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.

Chinese nationals evacuated from Libya by a Chinese military transport plane, sit at a terminal in Khartoum airport on March 2.

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.

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.

China’s key concerns in the Middle East are commercial, not political: Beijing buys more than 50 percent of its imported oil from the region, including 18 percent from Saudi Arabia, its top supplier. China is now the Gulf kingdom’s largest client.

China buys another 9 percent of its oil from Iran. The governments in both Riyadh and Tehran currently look stable. Though violence has disrupted oil sales from Libya, China relied last year on Libya for only 3 percent of its imports.

Though a lot of small traders have spread out across North Africa and the rest of the continent, the bulk of Chinese workers in the region are laboring on big infrastructure projects that will be needed whoever holds power.

“There will be some short term disruption,” says Mr. Collins of China SignPost. (The Chinese government estimates damage to Chinese projects in Libya at $230 million.) “But once things settle down these guys will be back pretty quickly.”

The Chinese authorities have been careful to remain neutral regarding the recent upheavals in the Middle East, but their failure to support “people power” is unlikely to weigh against them even if new, popular governments do emerge in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Yemen.

“New governments and old ones in the Middle East will still see the Chinese as valuable partners,” predicts Collins. “Foreign investment will be important, and China offers it with fewer conditions than western countries.”

Adaptable China

The Chinese are also adaptable. Despite years of close cooperation with the Sudanese government in Khartoum, Beijing was quick to send officials to South Sudan, where much of the country’s oil lies, even before last month’s referendum in favor of independence for the region.

“China’s interests in the Middle East are by and large commercial,” says Collins. “They want to stay away from politics.” One curious illustration of this focus: The Chinese Ministry of Commerce played a major role in the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya, alongside the Foreign and Defense ministries.

China could benefit strategically from the current regional turmoil if Middle Eastern autocrats who manage to hang onto power lose some of their faith in Western promises of support after witnessing Egyptian ex-president Hosni Mubarak’s fate.

“They may want to hedge their bets” and improve ties with Beijing, Collins speculates.

But the Chinese government has shown little appetite for involvement in Middle East politics, nor has it anything approaching the military capability that the US can boast to help ensure the security of any regional allies.

The Xuzhou may be flying the red flag bravely, and for the first time, in Mediterranean waters, but she is alone and she does not even have enough fuel to return to her antipirate duties in the Red Sea without bunkering in Greece.

The US, any regional ruler will remember, has 21,000 men on 40 ships attached to the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, and another fleet of the same size in the Red Sea.

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