Chinese have opportunity to show resolve in Sudan

Military operation not inconceivable to rescue hostages.

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
February 1, 2012 20:55
3 minute read.
Chinese PLA army soldiers in training

Chinese PLA army soldiers in training 390. (photo credit: REUTERS/China Daily China Daily Information Corp)

The capture of Chinese construction workers by rebels in Sudan has presented China with an opportunity to flex its muscles and show it is not shy to use military force to protect citizens abroad.

With literally millions of citizens abroad, the capture of some two-dozen road workers in the Sudanese frontier seems hardly significant. But the Chinese government is taking it very seriously and Beijing immediately dispatched a “task force” to Sudan to “assist the rescue work,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said.

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Rebels in southern Sudan have taken hostage 29 Chinese workers building a highway.

Conflicting reports said that some had been freed and that another 18 had evaded capture but some may have been wounded in a firefight on Saturday between government troops and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) in South Kordofan.

The Chinese media, which are giving the affair wide coverage, have highlighted the fast-rising superpower’s shyness about protecting its citizens and investments abroad.

Juxtaposed with the US’ dramatic commando raid last week to free hostages held by pirates in nearby Somalia, the crisis puts Beijing in an uneasy position.

“The United States will not tolerate the abduction of our people,” US President Barack Obama said succinctly after the raid by US Navy seals.

China is in the midst of establishing its own version of protecting its citizens. The rethinking of its traditional policy of non-interference emerged last year when it dispatched military aircraft and warships to rescue 30,000 of its citizens trapped in Libya’s civil war.

So, far, it has reacted to the current hostage crisis by calling on the relevant parties “to keep calm and exercise restraint, ensure the safety of the Chinese nationals and release them as soon as possible on the basis of humanitarianism,” in the words of the Foreign Ministry.

But it has also exerted enormous diplomatic pressure on Sudan to free the workers of the state-owned Power Construction Corp. of China, affiliated with Sinohydro Corp. In Beijing, Vice Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng summoned a senior diplomat at Sudan's embassy to deliver the message, the official Xinhua news agency said in a brief bulletin.

A statement from the workers’ employers, Sinohydro, said that it and the Chinese Embassy would “spare no effort in ensuring the personal safety of those abducted and rescuing them.”

“It is important for them not to lose credit. Something will happen,” Mirza David, chief executive officer of International Security Academy, which trains body guards to work in the Arab world, told The Media Line.

“They have the forces right there in the Gulf of Aden. Something will happen, not because they care about their citizens, but it’s an attempt to show force,” David said.

China has more than 100 companies and 10,000 personnel working in both Sudan and South Sudan, according to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency. Not showing concern for their lives would not be perceived positively at home.

Further, the evacuation of Chinese citizens out of Libya set a precedent for the Chinese government that it will take bigger steps to rescue its citizens from harmful situations.

The Chinese have special forces available right there in the Gulf of Aden with its 10th naval task force with over 700 commandos aboard. They are there performing anti-piracy patrols and ship escorts.

David of the ISA said he has seen an increase in risk assessment by Chinese firms working abroad. Some of his graduates have opened personal protection schools in China where there has been surge in demand from the private sector for bodyguards, he said.

“Their attitude toward life is different than that in the West. The fate of some two dozen Chinese being held hostage doesn’t move them so much. In Somalia there are lots of Chinese who have been held by pirates but the Chinese haven’t been so inclined to take any action there,” David said. “But now there could be some operation because their image might be shaken.”

David, a former Israeli commando, said this could prove to be an opportunity for China to shine since the forces holding the hostages were likely unprofessional.

“An operation would probably be easy. They aren’t ‘big cannons’ there, and a raid would likely be successful. This is a chance to show that they are a superpower and they could do something for the image that you shouldn’t mess with the Chinese,” David said.

China is Sudan’s major trading partner, the largest buyer of Sudanese oil, and a key military supplier to the regime in Khartoum.


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