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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. 

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