If this was the 90s, the correct answer with 99.9% certainty, would have been unequivocally the United States. However, perhaps as a testament to how the times have changed, not to mention the geopolitics and the dominant global superpowers, the answer this time is not the US but instead China. And the country where according to the WSJ, China has deployed some 700 soldiers as part of a United Nations "peacekeeping" force, is South Sudan where the Chinese troops will help guard the country's embattled oil fields and protect Chinese workers and installations, a spokesman for the African nation's president said Tuesday.
More on this page straight out of the CIA's playbook:
The airlift of the Chinese infantry battalion to the South Sudanese states of Unity and Upper Nile, the site of the only operating oil fields still under control of the central government in Juba, was expected to take several days, spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny said.
While Beijing's troops will operate under U.N. command, their posting to South Sudan marks a sharp escalation of China's efforts to ensure the safety of its workers and assets in Africa, and guarantee a steady flow of energy for domestic consumption.
The deployment marks the first time Beijing has contributed a battalion to a U.N. peacekeeping force, U.N. officials said. In March 2013, China sent some 300 peacekeepers to Mali to protect Chinese engineers building a U.N. camp in the town of Gao.
Why the Sudan?
State-owned China's National Petroleum Corp. holds a 40% stake in a joint venture that operates South Sudan's vast oil fields. The company also operates a 1,000-mile export pipeline that ships crude through neighboring Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
More than 10,000 people have been killed and some 1.5 million uprooted from their homes in South Sudan since fighting erupted in December between President Salva Kiir and forces loyal to the former vice president, Riek Machar. The U.N. Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) is authorized by the Security Council for up to 12,500 troops and 1,323 police personnel. As of July 31, it had a total of 11,389 soldiers, police and military liaison officers.
Under its mandate, U.N. peacekeepers are allowed to use "all necessary means" to protect imperiled civilians at oil installations. If attacked, Mr. Ateny said, the Chinese soldiers are "combat ready and can fight back."
But is China about to make a grave mistake and barge like a United States in a, well, middle-eastern store? The rebellious locals are doing their best to make sure China does not overstep its limitations and become a second United States.
Rebels fighting to depose Mr. Kiir's government have warned Beijing against taking sides in their fight. "The Chinese should work under the mandate and command of the (U.N.)," said rebel spokesman, James Gatdet Dak. "As long as they stick to that, we shall not have a problem with them."
The greater Sudan region has been a caldron of unrest for the past several years, with the kidnappings of Chinese workers by rebels in Sudan and civil war in South Sudan, which gained its independence from its northern neighbor in 2011.
Sudanese rebels in the South Kordofan region kidnapped dozens of Chinese road construction workers in 2012 and demanded that Beijing use its influence to compel the Khartoum government to halt an offensive against the rebels. China's National Petroleum Corp evacuated 97 of its staff from South Sudan's oil fields in December, shortly after Mr. Kiir accused Mr. Machar, his former vice president, of launching a coup and fighting broke out. Since then, they have waged an 8-month battle, often over strategic oil fields.
Sounds like such a hassle: why doesn't China just give up on the local political chaos and look to easier ways to obtain crude? Simple: it can't. "Before the latest fighting in South Sudan flared, the country accounted for 5% of China's crude imports, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration. Output has since plummeted by a third—to 160,000 barrels-a-day—following the outbreak of fighting late last year."
Which means China has no option: the country has sought diplomatically to ease tensions in the region. Beijing's envoys were key to resolving last year's oil export dispute between Sudan and South Sudan, which brought the two former civil war foes to the brink of war. But the outbreak of the current conflict presents Beijing with a new challenge. And with few if any private security companies operating in the area, the task of protecting China's state-run companies—and their billions of dollars of investments—has increasingly fallen to the Chinese military. And today, to some 700 soldiers.
The issue, as US foreign policy knows and has demonstrated to the world all too well, is that it always begins with a "few hundred soldiers." The problem is when a few hundred become a few hundred thousand. And if the world has learned anything by now about interventionist foreign policy, is that one of the ways the US is losing its superpower status at the fastest rate possible, is due to its endless military "conquests" abroad which usually take a few years if not months to backfire and/or blowback, and to send the country flailing from one foreign crisis to another, leading to a world precariously poised on the edge of a global conflict precipice, to avoid calling it something far more serious.
China should ask itself if that is what it really wants, although on its path to superpower status, something tells us that the answer will be, sadly, an empathic yes even if for the most part, China has approached the topic of taking over the world correctly, as shown in the following map of Africa which plots China's slow, steady and certain colonization of this suddenly most important of continents.