With stability becoming more unpredictable throughout the world, Beijing has implemented the strategy of “soft power” to enhance their economic prowess, operating in climates where perhaps Western countries have become passive. But with 998,000 overseas foreign workers in 2014, according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, China has slowly come to realize that operating globally means indeed greater risk and the requirement therein to protect both its foreign nationals and overseas investments. To this end, China has increasingly felt the pressure of being in the middle of potentially hostile territory throughout the Middle East and Africa.
Beijing’s New Silk Road Strategy
When Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered his New Silk Road Economic Belt speech in September 2013 during a visit to Kazakhstan, he effectively expressed to the world how the number one oil importer and world’s largest economy will likely operate for the rest of this century and beyond. Much like the old Silk Road, China aims to boost trade amongst its Central Asian neighbors, the Middle East, and Europe through a network of connecting pipelines, roads, and trains. Chinese leadership is simultaneously expanding sea trade routes to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, respectively. Beijing’s “win-win” strategy thus far has landed massive infrastructure and economic projects with 60-plus countries and this number will certainly rise.
Although Beijing imports energy from many regions, it benefits most from imports from the Middle East and Africa. According to a May 2015, U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) report, China imports slightly over half of its crude oil from the Middle East and Africa. The Middle East alone accounts for 3.2 million barrels per day while Africa supplies 1.4 million barrels per day. These numbers clearly demonstrate why Beijing has an interest to promote stability throughout the world and especially in regions where it operates.
Balancing Benefits and Challenges
Strong diplomatic and economic efforts have paid off for China as it has developed important strategic and economic relationships throughout the Middle East and Africa. Beijing and Sana’a for example, have engaged in a series of cooperative infrastructure and construction investments, including a $508 million upgrade to the ports of Aden and Mokha. Relationships such as the one described are ideal for China because they offer either an incredibly valuable strategic location (i.e., the Gulf of Aden has nearly 4 million barrels of oil shipped through daily to the United States, Europe, and Asia) or allow access to precious natural resources. There are occasions too when the two strategies overlap.
Although Beijing has developed a wide range of countries with whom it shares economic ties, China must delicately navigate multiple challenges. For example, how does the leadership respond when its foreign nationals are in a rapidly deteriorating situation and are in desperate need of assistance? How does China coordinate the evacuation of such a large number of people? These questions were answered on 31 March 2015, when Beijing evacuated the second collection of 449 foreign nationals, 571 in total, from the escalating clash in Sana’a among Tehran-backed Houthi rebels and Riyadh military forces. Days later, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua stated that a Chinese naval vessel had successfully evacuated 225 nationals of 10 countries, including persons of Pakistan, Ethiopia, Singapore, Italy, Germany, Poland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Yemen. Beijing made a calculated and humanitarian decision through a coordinated effort amongst other countries to relocate those evacuated to Djibouti.
China has also benefited economically from the United States’ withdraw from Iraq as Baghdad has become Beijing’s fifth largest oil supplier. But recent territorial gains by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorists in Iraq have put Beijing in yet another difficult circumstance. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua articulated in a June 2014 press conference that Iraq was home to over 10,000 Chinese workers and that their safety was a primary concern. Hua noted that the Chinese Embassy in Iraq was closely following events to “ensure the safety and legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese employees.” Although many of the workers were located in areas unaffected by the conflict, Beijing did not take risks, as they were in constant contact with their Iraqi counterparts.
Chinese officials likely want to avoid another large-scale evacuation of foreign nationals. In 2011, the PLA navy aided by Chinese commercial ships, evacuated 35,860 Chinese foreign nationals from Libya– the largest evacuation operation since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, according to the Foreign Ministry. Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) like oil giant China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) assisted in the evacuation following the death of Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi. Hu Jintao, Chinese President during this crisis, stated that his country would “spare no efforts to ensure the safety of life and properties of Chinese citizens in Libya.” Hu’s words and more importantly, subsequent actions, articulated to the world that Beijing would protect its foreign citizens. Evacuations are becoming more common for the Chinese government and will likely increase in regularity given the large population of foreign nationals studying, working, and touring abroad.
Hostage Crises on Land & at Sea
China is also faced with the difficult decision of how to respond during hostage crises. Such events have occurred in recent years and China may find itself in the middle of a war between Sudan and the world’s newest nation in South Sudan. Hundreds of thousands have fled the increasingly troublesome Sudanese violence to take refuge in South Sudan and consequently have created ominous circumstances for the newly established state. United Nations officials again stated in February 2015 that food security in South Sudan will likely continue to worsen and only exacerbate violence. These poor circumstances however, have not deterred Beijing’s push into the region. In October 2011, China strengthened economic ties with South Sudan in an effort to further secure their national economic stability; the primary reason being South Sudan gained nearly seventy-five percent of the oil reserves when they seceded. Having learned from past experience, Beijing drastically ratcheted back its involvement, at one point ceasing oil production operation altogether, until the situation improved. Beijing has since gradually increased production.
Rebel groups have also made their intentions clear to the Chinese government through kidnapping episodes of Chinese workers. On 28 January 2012, members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army North (SPLM/A-N) rebel group allegedly captured twenty-nine Chinese foreign nationals who were constructing a road at the time of their abduction. However, Beijing did not leave the situation of their foreign nationals to chance, dispatching a “task force” to Sudan to help secure their release. The following month, all twenty-nine captured Chinese nationals were released unharmed and flown to Kenya. According to the BBC, this incident marked the third time that Chinese workers were captured since 2004.
Another crisis erupted in the Sinai only days after the Sudanese abductions. Twenty-five Chinese were taken hostage on 31 January by captives who demanded the release of incarcerated individuals that were serving time for a series of alleged attacks. To combat the hostage situation, the Chinese Ministry “immediately” dispatched a special envoy to Cairo to assist in negotiating the release of the hostages and to ensure that Egyptian forces “take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the Chinese workers.” The following day, captives released the Chinese hostages.
Beijing understands too that hostage situations still occur on the high seas. In an effort to guarantee safe passage of their foreign nationals and those of the international community, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy has engaged in anti-piracy operations along the northeast African coast and in the Gulf of Aden. It has also escorted Chinese and foreign ships to discourage any piracy and/or hostage incidents. Presence of the Chinese navy should demonstrate how serious Beijing takes its role to safeguard its people.
Beijing Takes A Proactive Approach to Combat Crises
Since 2011 Beijing has proactively implemented procedures to improve awareness and provide safety information to individuals working, studying, and living abroad. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi acknowledged that the government has further bolstered safety procedures for its overseas citizens, highlighted by the 2014 launch of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Global Emergency Call Center for Consular Protection, a twenty-four hour hotline enabling Chinese nationals to connect to the Chinese Foreign Ministry during times of crisis. Wang noted that since coming online in 2014, the call center has received over 30,000 calls. These improvements could not come at a more opportune time. Record numbers of Chinese are traveling abroad and 20,000-plus Chinese businesses operate overseas. For comparison, only 60 million Chinese traveled overseas in 2010, compared to 100 million-plus who did so in 2014.
Another approach in which the Chinese have heavily invested to create stability and assurance for their overseas public sector employees is the private sector. Security companies like Huawei International Security Management allow Chinese foreign investment and infrastructure operations that often conduct business in unstable regions to function and feel secure due to their strong security protocol. Such sentiments are valid as these companies often employ former military-trained personnel who understand how to best mitigate risk. By adopting this simple tactic, Beijing is shielded for now from being trapped in a situation where it is forced to deploy military troops. But it cannot employ this strategy forever. Business is prosperous for security companies and all signals point to no shortage of work opportunities as massive infrastructure projects won by Chinese companies have sprung up throughout the Middle East and Africa. Notable highlights include: $ 12 billion contract awarded to China Railway Construction Corporation for construction of a railway along the Nigerian coast; major investment in and purchase of the Port of Djibouti for $185 million; and the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor agreement for $46 billion in April 2015, among others.
Rarely does Beijing deviate from its core principles of diplomacy and non-interference. Yet as the number of Chinese nationals abroad continues to rise, the Chinese government will inevitably face a greater number of situations where it will be forced to react. During the hostage emergencies in Africa, the Chinese government stopped short of ordering a rescue mission for it was fully aware of the potential for diplomatic backlash if an attempt was to fail. China is certainly conscious of how America’s reputation was tarnished in 1980 following the failed rescue attempt of American hostages held in Iran.
Although recent events have demonstrated that China remains undeterred from exploring economic opportunities in troublesome regions, it remains highly likely that incidents involving Chinese foreign nationals will continue to increase. Given that Beijing has made great strides to simplify visa requirements with 24 countries, including the United States, and Chinese are heading abroad in record numbers, Beijing should view these indicators as a warning to continuously update its strategy to handle potentially deadly circumstances in which its citizens continue to find themselves. By adopting this strategy, Beijing will have the knowledge to make hard decisions when needed to support its citizens overseas and ensure future economic security.