The subtle change has been evident in months of faltering peace talks in the Ethiopian capital, where Chinese officials have been in regular contact with Western diplomats to help regional African mediators push for a halt to fighting.
Diplomats say the permanent Chinese presence at the Addis Ababa talks and their frequent lobby chats and closed-door consultations with diplomats from the United States, Britain and Norway – the main Western backers of newly independent South Sudan – shows China’s more proactive approach.
When a first ceasefire deal was reached on 23 January, a month after fighting erupted, a senior Western diplomat said China’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Xie Xiaoyan, joined other envoys by giving a speech at the signing that set the tone for Beijing’s involvement. “What’s very striking is that... he was given the floor and did not vary one bit from what everyone else was saying, which was basically [telling the South Sudanese factions to] ‘Get your act together’,” said the diplomat.
The new line does not mean China plans to abandon its oft stated policy of steering clear of Africa’s internal politics, but it is an indication of a gradual shift by Beijing as its stake in Africa’s stability grows with expanding investments.
With China now Africa’s biggest trading partner, Beijing could face pressure to extend its new approach to other regions of Africa where it has growing economic interests.
“The luxury of being the new guy in town is definitely on the wane now that they have pretty serious assets in these countries and need to protect them,” said Clare Allenson, Africa analyst at consultancy Eurasia Group.
“They would love to keep the non-interference stance but it doesn’t quite work that way.”
For now, South Sudan offers exceptional circumstances to prompt more proactive Chinese diplomacy: 5 per cent of Beijing’s oil imports came from South Sudan when it was pumping at full tilt. The state firm China National Petroleum Corp has a 40 per cent stake in a joint venture developing the fields.
Oil accounts for about 98 per cent of South Sudan’s revenue, and while the United States, Britain and Norway are the biggest donors, they do not have stakes in South Sudanese crude production.
Washington instead worries about loss of political face over the fighting after it trumpeted secession from Sudan in 2011 as a foreign policy success. It has imposed sanctions on military commanders from both sides to press for a peace deal.
France’s Total has exploration concessions in South Sudan but China’s commercial interests are far greater than those of Western nations. This has prompted China to push rival factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar to talk.
China’s ambassador to South Sudan, Ma Qiang, told James Hoth Mai, then chief of the government SPLA army, that the arms agreement was off shortly after the conflict erupted on 15 December
“[The envoy] said: ‘We cannot do anything now people are killing each other. We don’t want to contribute to that killing’,” former commander Mai, who was replaced in May, recounted in an interview with Reuters.
“China said ‘We don’t want to escalate this conflict’.”
Senior Western diplomats involved in mediation efforts said they were unaware of a Chinese decision to halt an arms sale but they have no doubt there has been a change. “The diplomacy of Beijing has clearly stepped up and is more proactive and more responsive now,” said one of the diplomats, who traces the first sign of a shift to the row between South Sudan and Sudan in 2012, the year after the two nations split.
China’s role was seen as crucial to ending the dispute that rumbled on for 15 months, halted South Sudan’s oil production and brought the two nations to the brink of war.
South Sudan’s oil output is now a third of the level it was at in December before the latest conflict erupted.
That has spurred China on. From the early days of the conflict, China had said it would play an active role. In another unusual move for Beijing, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said that China planned to send a battalion of troops to join the mission in Sudan.
UN officials said this would be the first time China had contributed a full infantry battalion of about 850 troops to a UN peacekeeping mission.
A more diplomatically active China could provide a welcome political counterweight for some on the continent, where the West has often been called to act to police the peace.
“Now China is coming in and it means the West cannot use their help to hold us hostage any more,” said one official in Uganda, which has been criticised by some Western diplomats for sending troops to South Sudan in open support of Kiir’s forces.
The South Sudanese Foreign Minister, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, acknowledged that China was gaining traction on the continent, citing support for Africa on the UN Security Council. “This has given them the respect in Africa,” Benjamin said. “So when they come to us people will actually listen to them.”