China's Expansion Puts Workers in Harm's Way

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 26, 2007

BEIJING, April 25 -- An attack that killed nine Chinese oil workers in Ethiopia's desolate Ogaden Desert has provided a bloody reminder that China's worldwide pursuit of raw materials has taken it into some rough neighborhoods -- and that goodwill proclamations may not be enough to avoid getting caught up in local conflicts.

Exposure to the military and political struggles that convulse Africa is one of the prices this fast-developing country is paying for its growing power and profile on the world stage. It is a new sensation for most Chinese, who are used to considering their country an economic actor that, unlike traditional powers, avoids interference in the domestic affairs of other nations.

The nine Chinese were among 74 people reported killed shortly after dawn Tuesday in the desert of eastern Ethiopia. In addition, Chinese authorities said, seven Chinese oil technicians were kidnapped by the ethnic Somali rebels who launched the raid. The captives joined a growing list. Already this year, 16 Chinese oil workers have been kidnapped in Nigeria and a Chinese engineer was killed and another injured in Kenya.

The questions facing President Hu Jintao's government Wednesday were twofold: how to better protect the 4 million Chinese working abroad, and how to preserve the growing value of Chinese investments in places such as Ethiopia, where governments face instability.

"China now faces the dilemma of any country that undertakes an active foreign policy, particularly one with a foreign policy in no small part based on the acquisition of resources," said an analysis by Stratfor, a security consulting firm based in Austin. "It must now decide how much to get involved in other countries' internal security issues."

He Wenping, head of Africa studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said safety issues were becoming increasingly important as the number of Chinese working abroad multiplies. He suggested to Beijing's Global Times newspaper Wednesday that Chinese companies evaluate the security situation before starting a project abroad.

This is a sensitive political issue here. The Chinese public seems increasingly to demand that compatriots abroad be taken care of, even as the government expresses a determination to avoid involvement in local conflicts. Moreover, the urge to prop up endangered governments to preserve Chinese investments would go against its long tradition of noninterference.

Reflecting the sensitivities, Communist Party censors sought Wednesday to limit comment on Internet sites about the killings in Ethiopia, according to site operators. But some telling observations got through the filters. "If you want to make money there, why wouldn't you send your own troops to provide security?" one contributor wrote. "It seems we should learn from the early colonial powers."

The Foreign Ministry, however, has long contended that China's economic activities in Africa are designed to benefit African countries and that China has no stake in the local political situation. Chinese officials repeatedly have said they have no desire to repeat the exploitative policies of colonial powers, which subjugated Africa to serve as a reliable source of raw materials and a market for exports.

This was a major theme of a China-Africa summit in Beijing in November, when nearly 50 African heads of state and ministers gathered to proclaim friendship with China and discuss investment and aid agreements. It also has been a major theme for Chinese leaders on their frequent visits to Africa, including President Hu's tour of eight African countries in February. The pledge was repeated this week by Jia Qinglin, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, who appeared on the front pages of Tuesday's official newspapers -- the day of the attack in Ethiopia -- being greeted by dancing women on arrival in Kenya.

"Chinese economic activities in African countries are on the basis of cooperation and friendship," said Liu Lide, a retired ambassador who spent 22 years as a Chinese envoy in Africa. "That's the context in which we encourage Chinese companies to go to Africa and invest. We want to work not only with African governments but also with African people, particularly businessmen."

As China's economic footprint grows, however, its policies have brought increasing criticism from African opposition groups that contend China's noninterventionism props up unpopular governments.

In Tuesday's attack, the target was an exploratory drilling site run by a subsidiary of the China Petroleum and Chemical Corp. (Sinopec), a government-owned giant that has operations in a dozen countries. The oil field was guarded by a 100-strong contingent of Ethiopian soldiers, reflecting close cooperation between Sinopec and the Ethiopian government.

China was Ethiopia's largest trading partner in 2006, with $450 million in exchanges. Chinese firms have invested more than $70 million in Ethiopia, and Beijing has provided road and school construction aid.

"These people had bad intentions," said Liu, the former ambassador, speaking of the rebels who carried out the attack. "Their goal was to sabotage China's relations with the Ethiopian government."

In addition to the physical dangers to its citizens, China has found that its expanding role in Africa has also resulted in growing diplomatic demands. U.S. and European governments have urged Beijing to use its leverage to pressure the Sudanese government to accept U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur, and some officials and activists have suggested China should also use its influence to moderate President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

In recent months, Chinese officials have heeded the urgings and sought to budge the Sudanese government. But former ambassador Liu said the country's basic policy of trying to stay out of local disputes has not shifted. "Each country goes about relations in Africa in its own way," he added.

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