I lived for much of 2015 in South Sudan, a country undergoing a violent, post-independence period.
Nowhere else in Africa do China’s financial, diplomatic and geopolitical interests confront as much risk as they do in South Sudan. Beijing has invested billions of dollars in the country’s oil sector, deployed over a thousand troops to serve as UN Peacekeepers and committed considerable diplomatic capital to help resolve the ongoing civil/ethnic war between President Salva Kiir against former Vice President Riek Machar.
Even though Beijing has repeatedly deployed its most senior Africa-diplomats to help broker a ceasefire and committed vast sums of money for investment and development, none of it seems like it will do much to slow South Sudan’s seemingly inevitable decline to becoming the world’s newest failed-state.
The destruction this conflict has caused is staggering. Since fighting broke out in December 2013, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed, many by some of the 16,000 child soldiers who have been forcibly conscripted by both sides. Now a quarter of a million refugees are on the move, fleeing the combined threats of war, drought and famine.
Even against these seemingly insurmountable challenges, Beijing’s point man for South Sudan remains stubbornly upbeat. “We as a government are cautiously optimistic about the future of South Sudan. The country’s leaders must remember that peace and security are essential for the growth of the people and the economy,” said Zhong Jianhua, China’s Special Representative for African Affairs, during a May 2016 interview in Beijing.
So why is China so committed to South Sudan? It probably has something to do with money and oil, but that doesn’t explain everything because for a country as large as China, the billions invested in South Sudan represents a relatively small piece of a truly massive global investment portfolio. So what is it?
Independent journalist and Guardian columnist Antony Loewenstein traveled to South Sudan in 2015 to cover the fighting. While in Juba, he also learned a lot more about what the Chinese are doing (or not) in South Sudan. Antony joins Eric & Cobus to discuss the findings from his reporting assignment and whether he shares Ambassador Zhong’s optimism for the future of the country.