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What's at stake for China in Sudan as fighting drags on?

China’s economic interests, deep-rooted diplomatic relations with Khartoum, leaves Beijing worried about instability in Sudan and the Horn of Africa.
A picture shows a view of the SEA EAGLE, a vessel that reportedly left Ukraine with a cargo of wheat, anchored in Port Sudan on the Red Sea coast, on Sept. 9, 2022.

China has thus far not taken sides in the fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary, which has entered its second week. Beijing's cautious approach is in line with its foreign policy, but also stems from the deep economic interests it has built in Sudan over the last three decades.

Background: China established relations with Sudan back in 1959. What began as an oil-based relationship has adapted into an important trade one. China's ambassador in Khartoum Ma Xinmin said last May that more than 130 Chinese companies are operating in Sudan. China's Foreign Ministry estimated that more than 1,500 Chinese citizens were in Sudan at the start of this month's conflict, according to Agence France-Presse. 

China-Sudan ties strengthened considerably in the 1990s due to oil-related cooperation. Chinese entities signed oil exploration deals with Sudan in 1994, and in 1996, the China National Petroleum Corporation acquired a 40% stake in a Sudanese oil consortium, according to a report from The Open University. This notably followed the United States adding Sudan to its list of states sponsoring terrorism in 1993. 

China continued receiving oil from Sudan through the Darfur conflict that began in the early 2000s. The country imported a record near $1 billion worth of Sudanese crude oil in 2010, according to Trading Economics. China’s ties to Sudan during the Darfur conflict, which ended in 2020, led to significant international criticism. 

Sudanese oil exports to China decreased significantly in 2011 when South Sudan seceded from Sudan, taking with it the majority of Sudan’s oil reserves. This led to a decrease in Chinese economic interest in Sudan. From 2003 to 2010, China loaned nearly $6 billion to Sudan. From 2011 to 2018, this figure plummeted to $143 million, according to the Danish Institute for International Studies. 

Sudan's oil fields produced 59,000 barrels per day in 2021, according to the US' International Trade Association. China now imports its oil from Saudi Arabia and Russia, largely. 

China has successfully maintained strong relations with Sudan following the ouster of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019. China publicly supported the country’s transitional government with the goal of protecting its infrastructure links in the wider region, per a 2020 report from the US Institute of Peace.

China-Sudan relations remained cordial through the late 2021 coup in which Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan seized power. China exported $1.82 billion to Sudan that year, the top exports being motorcycles, tires and shoes. Sudan exported $780 million to China in 2021, mainly nuts, seeds and related productions, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

Last November, the two countries signed economic and technology cooperation agreements worth nearly $17 million. China and Sudan also launched an express shipping service in 2022. China was Sudan’s second-largest trading partner last year, and trade particularly increased in the mining and agriculture sectors, according to a December release from the Chinese Embassy in Khartoum.

Current conflict: China is not publicly taking sides in the ongoing fighting in Sudan.

“We call on the two sides to stop fighting as soon as possible and prevent further escalation. We hope parties in Sudan will increase dialogue and jointly move forward the political transition process,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters on Friday.

China started evacuating its citizens from Sudan on Monday to an undisclosed neighboring country, the Chinese state media outlet CGTN reported.

Know more: China's neutral stance could open the door for a mediation role by Beijing, but it will be competing with countries such as the US, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and the United Arab Emirates who are also mediating between the warring factions. 

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