Libya a reminder that citizens must come first

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2011, 12:00am

Libya's oil and gas and poor infrastructure were an obvious draw for China when its leaders began encouraging companies to invest overseas a decade ago. Dictator Muammar Gaddafi's iron-fisted and often brutal rule was not a deterrent because of the potential economic benefits at stake. In that regard, Beijing was not that different from many other nations that close an eye to professed ideals when strategic or economic interests are at stake. But now that tens of thousands of workers have been forced to flee as turmoil rages amid a revolt against Gaddafi, Beijing has been given a wake-up call about its international obligations and responsibilities towards its citizens.

These are matters that every nation should pay close attention to, but it took the wave of pro-democracy protests sweeping North Africa and the Middle East to make them register. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, Gaddafi responded with violence, sending in soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders and taking untold numbers of lives. He has pledged to retain power regardless of how much blood is spilled. Never before have so many of China's overseas workers been caught up in such a dangerous situation.

Thankfully, there seems to have been only injuries. An ambitious operation to evacuate all the Chinese in the country has been successful and soon all will have been flown home - an impressive achievement and a real test of the nation's capabilities.

It is too soon to say what the financial cost will be, although dozens of companies have been affected and the Ministry of Commerce gave a hint last week, saying on its website that China had 'suffered large-scale direct economic losses'.

Such troubles are likely when business deals are struck in countries wracked by conflict. Chinese have previously been killed in oilfields in Ethiopia and Sudan. Similar tragedies have long been foreshadowed in the restive oil-producing areas of Nigeria, a country in which 45,000 Chinese work. With China the biggest investor in Africa, and companies continuing to operate and set up in troubled areas, it is likely there will be more lives lost.

China is not the only risk-taker. But the mammoth scale of the nation's foreign expansion means that increasing numbers of citizens are being put in harm's way. There are believed to be 5.5 million overseas workers, up from 3.5 million in 2005. The figure is growing by between 8.7 per cent and 10.1 per cent each year.

That has led to the unprecedented deployment of warships to the Indian Ocean to protect Chinese cargo ships from Somali pirates. One frigate was diverted to the Mediterranean Sea to watch over ships ferrying the evacuees to safety. People's Liberation Army transport planes are bringing home citizens. No Chinese military hardware has before been deployed in an overseas civilian evacuation mission.

There will continue to be 'firsts' while China's international presence and integration into the global economy increase. Workers and companies will need better protection. That will mean effective co-operation with other nations, better intelligence, investment in military and civilian assets and the capacity to plan major operations. A changed accent on diplomacy will be needed.

Libya is a reminder of the challenges that all nations with extensive overseas economic interests share. Care and thought have to go into determining where to do business; the risks and opportunities have to be weighed. Benefits and riches may abound, but citizens have to always be put first.