China’s relationship with North and South Sudan has been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny over the past decade. Beijing’s close relationship with North Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been used as a primary example of China’s support for pariah regimes. China is now heavily invested in both North and South Sudan.
Analysts noted the Chinese policy shift in Sudan would as its commercial interests became aligned with the international agenda. China played an active role in the Darfur process and although it refused to go as far as supporting ICC injunctions against al-Bashir, Beijing worked together with Western countries to achieve a peaceful solution. More recently China tacitly supported intervention in Libya, by abstaining from the vote at the UN.
Last week Chinese officials were furthering the case for intervention in Somalia. China has played an active role in the patrols in the Gulf of Aden. Nevertheless a terrestrial attack on pirate bases in Somalia is a first venture into Chinese leadership of international military intervention. The ‘black hawk down’ debacle in 1993 costs the lives of 19 US soldiers, but also marked the last time US forces have been in active service in Africa. Chinese engagement in Somalia would likely be supported by a US government concerned by pirate financing of Al-Qaeda and trade disruption, as long as requirements are not made of its own military.
While China has increasingly become a cooperating member of the international community, its leadership in this military action is interesting. China has built strong relationships with a number of countries in East and Southern Africa, and its export routes are some of the most threatened by Somalian piracy. Meanwhile Somalian intervention would not be unpopular in Africa, as no country has strong links to the pirate groups (possibly excluding Eritrea which has been accused of supporting the insurgency).Therefore Beijing has the strongest interest in addressing the problem. It is an important example of the pragmatism of China’s African policy.
From a development perspective there are competing pressures here. While loan conditionality seems immediately attractive from a development perspective, it also removes agency from African governments in making their own decisions. Sanctions on pariah regimes generally affect the poor in the country the worst.
There is something to be said for this split model whereby China brings infrastructure investment to frontier markets while the West demands improved practices. Clearly this does not include arms sales to repressive regimes, but the value of respect for the institutions and opinions of the African community is too freely discounted by developed countries. Developed countries are too quick to assume that their political and economic models are universally applicable, and therefore that the strong agenda for liberal democratic values will be received as charity rather than imposition.