China is selling $38 million worth of missiles, grenade launchers, machine guns and ammunition to South Sudan’s government, even as it pledges to help end a civil war in the country now on the brink of famine.
China North Industries Group Corp., the nation’s biggest arms manufacturer known as Norinco, shipped a consignment of weapons to the East African nation last month, according to marine-insurance documents sent to Bloomberg by an industry representative and confirmed by the broker handling insurance for the shipment. South Sudanese Defense Minister General Kuol Manyang Juuk confirmed the purchase and said the consignment was ordered “well before” he was appointed in July, five months before violence broke out in the country on Dec. 15.
“My role is to defend the nation,” Juuk said. “That means I have to arm my army. The army has to be equipped.”
China is one of the biggest buyers of South Sudan’s oil, output of which has fallen by a third to about 160,000 barrels a day since fighting between President Salva Kiir’s government and insurgents loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar started six months ago. Thousands of people have died in the conflict and more than 1.5 million have been forced to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
Officials at Norinco, as the Chinese company is known, didn’t respond to two e-mailed requests for comment. A person who answered one of at least six phone calls to the company and who declined to identify himself said he would comment later.
South Sudan has spent at least $1 billion on weapons and delivery systems since the fighting broke out, according to a western diplomat in Juba. Humanitarian agencies have appealed for $1.3 billion to provide relief to people affected by the conflict. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned in April the country faces famine if fighting continues.
Chinese Foreign Ministry officials in Beijing have repeatedly called for peace and an end to hostilities. Chinese Ambassador to Ethiopia and the African Union Xie Xiaoyan has worked with U.S., Norway and U.K. officials seeking to help resolve the conflict.
In January, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said he was “ready to directly engage” the warring parties to end fighting. China also plans to double its troop contribution to the UN Mission in South Sudan to 700 by mid-October.
Protection of its oil investments and citizens is increasingly at the forefront of China’s interests in South Sudan, Laura Barber, coordinator of the Africa Programme at the London School of Economics, said in a phone interview.
China National Petroleum Corp. is one of three companies that pump oil in South Sudan. The company evacuated 97 of its staff in December because of the fighting, the state news agency Xinhua reported on Dec. 25.
“China traditionally views its military ties with African governments to be in accordance with a policy of non-interference and respect for state sovereignty,” Barber said. “In the context of South Sudan, where atrocities have been committed by both sides of the conflict, this position may prove to be problematic for China -- particularly as it continues to seek long-term peace and stability in South Sudan.”
Chronic instability, unstable leadership and increasing ethnic fighting have rendered South Sudan the world’s most fragile state, according to a June 26 report by The Fund for Peace, a Washington-based research institute. South Sudan marks its third anniversary of independence, achieved after a civil war, from Sudan today.
The arms shipment set sail from the Chinese port of Zhanjiang in Guangdong province last month en route to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, the documents show. Pioneer Insurance and Reinsurance Brokers was the insurance broker for the weapons, said Chhaya Pardeshi, who works at the Mumbai-based company. She didn’t respond to follow-up questions sent by e-mail.
The documents include a packing list that details the shipment of 9,574 automatic rifles, 2,394 grenade launchers, 4 million bullets for automatic rifles, 2 million rounds of pistol ammunition, 319 machine guns, 660 pistols, 20,000 rounds of 40-millimeter anti-personnel grenades and 4,000 rounds of 40-millimeter “heat rockets.”
Another packing list, detailing goods worth $14.5 million, includes 100 anti-tank weapons systems, 1,200 anti-tank missiles and spare parts.
“These are largely arms and ammunition being delivered to the internationally recognized government of South Sudan under tight security arrangements,” Pioneer Insurance says in the documents.
Juuk said South Sudan buys weapons from China because Europe and the U.S. don’t sell weapons to his country.
“If they called me now to give me weapons I will go to America,” he said. “Please tell them, if they want me now I will go today.”
The U.S. doesn’t provide “lethal assistance” to South Sudan and advises other countries to spend their money on providing humanitarian assistance instead, the State Department said in an e-mailed response to questions.
Calls to China’s ambassador to South Sudan, Ma Qiang, weren’t answered when Bloomberg sought comment. The Chinese Embassy in Juba didn’t respond to e-mailed questions.
While the government and the rebels say they’re committed to a peaceful resolution to their dispute, both sides are still intent on resolving their differences on the battlefield and will continue to seek weapons, Casie Copeland, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group’s South Sudan analyst, said in a phone interview.
“All external nations involved in the South Sudan civil war, or the peace effort, have their own national and economic interests, so it is not helpful to only point the finger at China because there are a whole group of countries like Uganda, Sudan and Egypt that are also involved,” she said. “They all make it much more complicated, make achieving peace much more difficult.”