China’s Doctrine of Non-Interference Challenged by Sudan’s Referendum

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 25

Supporters of secession for Southern Sudan

As South Sudan’s referendum on independence draws nearer, the international community is preparing for the possible division of Sudan into two independent states. With signs of growing tensions and several issues still to be resolved by negotiations—notably agreements on the demarcation of a north-south border and the distribution of oil revenue—there is a risk of a return to the decades-long civil war fought between the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that was ended by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called Sudan a “ticking time bomb” and launched a fresh diplomatic drive aimed at applying pressure on both sides to avoid conflict (World Politics Review, September 23).

Amidst the uptick in high-level diplomacy, however, the role to be played by China remains a crucial but unexplored factor in discussions about the referendum and beyond. China is the key external power in Sudan as a result of the substantial assets that one key state-owned enterprise—China National Petroleum Company (CNPC)—has developed in the country. Yet despite its apparently compelling interest in ensuring stability in Sudan, China has so far adopted a policy of “wait and see” with regards to the referendum. At the root of this hesitancy is a lack of consensus in Beijing about how to balance growing overseas economic interests and international “responsibilities” with China’s traditional foreign policy doctrine of “non-interference” in another state’s internal affairs. Any renewal of north-south violence in Sudan will likely put that principle under further strain.
The Dilemmas of Non-Interference

Non-interference has been fundamental to Chinese foreign policy since Zhou Enlai articulated the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. It was designed to reflect solidarity with newly independent post-colonial states and to indicate respect for territorial sovereignty. Although the principle was regularly violated by the support China lent to revolutionary movements across Africa and Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, it reassumed a central position under the “independent foreign policy” of the post-1978 period. China’s own sensitivities about perceived external interference, particularly in the context of Taiwan and Tibet, have led it to conceive of sovereignty in traditional Westphalian terms. Today the principle of non-interference remains oft-repeated in official foreign policy rhetoric.   

The policy of non-interference, however, is being complicated by China’s expanding global interests. The globalization of its economy has given China a stake in the stability of a number of countries with which it previously only had limited contact. Encouraged over the past decade by the central government to “go out,” state-owned and private enterprises have pursued overseas markets and new sources of natural materials, investing an estimated $178 billion in the process [1]. China’s rapid economic growth has also led to increasing clamor in western capitals for it to assume the “responsibilities” requisite with global power status. Rather than “free-riding” on the security arrangements established by the United States and its allies, this argument proceeds, China should take a more proactive stance toward regional and international security issues. These dynamics are stimulating a debate within China about the continuing value of non-interference.

On one side there is concern about how China’s “overseas interests” can be protected in the event of political and economic instability (Xinhua News Net, October 14). Concerns are increasingly expressed about the security of the growing number of Chinese citizens working abroad following repeated incidences of Chinese workers being kidnapped—and occasionally killed—as they find themselves caught up in internal conflicts between state forces and rebel groups (BBC News, April 24, 2007). An estimated 24,000 PRC citizens are said to work and live in Sudan alone, with comparable numbers in other African states. Solutions proffered to this problem typically focus on providing better consular protection services, engaging more deeply with international legal mechanisms, and building better intelligence about local investment environments. Yet there are calls for the government to play a more direct role, either by using its influence to shape the domestic politics of states in which China has strategic interests or even through the use of military force (, January 28; Asahi Shimbun, June 12). The anti-piracy mission of the Chinese navy off the Somali coast is widely perceived as a first step towards developing a more assertive approach to protecting China’s overseas economic interests.

Others urge a reevaluation of non-interference because it is not a policy befitting a global power with growing international “responsibilities.” Some worry that a willingness to partner with regimes that commit flagrant human rights abuses comes with significant image costs. International criticism during the run-up to the Beijing Olympics of China’s ties with a Sudanese regime complicit in committing atrocities in Darfur was fundamental in this sense. China’s subsequent behind-the-scenes diplomacy, which was instrumental in getting Khartoum to accept a joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur, has since been held up as an example of what a more proactive—and responsible—Chinese foreign policy might consist [2]. In that vein, Chinese scholars have since developed new paradigms, such as “creative interference” and “conditional interference”, to describe how China could further expand its role in peacekeeping operations or support interventions under the rubric of “responsibility to protect” [3]. In this case, the desire to craft a policy “beyond” non-interference is shaped through engagement with international norms rather than by narrow economic self-interest.

Although the debate about non-interference is now a hot topic in China’s foreign policy community, several factors work against there being any dramatic reevaluation of the official stance. The first is a lack of capabilities and resources. China remains under-experienced in the field of conflict prevention and there exist no domestic academic or policy institutions that conduct in-depth research into these issues. The second is a belief that non-interference has been a valuable policy tool in building burgeoning relations with African and other developing world states exhausted by the prescriptions and conditionalities of the West. Beijing is concerned that any step toward playing a more consequential role in domestic politics might be perceived as evidence of China adopting the imperialist dispositions of another “northern” power [4].

Responding to the Referendum

Developments in Sudan over the past five years have demonstrated that debates about non-interference have had a mixed impact on policy. China’s perceived interests in Sudan stem from the investments that CNPC (and, to a much lesser extent, Sinopec) have been making in its oil industry since western companies began to retreat in the mid-1990s. CNPC now has controlling stakes in the two biggest energy consortiums operating in Sudan, giving it an estimated 60 percent share of the 480,000 barrels of crude produced daily. It also constructed the 1500km pipeline which connects the oilfields of the south, where 85 percent of reserves are found, to the export point of Port Sudan in the north. CNPC views Sudan as having been a successful testing ground for its overseas investment strategy, with those involved in managing its operations in Sudan since assuming senior positions elsewhere around the world [5].

The secession of the south will likely complicate the management of CNPC assets. A number of key leases on oil concessions originally signed with Khartoum will soon need to be renegotiated. This will depend on the favor of the SPLM—reconstituted as the Government of South Sudan (GSS) under the terms of the CPA—who have traditionally perceived China as having underwritten the rule of the rival NCP. In any renewal of north-south conflict, CNPC-controlled oil fields may feasibly be seized by rival groups and the security of Chinese workers threatened. Since 98 percent of the south’s revenue comes from oil, Khartoum could choose to close the pipeline knowing that the north could function—at least in the medium-term—on alternative sources of income.

Although China has not embraced the prospect of the south’s independence, it has recognized the importance of reaching out to the GSS to safeguard against any damaging implications that may ensue from secession. This has required taking a somewhat pragmatic approach to “non-interference” because the GSS are not yet a formally sovereign entity [6]. Relations have therefore largely been cultivated at the party-party level, between the CPC’s International Liaison Department and the SPLM. The leader of the SPLM, Salva Kiir, has twice visited Beijing and a Chinese Consulate-General was established in the southern capital of Juba in September 2008. CNPC are in the process of setting up a branch office in the city. Rumors continue to link Chinese investors to the building of a new pipeline that would link South Sudan to the Kenyan port of Luma, potentially offering an alternative export route to the north-south pipeline (Wall Street Journal, October 22).

These efforts to engage the south seem to have had the desired impact. The once antagonistic GSS now urge the importance of building a “very strong relationship” with Beijing (Sudan Tribune, October 16). Considering their dependence on oil, the GSS recognizes the necessity of working with China and do not see western aid as sufficient substitute for the mixture of loans, infrastructure investment and low-cost construction services that China can offer. Despite its close ties with the United States, the huge developmental challenges likely to be faced by the GSS means it cannot afford to exclude potential external partners. Today Juba remains a “NGO town,” where a single Chinese-run hotel stands as the only testament to China’s influence, in contrast to the very visible presence in Khartoum. But China is hoping that the ties it is has built with the south will be enough to ensure the security of its assets after the referendum.  

Yet this does not amount to a conflict prevention strategy that might be expected of the external power that stands to lose the most from renewed civil war. Beijing has offered a few “carrots” of varying sizes to both north and south to dissuade them from violence [7]. Some gestures in the direction of public diplomacy are discernible (The Guardian, September 7). Yet, the overall impression is underwhelming; China appears content to leave itself hostage to fortune, presuming that Khartoum and Juba will opt for cooperation because of their mutual interest in continued oil profits [8]. Most analysts of Sudan, however—including those, one suspects, at CNPC—are less optimistic about the signs in the run-up to the referendum. Both sides continue to disagree over the terms of the referendum and the south has been vigorously rearming, with the closet support of neighboring East African states, in apparent anticipation of trouble (BBC News, December 9).  

The recent history of China’s role in Sudan suggests the long-standing policy of non-interference is in a state of flux. Pressuring Khartoum into accepting a peacekeeping force in Darfur and building relations with the quasi-sovereign GSS suggests Beijing can be pragmatic in its understanding of the principle. This corresponds with the discussions and debates about the nature of sovereignty, overseas interests and international intervention that can be heard within the academic and policy community in China. Yet the limited gestures China has made in the direction of preventing post-referendum conflict in Sudan point to the limits of this evolution. Even in a country where it stands as the dominant external actor, China remains reluctant to involve itself too deeply in local politics.

Toward International Coordination

China may come to rue its hesitancy if the referendum leads to a new crisis in North-South relations. Beijing will come under pressure to act if the situation in Sudan deteriorates, not only from the international community, but also from its own corporate groups. The relationship between the Chinese political leadership and management of state-owned enterprises is complex. Some claim that state-owned enterprises do not warrant extensive support from the government because they are driven only by profit and, in instances such as Sudan, actually damage the “national interest” [9]. Most of the oil CNPC produces in Sudan, for example, is not exported to China but sold on the world market. Yet an organization as large as CNPC clearly wields considerable influence in Beijing; its CEO holds ministerial rank within the government and will have been appointed at the highest levels. Any damage to CNPC assets in Sudan will likely increase the pressure on the government to revisit its non-interference policy.

Should Beijing decide to become more engaged in Sudan, western governments presumably want China to coordinate its efforts with their own. Barring a few sessions at the UN Security Council, however, international diplomacy toward Sudan appears dominated by the United States and United Kingdom. Both China and western governments share a fundamental interest in the maintenance of regional stability. If that point can be grasped, managing the Sudan referendum could become an area of cooperation between the United States and China at a time of otherwise growing tension in the bilateral relationship. As China continues to evaluate the value of non-interference in light of its growing global interests, events in Sudan could come to shape the form and content of a new foreign policy doctrine. Others will want to help ensure that if China comes to consider a greater degree of “interference” as legitimate, it conceives of it in multilateral rather than unilateral terms.


1. Linda Jakobson and Dean Knox, “New Foreign Policy Actors in China,” SIPRI Policy Paper, No. 26 (Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, September 2010): 26.
2. Jonathan Holslag, “China’s Diplomatic Victory in Darfur,” BICCS Background Paper (Brussels: Brussels Institute for Contemporary Chinese Studies, August 1, 2007).
3. See Wang Yizhou, “Zhongguo weihe ying chuangzaoxing jieru,”China Report (2010:2), and Pang Zhongying, “China’s Non-Interference Question,” Global Responsibility to Protect(1: 2009): 237 – 252.
4. To see China’s desire to challenge suggestions that it will “seek hegemony,” see Dai Bingguo, “We Must Stick to the Path of Peaceful Development, December 13, 2010,
5. Interview conducted by the author with international relations scholar in Beijing, November 9, 2010.
6. Dan Large, “China’s Sudan Engagement: Changing Northern and Southern Political Trajectories in Peace and War,” The China Quarterly, 199 (September: 2009): 610 – 626.
7.  “IDCPC Delegation Conclude Visit to Sudan,” October 18, 2010,
8. Conversations with academics and analysts suggest China is generally optimistic about the referendum. Interviews conducted in Beijing by the author, October – November 2010.
9. Zhu Feng is quoted as saying Chinese companies have “hijacked” China’s foreign policy in Sudan in “China’s Champions: Why State Ownership is No Longer Proving a Dead Hand,” Financial Times, March 16, 2008, available at’s.pdf.