China’s partnership with Sudan provides strategic access

China’s partnership with Sudan provides strategic access

Tom Abke

Relations between China and Sudan have increased recently, as the Chinese renovate and upgrade an airport in the southwest city of Nyala and prepare to export fighter aircraft.

As a participant in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, Sudan has benefited from Chinese involvement in projects ranging from infrastructure to education. In fact, China has earned the status of Sudan’s leading trade partner and top foreign investor by employing a foreign policy that freely combines commercial and strategic interests. The two countries’ relationship dates back to the 1950s and involves investment, trade in oil, livestock and defense products, and a multitude of other products. (Pictured: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, in white turban, arrives at Beijing Capital International Airport in China on September 1, 2015, to attend events related to China’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.)

“China’s activities in Sudan follow the patterns where China strategically cultivates relationships with certain regimes shunned by most Western powers, provided that such cultivation meets several conditions,” Dr. Ngeow Chow Bing of the Institute of China Studies at University of Malaysia said in an interview with FORUM.

Ngeow listed access to “material benefits” such as oil among these conditions, as well as an investment environment in which China finds itself the only major foreign player. As of 2016, Chinese companies controlled 75 percent of foreign investment in Sudan’s oil sector, according to Sudan’s Petroleum Ministry.

“But China is very careful in using this leverage and avoids creating an image that it is dictating terms,” Ngeow added.

A team of Chinese “peacekeeping engineers” completed modernization work on Nyala’s airport in May 2017, according to China’s Ministry of Defense, an important step forward for Sudan’s second largest city, located in the province of South Darfur. The work on the airport came at the request of the local government and the United Nations, according to China’s Ministry of Defense.

China’s export variant of its FTC-2000 pilot trainer/fighter aircraft, meanwhile, was scheduled to be exported to Sudan after testing in June 2017. The single-engine supersonic aircraft is suited for combat training and tactical countermeasure training for fighter pilots, reported United Press International, and is also capable of engaging in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. It is manufactured by China’s AVIC Guizhou Aviation Industry Corp.

Sudan’s strategic location on the Red Sea is also important to China, observed Joseph Hammond, a fellow at the American Media Institute, on a recent visit to Sudan in 2017.

“When I was there,” said Hammond, “the minister of investment told me in his office, they’re seeking to develop a free trade zone near Port Sudan specifically targeted at Chinese investors. I think that with the U.S. coming into the picture, Sudan will continue to be important and hard to replace in a couple of aspects; one of them is livestock. It’s hard for me to see where else that, other than Sudan, there’s scalable kind of operations that could help meet China’s demand for beef.”

China may be in for some competition from the U.S. when it comes to defense exports to Sudan, Hammond indicated.

“With the lifting of U.S. sanctions,” he said, “the Trump administration is continuing military-to-military contact with Sudan, and there’s been the first exchange of military attaches between the two countries in over 20 years.”

Ngeow emphasized that while China has big plans for Sudan and Africa as whole, China should be careful to avoid overreach, saying that the One Belt, One Road initiative has been marked by setbacks and debt issues as well as apparent success.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.