Toward a Nuclear Future? Chinese Investment in Sudan

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Today, the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, is running on an electricity schedule: a timetable posted by the country’s National Energy Department that tells citizens when each borough is due to receive electricity. This shortage comes in spite of the fact that since the early 2000s, the Sudanese government has been investing heavily in energy and development projects. Due to the sanctions that prevent the government from purchasing the necessary materials for these projects in the global marketplace, China and Arab states provide most of the funding. The latest of these is a nuclear energy facility set to be financed by the Chinese government, China’s National Energy Administration chairman Sun Qin said in March.

“The agreement is a step forward for China’s grand ‘One Belt, One Road’ plan to export technology, including nuclear power and high-speed railway technologies, to African and European nations,” said Shi Yan, a Shanghai-based analyst at UOB-Kay Hian. “China can provide both technological and financial support for developing nuclear power projects.”

China has been a strong political, diplomatic, and economic ally to Sudan since the rest of the international community imposed sanctions on the African state beginning in 1997. The prevailing orthodoxy about isolating a country economically is that direct trade-offs exist between political gain and civilian pain: Sanctions succeed precisely to the extent that they occasion suffering. Humane sanctions necessarily will be ineffective, while effective sanctions cannot avoid being inhumane. At the same time, sanctions can—and indeed should—be designed such that their implementation is both politically effective and attentive to vulnerable populations.

The sanctions on Sudan continue to cripple the country’s economy by limiting its financial interaction with global markets. They also discourage foreign direct investment, and as a result the amount of capital entering the country each year has seen a steady decline. In the streets of Sudan, where access to quality health care is almost impossible for ordinary citizens subsisting on minimum wage, these sanctions’ effects are more concrete: They obstruct the country’s ability to import vital medical equipment. Lacking either access to this equipment at home or the financial resources to travel abroad for treatment, many Sudanese patients suffer from unnecessary complications, and even deaths, stemming from once-minor complaints. 

China has been willing to finance development projects in Sudan regardless of these obstacles, to the extent that many have called Sudan the gateway China is using to promote itself across Africa. Between 2000 and 2011, there were at least 65 Chinese-financed official development projects in Sudan. However, none had anything to do with nuclear energy. Past projects have ranged from a $1.3 billion loan to assist with the construction of regular railways to a $519 million loan to cover the costs of the mechanical components for the Merowe hydroelectric dam. Other African states, seeing that China pays little attention to domestic politics when it comes to financing projects, have sought to follow Sudan’s lead—most notably Zimbabwe, which adopted the Chinese yuan as legal tender last December.

In contrast to Western donors, who often push for political reform as a precondition to loans or trade agreements, Chinese investors’ willingness to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations committed by some African governments makes them an attractive financial partner across the continent. China has the second-largest economy in the world after the U.S. The dollar values of China’s agricultural and industrial outputs exceed those of the U.S.; it is second to the U.S. in the value of services produced. These advances were made possible to a large extent by the trade partnerships China was able to foster with raw-material-exporting countries. 

In the 16 years that Sudan has been trading with China, China has become the country’s foremost trading partner. As part of a trade partnership valued at more than $8.6 billion, Sudan exports raw materials to China while importing finished goods. China has cultivated similar relationships with other states across the African continent in order to become the world’s leading manufacturer of finished products. Sudan, however, has not benefited from its end of the deal—instead, it has fallen even further in economic rankings as commodity prices in global markets continue to drop. 

The proposed nuclear energy facility poses a different set of challenges, but its potential to help Sudan reinstate itself in the global economy is doubtful. Adopting a nuclear energy program is unlikely to cast Sudan in a favorable light in the eyes of the international community, especially while Sudanese advocates are petitioning to bring an end to the sanctions hurting Sudanese citizens. If Sudan is serious about adopting a clean energy program, it should look to the examples of countries leading the field rather than those that are still experimenting with it, like China. Germany, for instance, produced so much solar energy last month that it had to credit its citizens to use electricity.

In its dealings with the international community, the Sudanese government has relied upon the same set of policies for the past 25 years—an adherence which has almost no chance of producing new or innovative results. It is time for the country to rebuild its economic relationship with the rest of the world. Sudan has been willing to cooperate on other fronts: recently, the country agreed to work with the European Union to ease the flow of migrantsattempting to enter Europe. If this level of collaboration is possible, Sudan should, in return, be able to renegotiate its trade relationship with the EU so as to ease existing economic sanctions.

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