China and its exposure to African conflicts

Updated On: Apr 27, 2007

These days, Chinese presence is found everywhere in the developing world from Southeast Asia to Africa to Latin America as it goes on its ultimate quest for getting more natural raw materials from resource-rich developing nation in need of cash.

China has the finances and the infrastructure construction capabilities to dispense the goods that these developing nations want in return for their precious resources vital to Chinese economic growth.

For instance, China is now the largest single investor in Zimbabwe with its investment portfolio now standing at more than 600 million U.S. dollars with more than 35 Chinese companies investing in Zimbabwe and more exploratory visits to come. This fact was revealed to Zimbabwe’s most honoured guest, the visiting Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Jia Qinglin who paid a four-day visit to Zimbabwe.

But China is also learning the hard way that, as it spreads its wings across the vast span of the world, it is also getting exposed to international politics and risks. This is especially so as it focuses on the part of the world that often finds itself in political flux and change. The showcase example of this risk is seen in the deaths of 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese workers when gunmen raided a Chinese-run oil field near the Somali border on Tuesday. Seven Chinese workers were also kidnapped during this attack at the oil installation in a disputed region of eastern Ethiopia.

An Ethiopian rebel group claimed responsibility with the Ogaden National Liberation Front declaring they had launched "military operations against units of the Ethiopian armed forces guarding an oil exploration site," in the east of the country. The rebel group is fighting for an independent state for ethnic Somalis and declared that any investment in the Ogaden area that benefited the Ethiopian government "would not be tolerated."

This is not the first time that Chinese workers have been attacked in Africa.  Earlier this year, armed militants in Nigeria seeking a greater share of the oil wealth kidnapped nine Chinese oil workers in January 2007, and two more in March. Two are still being held although, following precedents, hostages are normally released unharmed in Nigeria after a ransom is paid. In addition to oil workers, in the same month of March in Nigeria, five Chinese telecommunications workers were abducted for two weeks.

In its quest to secure raw materials to feed its insatiable economic growth, China has long brushed aside criticisms from the western developed countries for its engagement and investments in countries with checkered political records and reeling from internal conflict – from Zimbabwe to Sudan. China has long defend its engagement of such countries by the much-vaunted and self-declared status of respecting national sovereignty (a coded message to rebut political interference from Western countries in developing world affairs) and the principle of non-interference which has even given the World Bank, IMF and Asian Development Bank a run for its money as developing countries turn to China’s offer of aid and help with no strings attached.  However, if attacks such as the one on the Ethiopian oilfields should become more frequent, the Chinese government may eventually be forced to review its overseas investment strategy and its engagement of unstable African countries. (26 April 2007)


China ranks Zimbabwe's top investor: senior official (People’s Daily, 24 April 2007)

74 dead in attack on Ethiopian oil field (AP, 24 April 2007)

China urges Iran to respond to UN resolution (People’s Daily, 6 January 2007)