By Luka Biong Deng

The Republic of South Sudan, the newest member state of the UN, has entered into a world that is stratified into the top billion people who are prosperous, middle four billion of people who are developing and on track to be prosperous and bottom billion of people who are struck at the bottom with appalling living conditions.

Also the people living in the countries of the bottom billion have been in one or another of the four traps: conflict trap, natural resource trap, land-locked and bad neighbours trap and bad governance in a small country trap. It would certainly not require much efforts of where to position the newest member of the United Nation in the current economic and political stratification of the world. South Sudan falls not only in the bottom billion but it is at the bottom of the bottom billion and is virtually exposed to all the four traps experienced by the bottom billion. The real challenge for the leadership of the newest nation is how to remove South Sudan from the appalling conditions of the bottom billion and to put it on a path of economic growth to realize the aspirations of its people who have been deprived so long and suffered a great deal.

Certainly this task is to be championed by the people of South Sudan but also to be complemented by the support of the international community. In the light of global financial crisis that is threatening the western economies, China is emerging as a real economic power and a last resort to the countries of the bottom billion to put their economy on growth path. Its economy is the fastest growing economy and it has not only bypassed Japan but it is certain that it will soon bypass the USA. Building good relation with China is becoming not only economic necessity but it is also strategic national interest for most of the developing countries and even the rest of the world.

My first personal experience of being wrongly identified as Chinese was in the early 1980s, when I went for postgraduate studies in Belgium. An official received me at the airport holding a paper with my family name, ‘Deng’, written on it. He was shocked to see me, a black African, approaching him, as he had assumed the name ‘Deng’ meant that I would be Chinese. Many years later, in 2007, during President Salva Kiir’s first official visit to China as President of South Sudan, we were touring Beijing with Ambassador Majok Guandong and others from our delegation, and we were stunned to come across a sign for ‘Guandong Bank’. Many South Sudanese ponder the significance of these common names and what they may mean in terms of our cultural and historic ties to China; what is certain is that China is a key economic and political player in the drama currently unfolding between Sudan and South Sudan.

President Kiir is scheduled to return to China in April for his first visit since South Sudan declared independence in July 2011. For South Sudan, building good relations with China is not only an economic necessity, but also of strategic national interest. The success of the visit will hinge on our government’s ability to diplomatically handle the host of pressing issues that now confront South Sudan.

In the aftermath of its bold decision to stop oil production, South Sudan is under considerable financial stress. It is struggling to find funding for its huge deficit, meet the basic needs of its people, and build an alternative pipeline for its crude oil. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that most of South Sudan’s traditional allies have been reluctant to support the decision to stop oil production, and may have difficulty convincing their taxpayers to increase or maintain their level of assistance to South Sudan while it is sitting on oil resources that it is unable to market.

Access to concessional loans is also limited, as South Sudan is not yet a full member of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Even if found, the loans would likely carry an exorbitant cost that would create a huge debt overhang for future generations—a common burden for other African countries but one to which South Sudan is not yet subjected by virtue of its newfound independence.

This leaves South Sudan with few sources of funding other than commercial loans or concessional loans from China. It is therefore a matter of strategic national interest for South Sudan to strengthen its diplomatic relations with China, and to push China to exert more diplomatic pressure on Sudan to find rational solutions for the post-secession issues that are currently pending between Sudan and South Sudan.

To build a more positive relationship, South Sudan and China must overcome a number of diplomatic hurdles. During the civil war, oil development in South Sudan became associated with human suffering, massive displacement, and gross human rights abuses carried out by the Government of Sudan. Oil companies were perceived as culprits in these atrocities, particularly those that took place in the areas around oilfields. Given China’s role in the oil sector, most South Sudanese believe that China not only sided with Khartoum during the civil war, but that its oil companies aided and abetted the Government of Sudan in committing human rights abuses. Certainly, these perceptions will continue to affect future relations between China and South Sudan and will pose a real diplomatic challenge in transforming the relationship between the two states.

The recent wrangling between Khartoum and Juba over oil also affected diplomatic relations between South Sudan and China. Shortly after the oil shutdown, the PETRODAR operating company, particularly the Chinese component, China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), was accused of complicity in the concealment of a number of oil wells. Although it is impossible at this point to know conclusively the validity of the information concerning the undeclared oil wells, the way that the information was managed did not help in promoting South Sudan’s relations with China. It also remains unclear how our government was not aware about the number of oil wells in South Sudan, given that the Ministry of Energy was established in 2005 with a considerable budget to monitor oil production. We have cried out about how much we have been cheated by

Sudan, but we have not yet answered why we were not capable of counting our own oil wells.

Furthermore, although the Government of South Sudan might have had compelling reasons to expel the President of PETRODAR, the way the decision was taken and managed did not help in promoting our diplomatic relations with China. Our local media’s portrayal of China during the saga left out some of the facts and served to mobilize public opinion against China. In fact, the companies that were involved in marketing the stolen crude oil were not even Chinese companies but were rather the very companies that have become so close to our government during the interim period, despite their historical record of working with the Government of Sudan in its oil sector.

Nonetheless, there is reason for optimism concerning the relationship between South Sudan and China. Chinese foreign policy is based on principles of non-interference, mutual interest and mutual benefits, and China has no special interest in Sudan except for their national strategic interest. South Sudan is in far better position to ensure that strategic interest, given the fact that most oil and agricultural potential is in the South. In fact, of the 5 percent of China’s oil needs that are met by exports from Sudan and South Sudan, the crude oil export of South Sudan alone meets about 4.5 percent of it.

There are five basic goals that the Government of South Sudan could seek to accomplish during President Salva Kiir’s visit to China. First, the visit could be used to reposition South Sudan as strategic partner to China not only in terms of South Sudan’s economic potentials, but also in terms of its position in the region. Second, the visit could assure China of South Sudan’s commitment to maintaining good relations with Sudan, including exporting its crude oil through the pipelines in Sudan if Khartoum is willing to settle for internationally accepted fees.

Third, the visit could serve to articulate the strategic importance that South Sudan ascribes to the diversification of its pipelines and the need for China to assist not only in the feasibility studies and impact assessments associated with the alternative pipeline but also in its funding.

Fourth, the visit could make it clear to China that if not resolved, the unfinished business of the CPA in terms of popular consultation for the people of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states, the referendum for the people of Abyei area, and demarcation of the North-South border will continue to haunt the relationship between the two states. China is uniquely positioned to exert diplomatic pressure on Khartoum to resolve these pending issues.

Fifth, the visit could ensure access to concessional loans for development of infrastructure (telecommunication, roads, power generation and sports) and for agricultural ‘green revolution’.

China is a huge country and shifting its policy to include a focus on an independent South Sudan is a mammoth task. But with hard work and patience, our mutual interests align enough to remain hopeful for a strong relationship in the years to come.

Luka Biong is a senior member of South Sudan’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and is currently the Co-Chair of the Abyei Joint Oversight Committee.