Last week, news broke that China is sending troops to South Sudan to protect its oil interests in the troubled region. The troops will join the UN’s peacekeeping force in the area later this year. The original Wall Street Journal article notes that ‘while Beijing’s troops will operate under UN command, their posting to South Sudan marks a sharp escalation of China’s efforts to ensure the safety of its workers and assets in Africa and guarantee a steady flow of energy for domestic consumption’. It also marks China’s first commitment to send a battalion to a UN peacekeeping force, though they have contributed smaller numbers of peacekeepers to other missions.
The UN mission in South Sudan is backed by a Security Council mandate which permits peacekeepers to protect civilians in South Sudan’s now nine-month long civil war, which has seen thousands of casualties and over a million people displaced. It has also shut down a third of the country’s oil production. The UN mission’s mandate allows it to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians in physical danger, including civilians at oil installations. Rebels have been kidnapping Chinese oil workers during the unrest and some have already been evacuated. Reuters published a response from Joe Contreras, UN spokesperson for the mission in South Sudan, who confirmed that under the mandate peacekeepers will be protecting ‘civilian oil industry workers’ but not oil industry installations, including ‘the refinery or pipeline or storage tanks’.
Reuters also note China’s unusually active diplomatic role in the conflict: ‘Chinese officials have been in regular contact with Western diplomats to help African mediators push for a halt to fighting in the country. China has also pushed rival factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar to talk’. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of China’s ‘big three’ state-owned energy companies, has big investments in South Sudan – both in oil fields and a 1000-mile long oil pipeline to the coast.
Military interventions to protect foreign energy supplies are hardly new, and the role of energy in foreign policy is well-documented, as are concerns over China’s international energy policy. However, these troops mark a big change both in China’s behaviour internationally and its approach to energy security. China’s international energy policy or expansion has so far been limited largely to investments in actual energy deposits, such as oil fields, or infrastructure. While the current mission is only mandated to protect civilians and workers rather than oil fields or infrastructure, it marks China’s biggest international military secondment in recent years – and is hardly unrelated to the country’s significant economic interests in the area.
China’s growing energy demand is well-established, and energy has consistently been considered an issue of national security in recent years. However, this marks China’s first (relatively) large military engagement in an area where it has significant energy interests. China has so far released very little information about the mission, but is stressing that the goal of the mission is strictly to fulfil the mandate of the Security Council, ultimately to maintain peace and security in the area.
It’s difficult know how much impact this will have on Chinese policy in the longer term, but it is definitely one to watch – especially given China’s increasing international energy investments in volatile regions. It may indicate a further shift in Chinese perceptions of energy security, towards viewing energy as a military security issue. If it sets a precedent for Chinese intervention to defend its energy interests abroad we’re likely to see much more focus on this in the future.