Opinion | Why South Sudan is strategically significant in the U.S. - China competition for global hegemony
Arguably since independence, South Sudan remained in conflict/ disastrous situation mainly due to conflicting interests of global power players and hegemonic designs of US and China. Thomas C. Moutain who is historian and independent journalist based in Eritrea in his online article entitled “The CIA’s Dirty War in South Sudan” claimed that the United States is funding a dirty war in South Sudan and that the war in South Sudan is about denying China access to Africa’s oil as it is in the “national interests” of the U.S. to deny China access to Africa energy resources as its containment strategy.
This claim is supported by the interception of UN Trucks carrying weapons in Rumbek in 2014 that were destined to Bentiu, by then a rebel stronghold. The US was secretly funding rebels to fight the government while China on the other hand sold arms worth more than 20 million USD to South Sudan government to fight rebels as evidenced by a UN report.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir said in April 2018 that his country was being punished by western powers for not paying for their support in the long civil war against neighboring Sudan. This implies that the US wanted payback in term of oil contracts as it is the architect and midwife of South Sudan’s independence.
Therefore, South Sudan’s Strategic significance is growing and the rivalry between China and US makes the country’s importance obviously clear. The central question that this article tries to address is why South Sudan being a landlocked country is contested by major powers and how they are engaged in expanding their spheres of influence? As China and US are physically too far away from the country and no direct land linkages but are striving for strong presence in the country and oppose each other’s presence as they see each other’s presence as a strategic challenge.
In short, what had made South Sudan significant for major powers to oppose each other and strengthening their spheres of influence lies in its geopolitical and geo-economic dimensions. Geopolitics as “position” and geo-economic as “possession of vital resources” are necessary ingredients in great power politics and are strategically important to sustain the life of state.
Strategic Significance in Geopolitical dimension
Strategically, South Sudan is located in the heart of Africa which is one of most volatile regions in the world and shares borders with six states. It works as a link or bridge between North Africa and East Africa and as such, it is strategically significant country for the West as a geostrategic bridge. As a matter of fact, US interests in the region is firstly to contain rising power of China since China is the only state that has the potential and resolve to directly challenge US global leadership, secondly, from the global war on terror perspective, is to fight against spread of militant Islamism and extremism from Sudan into the region and beyond as well as to minimize the possibility of terrorist activities from regional organizations such as Al Shabaab expanding into South Sudan due to fragmentation of the country along ethnic lines as a result of conflict.
In this, South Sudan acts as a defensive wall against spread of militant Islam. China on the other hand, views South Sudan’s location in the East African region as being strategic to its expansion into the East African region because South Sudan shares its borders with several major African countries that are poised to have a critical impact on the future of international strategic interests. A spillover of civil war in South Sudan into East African countries will therefore jeopardize China’s regional and maritime trade interests.
Strategic Significance in Geo-economic Dimension
The unique geo-economic potential of energy resources and minerals such as gold is the key factor behind the emergence of new great game in South Sudan between China and US. China in particular has heavily invested and in control of South Sudanese oil for diversification of its energy resources to balance its energy security demands. Evidently, China is high in consumption and low in production, therefore, it’s dependent on import energy supplies to fuel the engine for its domestic economic growth. So, it is in the best interest of US to get off China hand in South Sudanese oil as China represents the only country to challenge US leadership and preeminence at the global stage. US on the other hand does not have any significant trade with South Sudan at the moment but history suggests that it has oil interest in South Sudan as evidenced by Chevron (American corporation) first exploration and discovery of oil inside South Sudan but sold its rights due to instability in the South. This oil interest by US as part of West has been made apparent when President Salva Kiir said in April 2018 that “the western powers have asked me several times in private meetings with their business representatives that whether we still remember those who stood by our side during the war and how we intend to recognize their role”
As can be seen, there is now new geopolitical and geo-economic competition between US and China in South Sudan. US is achieving its objectives of security politics to retain status of sole super power by containing rising power of China by utilizing South Sudan’s strategic location so that South Sudan plays front line role in the fight against spread of militant Islamism and extremism and also US is trying to find ways to limit, sabotage or undermine Chinese oil investment in South Sudan. This is evidenced by rebels targeting and destroying China oilfields facilities in Unity State, South Sudan in 2014. South Sudan is, therefore, a country where competing systems for international order are fully engaged. This brings me to a view that the power that will control South Sudan would eventually emerge as a dominant power in Africa and arguably, will be most powerful state in international politics.
The author Akoon Maker Maluach is a former student of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University (ANU) Strategic and Defense Studies Centre. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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