When today's ally is tomorrow's adversary
Thirty years on, the worm has turned in the Ogaden. The casualties suffered by Chinese oil workers in that region of eastern Ethiopia are a reminder that Chinese are not exempt from the perils of operating in Africa. It is also a reminder that China's interest in the continent is not new but will never be more than peripheral and unstable.
Modern China's first major foray into Africa was in 1964 when Zhou Enlai made a multi-nation tour of the continent. I saw Zhou in Sudan - one of his stops and now, for different reasons, perhaps China's most important and most difficult African relationship. China then was focusing on its political role as a leader of the non-aligned world days before the Cultural Revolution caused it to shut down most of its diplomacy. It was also just starting its foreign aid business.
Later that year, I visited the first Chinese exhibition in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania - one result of the Zhou visit. Another was China's biggest contribution to African development - the Tanzam railway linking landlocked Zambia to Tanzania and the sea. It was a political and development project, designed to free Zambian copper exports from dependence on outlets through then Portuguese-ruled Angola and Mozambique and white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa.
The irony now is that white rule in Africa is history, but so too are most of Zambia's once huge copper exports, a victim of mismanagement.
The railway project was a diplomatic coup, but left a legacy that remains today. China's import of its own workers, and treatment of local ones not accustomed, even under former white masters, to Chinese disciplines created many resentments.
China's African forays, more recently, have tended to be successful. Its oil investments in Sudan are doing well. Another civil war that had long been raging in the south and other trouble spots meant the risks in Sudan were always going to be high. But China's success has been partly offset by diplomatic embarrassments over Darfur. Nor can there be any certainty that the oil investment will not become the victim of the local discontent that has dogged Nigeria's oil industry. Flush with money and prestige, and eager to secure supplies of raw materials, China's recent forays into Africa are understandable.
But, as events have shown, except for South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa mostly lacks the security necessary to regard it as a safe source of supply. Money buys temporary friends, but equally can set off resentments which are exacerbated by cultural divides. Incidents such as that in the Ogaden also set off demands in China for 'action' to protect Chinese nationals. A China Daily editorial claimed 'the government is responsible for the safety' of Chinese workers and tourists now overseas. How so? This may be journalistic rhetoric and has scant relevance in Africa. But it is the kind of rhetoric that could set off alarm bells in Southeast Asia where many ethnic Chinese are regarded as Chinese nationals, and where Beijing's influence on overseas Chinese was a source of concern both when Mao Zedong was exporting revolution and Chiang Kai-shek was exporting ethnic identity.
This time, China is on the same side as the US, which backed the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia's civil war. China is now the victim of the separatist movement of Somalis in Ogaden. The US and China like to pin Muslim fundamentalist and al-Qaeda labels on the Muslim Somalis, a move that brings them into the 'war on terror'. But the reality is that Ethiopian-Somali enmity is at least as old as that between China and Japan.
A few in China may remember that, 30 years ago, Somalia and Ethiopia fought a war over the Ogaden which the Somalis endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to seize from an Ethiopia that had just acquired a Soviet-backed socialist regime. China backed Somalia.
In much of Africa, one day's friend or client is tomorrow's enemy.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator