BEIJING (Reuters) - China's efforts to help resolve a conflict in South Sudan mark a "new chapter" in Beijing's foreign policy that will seek to engage more in Africa's security, China's top envoy to the continent said.
China is the biggest investor in South Sudan's oil industry, and experts have argued that Beijing's typically reserved diplomacy will have to keep pace with its growing business interests across Africa.
Zhong Jianhua, China's special representative on African Affairs, joined peace talks last month which led to a delicate ceasefire between the government of South Sudan President Salva Kiir and rebels loyal to his sacked deputy Riek Machar.
"China should be engaging more in peace and security solutions for any conflict there," Zhong told Reuters in an interview at the Foreign Ministry building in Beijing on Monday.
"This is a challenge for China. This is something new for us ... It is a new chapter for Chinese foreign affairs," said the 63-year-old veteran diplomat in fluent English.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than half a million driven from their homes since mid-December in the worst violence the world's newest country has faced since it won its independence from Sudan in 2011.
Since the ceasefire was agreed on January 23, both sides have accused each other of violations. Regional and world powers worry about the potential for violence in oil-rich South Sudan to spill over into an already volatile region of Africa.
Zhong, who has deep experience with South Sudan, said the conflict was currently his most urgent priority as China's Africa envoy.
Chinese diplomats from embassies in Ethiopia and South Sudan's capital, Juba, joined early attempts at ceasefire monitoring, Zhong said, a move seen by Western diplomats as both welcome and unexpected. "We promised we will join all the efforts for ceasefire monitoring and mechanisms," he said.
Since 1954, long before China became an economic power with interests around the globe, Beijing has upheld a foreign policy mantra of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs.
But Western diplomats have argued that China's weight as an investor in South Sudan gives it extra leverage to defuse tension there, and have criticised what they see as Beijing's aloof policy doctrine.
The need to expand China's foreign policy footprint and protect its interests are both driving China's more assertive presence in South Sudan, Zhong said, adding that China would not ignore the interests of South Sudan for the sake of its own.
Indeed, Western diplomats have noted a deeper level of engagement by China in international diplomatic efforts to resolve the South Sudan conflict, and even seen some signs of its readiness to put more pressure on Juba to avoid a re-run of fighting after any deal.
That, they say, contrasts with Beijing's usual cautious tendency to keep to the political sidelines.
"It's the first time China has been so proactive in addressing a foreign crisis. China has clearly been driven by a single motive here - its substantial oil interests in the country," said a Beijing-based Western diplomat who follows China's relations with Africa.
China imported 3.5 million tonnes of crude oil from South Sudan last year, according to Chinese Customs data, making it the new African state's biggest customer.
But Zhong said China would proceed with caution, and he gave few details on how it would expand its role. "We are not the party to propose our own initiative, at least at this stage. So, we urge all parties concerned to respect an African solution proposed by African parties," he said.
ACTIVE, BUT LIMITED ROLE
It's that hesitancy that leaves some experts sceptical of how quickly China will transform its status in Africa, where some countries, while grateful for cheap Chinese loans, have grumbled that China has sucked in their raw materials but offered little exchange of skills in return.
China has sought to change that perception, highlighted by a trip by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Africa last year in which he spoke of work to transfer technology and offer training to help build industry there.
Still, China is not seen as a driving force behind peace talks in South Sudan led by the IGAD group of African states. The most prominent international backers remain the United States, Britain and Norway, whose top diplomats have been closely involved in meetings with Africans to push along the process.
"China has been playing an active role, although a limited one," Laura Barber, programme assistant for the African International Affairs programme at the London School of Economics, told Reuters in an email.
"China's mediation experience remains limited and the extent and depth of its involvement in trying to resolve the South Sudan crisis is limited. Respect for sovereignty remains at the heart of China's foreign policy and Beijing is keen to avoid being seen as interfering," she added.
Zhong said China would not take a position on the involvement of the Ugandan military, which rebels say gave air and ground support to government troops battling to recapture rebel-held towns before the ceasefire. The Ugandan army has dismissed those allegations as "cheap lies".
"It is up to the conflicting parties ... to decide whether Uganda should still have their forces there or to withdraw them in time," Zhong said, adding he did not link the Ugandan military presence with a potential for a regional conflict.
Maintaining the ceasefire and creating stability to support a 2015 election would provide the best chance for a lasting resolution to the conflict, he said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Carl Odera in Juba and Edmund Blair in Nairobi; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)