In less than one week, Chinese president Xi Jinping will convene a summit of roughly 30 global leaders to discuss what is arguably China’s most ambitious economic project to date: “One Belt, One Road” (Obor). The project’s two main initiatives – the “Silk Road Economic Belt” (SREB) and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” (MSR) – involve billions of dollars’ worth of trade, development and connectivity projects spanning three continents: Africa, Asia and Europe. It is no surprise, then, that Obor is being projected as China’s articulation of a new global financial order.
For the moment, reports seem to suggest that a small group of African nation-states, including Kenya, Djibouti and Egypt, are official participants of Obor – though certain blueprints and maps also include South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania.
It is inconceivable that South Sudan will not be central to any Obor strategy targeted towards the eastern part of the continent. In addition to serving as a key repository of valuable oil reserves, South Sudan also acts as the end-point for major infrastructure and connectivity projects being planned and implemented in Kenya. A new railway line is expected to link up Mombasa port, the capital Nairobi, and Kenya’s neighbouring countries.
A railway and pipeline is also envisaged to link the ports of Kenya to oil fields in South Sudan and Uganda, while also connecting with Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burundi to facilitate exports of these countries’ products. South Sudan’s significance in an economic integration plan for Eastern Africa is thus indisputable.
For a regional connectivity plan to work, there must be regional stability. With South Sudan currently trapped in a deadly civil war, any plans to regionally integrate East Africa are likely to come under tremendous pressure unless the root causes of the war in South Sudan are immediately addressed.
South Sudan’s civil war is no longer a domestic issue. It has spilled over into its neighbouring countries, spurring widespread instability in the region. Uganda currently hosts more than 830 000 refugees fleeing the war in South Sudan, while nearly 100 000 are residing in Kenya and more than 140 000 in Ethiopia.
As the war rages on, so will the increasing numbers of refugees, security concerns and other spill-over effects. A report by Frontier Economics entitled South Sudan: The Cost of War, estimated the cost of five years of war since the beginning of 2016, to South Sudan’s neighbours including Uganda and Kenya, as $53-billion.
Peace in South Sudan is key to ensuring that everyone in the region shares the economic gains and prosperity generated by Obor. As China begins to more clearly define and consolidate its vision for Obor for East Africa, now would be the time for it to drive forth efforts to create a political environment that would enable Obor to thrive and flourish in the years to come. For its part, China has, to date, led and supported a number of diplomatic initiatives to end the violence in South Sudan, from participating in the expanded mediation group, known as IGAD Plus, that led to the signing of a peace agreement in August 2015 to chairing a meeting in January 2015 comprising rival South Sudanese factions to agree upon a plan to accelerate the peace process.
In these desperate times, China must not retreat from providing much needed leadership to end the bloodshed and violence in South Sudan. China must exercise its considerable influence in the East African region to work with IGAD member states, specifically Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, to push South Sudan towards a political resolution of the conflict.
These countries, despite directly experiencing first-hand the economic and security impacts of war in neighbouring South Sudan, refuse to wield their own considerable leverage over the warring parties – in part due to the profitable war economy from which their elites directly benefit. As a responsible investor in the region, China must leverage the strength of its relations with these key regional actors to convince the warring parties in South Sudan to put an end to the bloodshed and suffering that has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
While a solution to the conflict in South Sudan cannot be imposed from outside, we, the people of South Sudan, have little faith in our political and military leaders to embrace a political process on their own that would end the war peacefully. In recent weeks, military operations in South Sudan have only escalated and all parties to the conflict remain determined to pursue a military solution. External pressure in needed to incentivise South Sudanese leaders to end the war.
We welcome China’s OBOR ambitions in the region but urge its leadership to work with IGAD member states to convince the warring parties that dialogue and reconciliation are the only means to peace in South Sudan. We look to China as a long-term friend who will stand by us in the good times and bad, and deliver tough messages to our leaders and regional leaders when warranted. A peaceful South Sudan will enable the fruits of Obor to be borne by everyone in the region – a win-win for all.
Peter Biar Ajak is the coordinator of South Sudan Young Leaders Forum, senior adviser for the International Growth Centre, and founder of the Juba-based Center for Strategic Analyses and Research.
Mail and Guardian South Africa