On June 7, a Hong Kong-based cargo ship called the Feng Huang Song docked in the port of Mombasa, Kenya. On board were $38 million worth of arms produced by China's state-owned weapons manufacturer, NORINCO — thousands of assault rifles, grenade launchers, anti-tank RPG rounds, and many millions of bullets. On June 10, Mombasa dockworkers began unloading the cargo and preparing it for overland travel to its final destination: South Sudan.
The country was already well into a civil war that began on December 15, 2013, when clashes broke out in the capital of Juba between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel soldiers aligned with Riek Machar, Kiir's former vice president. Little more than two years had passed since South Sudan broke off from Sudan following a long civil war. Political and sectarian tensions had festered ever since Kiir kicked Machar out of his cabinet in July, 2013. Combat engulfed the world's youngest country five months later, pitting Machar's mostly Nuer rebels against Kiir's predominantly Dinka SPLA forces.
More than 10,000 people have died in the fighting, which has displaced 1.7 million civilians. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have found evidence of human rights violations and war crimes committed by both factions, and the United Nations has repeatedly warned that famine looms if the conflict doesn't end.
Meanwhile, South Sudan's government has spent more than $1 billion on arms and weapons systems — a striking figure given that the 22-year Sudanese civil war had already left South Sudan flooded with weapons.
Though the arms are difficult to trace — they often have their identifying markers sawed-off and travel through several intermediaries — observer groups have documented in South Sudan the delivery and use of weapons and bullets manufactured by Sudan, China, several Eastern European countries, and Israel.
'If past experiences are any indication, we've seen that weapons supplied to South Sudan can end up with civilians or rebel groups.'
After South Sudan's independence, Sudan lost vital oil fields and a huge chunk of its national budget. Around the same time, its domestic arms industry stepped up production.
Sudanese weapons and ammunition have easily found their way into the hands of Kiir and Machar's forces, as well as the myriad smaller rebel groups that terrorized portions of the country prior to the recent civil war. The Small Arms Survey research project reports that, starting in August 2012, Sudanese intelligence began airdropping Chinese CQ assault rifles (essentially copies of the American M16) and ammunition to rebel groups in Unity State. The drops came a year after some militia groups obtained newly manufactured Type 56 assault rifles, themselves cheaper copies of the AK-47.
"There's an economic incentive, but also an ideological one — by arming both sides, Sudan continues their policy of destabilization of the South," Jonah Leff, director of operations at Conflict Armament Research, an organization that tracks weapons in conflict zones, told VICE News.
At the site of an April massacre of some 200 civilians by rebels in a mosque situated in the oil town of Bentiu, Small Arms Survey found cartridges produced since 2009 with markings suggesting Chinese and Sudanese origin. Some of what they suspected to be Sudanese ammunition was produced as recently as 2014.
In its Bentiu report, Small Arms Survey disclosed that "drawing conclusions about origins and supply routes of ammunition in the possession of force in the current conflict is difficult because of the constant circulation of ammunition between opposing and allied forces in South Sudan and Sudan, and because many forces have previously shared the same ammunition providers."
'Certainly with the outbreak of violence since then and the reports of human rights violations, China could have and should have stopped that shipment from leaving China.'
The weapons and firepower in the recent $38 million Chinese shipment are much more sophisticated. A copy of the ship's manifest, which VICE News obtained, shows a cargo of 40,000 anti-tank munitions, more than 2,300 grenade launchers, 20,000 anti-personnel grenades, more than 9,500 Type 56 assault rifles, and 24 million bullets.
"Those pose a greater potential risk in the country," said Leff. "If past experiences are any indication, we've seen that weapons supplied to South Sudan can end up with civilians or rebel groups."
Shortly after the Chinese shipment arrived, Amnesty International called for a comprehensive arms embargo on South Sudan. Last week, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also called for an embargo in a letter to US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.
"The Security Council should impose a comprehensive arms embargo on South Sudan," Royce wrote. "Weapons that enter the country only increase the likelihood of atrocities against civilians."
Power's office did not respond to a VICE News request for comment.
"We have called for states to unilaterally suspend arms transfers to South Sudan," Elizabeth Deng, a South Sudan researcher at Amnesty International, told VICE News. "But we would of course like to see a stronger legal framework in the form of a UN Security Council arms embargo that would restrict all countries around the world to stop the flow and transfer of arms."
She added, "Even if they are legally bought by the government and imported into South Sudan, there's a high risk of them being captured by the opposition, or going into the hands of civilians due to high levels of corruption and the low level of security for government stockpiles."
The US has already suspended military assistance to South Sudan. In 2011, the European Union extended its arms embargo on Sudan to include South Sudan.
Sudan, whose President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, already has a UN arms embargo on its Darfur region. It would likely be able to sidestep further limitations, especially considering that its supplies enter South Sudan through unofficial channels.
But with the Security Council yet to threaten economic sanctions, the chances for a UN embargo are muddled at best.
After South Sudan's independence, China pledged $8 billion to the fledgling state. Prior to the outbreak of civil war in December, China had imported roughly 14 million barrels of oil from South Sudan — about two thirds of its total output. Fighting has since cut oil income, which previously supplied 99 percent of the government's revenue.
China, which has rapidly become a global supplier of small arms, has a permanent seat on the Security Council. Though the money it stands to make from its considerable oil investments in South Sudan outweighs potential arms sales, it might not want to set a precedent that could imperil its weapons trade.
"Chinese arms are much cheaper, especially for countries in Africa that don't have huge budgets to spend on defense," said Leff. "China has become the principal supplier to countries throughout Africa."
China and South Sudan's defense minister have noted that the $38 million shipment was ordered before the outbreak of violence, and described the delivery as the fulfillment of a contract.
"Certainly with the outbreak of violence since then and the reports of human rights violations, China could have and should have stopped that shipment from leaving China," Deng said.
On Monday, a mediation team convened by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an East African trade bloc announced another ceasefire, giving Kiir and Machar 45 days to form a unity government. But after three previous agreements were all broken in a matter of hours, observers have little reason for optimism. The latest ceasefire comes during a temporary lull occasioned by the summer's rainy season. All signs point to the conflict renewing with force once the rains end.
"We hear very worrying reports of more arms being brought into this country in order to set the stage for… another set of battles when the dry season commences," Samantha Power told reporters earlier this month.
Following the ceasefire, a Russian-chartered UN helicopter carrying cargo crashed outside of Bentiu on Tuesday afternoon, killing three crew members and injuring one. The Sudanese government claims that rebel forces shot it down.
Last year, the UN General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty. Though not yet implemented, the treaty has been signed by 118 member states (including the United States), and calls for countries to consider the likelihood that arms sales could end up "facilitating a serious violation" of international human rights or humanitarian law. China, Sudan, and Israel have not signed the treaty.
While foreign investors have tiptoed away from South Sudan's increasingly perilous financial situation, China might simply have too much at stake. In July, South Sudan's minister of finance and economic planning requested parliamentary approval of a $150 million loan from China's state-owned Export-Import Bank, "secured against oil sales." Not only would China receive oil in exchange, but the money, ostensibly meant for Juba airport, could end up being spent on Chinese weapons.
Rebels have complained of China's role in the conflict, accusing it of "providing loans to the Government of South Sudan to keep afloat the economy" and "providing arms that are fueling the conflict in South Sudan through its arms manufacturer," NORINCO. In both instances, they say, oil is used as a guarantee.
When the Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN Mission in South Sudan in May, China successfully pushed the US — over the objections from the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations — to include the protection of civilians at oil installations in UNMISS' directives. In exchange, China promised to send a battalion of 850 peacekeepers. Those troops have yet to arrive, and it is unclear where they will be deployed, though China has made clear its preference of stationing them as close as possible to oil-producing regions.
"China obviously has interest in South Sudan in relation to oil," said Deng. "I think they are playing a confusing game."
Follow Samuel Oakford in Twitter: @samueloakford