No nation is as well placed as China to mediate an end to hostilities between government and rebel fighters in South Sudan, the world's youngest country. It accounts for 80 per cent of the nation's oil exports, being the biggest investor in its oilfields, and has offered substantial loans and assistance for development projects. With the month-old conflict that has taken more than 1,000 lives cutting oil production and forcing the evacuation of Chinese workers, Foreign minister Wang Yi's participation in ceasefire talks in Ethiopia is understandable. His call for an immediate end to hostilities and direct efforts to broker peace is welcome, but also at odds with Beijing's foreign-policy principle of not interfering in the affairs of other countries.
Peace in South Sudan has been uneasy since it won independence from Sudan in 2011 after an agreement that ended one of Africa's longest and bloodiest civil wars. South Sudan is estimated to hold the continent's third-biggest oil reserves and the mineral accounts for 98 per cent of its income; Sudan's economy has also been affected by the fighting, as all pipelines pass through its territory, providing hard currency in transit fees. With China being close to both governments and its interests directly affected, there is no better country to take up the role of peacemaker.
China's non-interference policy has served it and nations it deals with well for 60 years. African governments, the victims for centuries of Western colonialism, have been especially grateful for the Chinese approach of focusing on economic interactions and investment while shunning military interventions and regime change. Being a global power brings international responsibilities and obligations, though, making such an approach increasingly less sustainable as superpower status nears. Revision seems necessary in the near future so that Beijing can take a role on the world stage that better reflects its global importance.
What a policy of greater engagement would look like has to be carefully crafted. African nations, for one, do not want the US style, based on granting aid and investment in return for adopting American standards. This has served governments poorly and ignored economic, political and social realities. The best approach is a balance between economic activity and conflict sensitivity, while encouraging a more robust engagement. South Sudan provides a valuable testing ground.