Sudan's decades-long economic relationship with China has almost always been dominated by oil. Yet this relationship has changed significantly in the past decade—first with the loss of oil reserves when South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011, and more recently due to the ouster of longtime ally President Omar al-Bashir. This report, based on interviews with policy officials, diplomats, industry and security experts, and others, examines China’s evolving commercial and political interests in this vital nation in the Horn of Africa.

Sudanese demonstrators march during anti-government protests in Khartoum on April 22, 2019. (Photo by Bryan Denton/New York Times)
Sudanese demonstrators march during anti-government protests in Khartoum on April 22, 2019. (Photo by Bryan Denton/New York Times)

Summary

  • China’s bilateral relationship with Sudan was once among its strongest in Africa, based largely on Beijing’s pre-2011 economic interest in Sudanese oil.
  • Beijing’s public support for Sudan’s transition to civilian governance in the aftermath of the coup that deposed longtime President Omar al-Bashir has been cautious, though mostly successful in ensuring continuity in its bilateral ties with Sudan.
  • Attempts to balance its ties between Khartoum’s rival external backers, however, have limited Beijing’s ability to step in and encourage its various allies to act in the interests of stability or to play any meaningful role in bringing the conflicting parties together.
  • In the long term, because China’s commercial interests in Sudan align with its Belt and Road Initiative objective of boosting infrastructure links in the region, the need to protect its economic interests will increase accordingly—and has implications for its engagement with Red Sea regional powers and Russia vis-à-vis Sudan.
  • The United States and China have a mutual interest in political and economic stability in Sudan. Both also have financial and political leverage that could be used to help prevent Sudan’s transition from derailing.

About the Report

This report examines China’s evolving political and commercial relationship with Sudan in the aftermath of the April 2019 coup that ousted longtime ally President Omar al-Bashir. Based on interviews with policy officials, diplomats, industry and security experts, and others, it incorporates an extensive review of scholarly and news sources. The research was supported by the China Program at the United States Institute of Peace.

About the Author

Laura Barber is a political risk analyst based in London. She specializes in Chinese foreign policy toward Africa, focusing on China’s political and economic relations with Sudan and South Sudan. She has a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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