Libya unrest tests China's interests in the Middle East
Beijing's successful evacuation of tens of thousands of Chinese from Libya has highlighted China’s growing role in North Africa and the Middle East.
As tens of thousands of migrant workers from a multitude of countries languish at Libya’s border with Tunisia, trapped in a humanitarian crisis trying to flee mounting violence, Chinese TV viewers are being treated to a very different sight.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Foreign forces to Libya
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Wednesday morning they were shown crowds of laughing and cheering Chinese evacuees aboard a Greek ferry, escorted by a Chinese frigate, safely en route to the Mediterranean island of Crete.
The Chinese government has chartered seven ships, sent 15 civilian flights a day and deployed military planes to bring 32,000 Chinese workers out of Libya over the past week. The unprecedented but apparently well-organized evacuation has highlighted China's growing role in the region, and despite crises spreading across North Africa and the Middle East, Beijing has shown no sign of wanting to lessen that role.
The frigate Xuzhou’s presence – the first time a Chinese military vessel has ventured into the Mediterranean – “sends a strong message of resolve,” says Gabe Collins, cofounder of the China SignPost website.
The Xuzhou’s captain, Wei Jianhua, expressed that message in a radio transmission to the evacuees, according to a reporter from the state-owned China Daily aboard the ferry. “The strong and prosperous motherland is together with you when you are in hardship,” said Captain Wei.
Chinese workers in Libya
According to Chinese Ministry of Commerce figures, 36,000 Chinese nationals work for 75 Chinese companies in Libya. Approximately 3,000 to 4,000 are thought to remain. Another 20,000 Chinese work on projects in nearby Algeria.
Many are working in oil and gas fields: The three big state-owned Chinese oil companies all have projects in Libya. Tens of thousands of others are building railroads, power plants, airports, cement factories, apartment blocks, and official buildings.
In crises, this poses a human security problem for the Chinese authorities that they have not faced before. “They will learn how to deal with that,” says David Zweig, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Centre for Chinese Transnational Relations. “States that go out into the world as China is doing have to learn.”
The Middle East: Land of opportunity
The wave of unrest sweeping the Middle East is unlikely to pose a longer-term threat to Chinese interests, though, analysts predict. It could even offer a few opportunities.