/"}}">China Africa Project and hosts of the popular China in Africa Podcast. We’re here to answer your most pressing, puzzling, even politically incorrect questions, about all things related to the Chinese in Africa and Africans in China.
The Chinese say they have a strict “non-interference policy” in the internal affairs of other countries. China “not interfering”? What did everyone call China sending the money (financial aid) to the Sudanese who were sponsoring the paramilitary soldiers who were attacking the civilians in Darfur?
— Michael via Facebook
Dear Michael, I’m going to sound a bit technical here, and I don’t want you to think that I am trying to avoid a straight answer because I’m not… but… the central issue comes down to how you define the word “interfere” as that is a really flexible word depending on what side of the story you’re on.
You are absolutely right to point out how the Sudans, both Sudan and South Sudan, are pushing one of China’s foundational foreign policy principles to its limits. The non-interference doctrine was first introduced back in the 1950s by [China’s] former Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. For more than 60 years that policy has served Beijing well. For the most part, the Chinese studiously avoided getting caught up in other countries’ internal rivalries, wars and politics.
But that was then. Today, China is the world’s second-largest economy, and has enormous trading interests, huge investments and millions of its people scattered across the globe, particularly throughout Africa. Compared to China under the rule of Zhou Enlai, the country has a vastly more complicated international agenda. Sudan, in particular, is a microcosm of these overlapping interests and highlights the real pressures that China is confronting as it struggles to remain faithful to this once unshakable policy.
Before the two Sudans split, it was the Chinese who invested 20 billion dollars to revive its moribund oil production sector, so it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Chinese officials feel they have a lot at stake in this region.
When the second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005) intensified and the war in Darfur kicked off in 2003, the Chinese instinctively aligned themselves with their allies in Khartoum, providing diplomatic cover, financial support, and, yes, lots of weapons. So this is where the point you are trying to make gets really messy. The Chinese government will argue that the selling of arms between two sovereign governments is perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong when the U.S. sells weapons to the Spanish or when Germany sells its military hardware to the U.K., so what is the difference when China sells sophisticated weapons to the Sudanese?
Is China actually doing more than trading with an ally and instead supporting a faction within a civil war?
In principle, I think they are totally right. We (Westerners) may not like the Sudanese or the Chinese for that matter, but they are two sovereign governments and they should be allowed to trade money or oil for guns just as almost every other country around the world does. While their above board trade is legitimate in my opinion, there is shady stuff that’s offensive and raises the questions of whether China is actually doing more than trading with an ally, and instead is supporting a faction within a civil war (and thus intervening in the internal affairs of another country).
For example, in the case of Darfur, there were widespread reports of Chinese arms vendors defying a U.N. arms embargo and then later, in South Sudan, Chinese weapons companies were allegedly selling small arms to even the government, as Chinese diplomats were working as mediators to resolve the ongoing civil war.
While I share your outrage over some of what has happened, I think it’s also important to recognize that the situation may not be as clear cut as it looks. Back in 2014 when it was discovered that the state-owned Chinese arms company Norinco was going to sell $38 million worth of weapons to the government in Juba, there were some indications that the arms dealers were acting outside of the political process. Many foreigners don’t always understand that even though companies like Norinco are state-owned, they often do not operate in sync with other elements of the Chinese government (like the foreign ministry, in this case.) This is by no means meant to excuse the behavior of Chinese state-run companies, but it may explain, at least in part, some of the arms sales to Africa that seem to contradict official policy.
Chinese combat troops are on the ground in South Sudan as part of the U.N. force. This, together with a legacy of morally questionable, even illegal arms sales, as well as Beijing’s historical preference to support incumbent governments over factional rivals in Africa, make places like the Sudans the most significant challenge to the non-interference doctrine in the policy’s over six-decade history.
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