Rethink foreign policies as interests expand abroad
As mainland officials are stepping up efforts to secure the release of 29 Chinese road workers held hostage in Sudan for more than a week, state media and online blogs are bursting with calls by mainlanders for the central government to find ways to better protect Chinese nationals overseas, including suggestions that Beijing should consider deploying its armed forces abroad.
So far, mainland officials and analysts are cautiously optimistic that those workers would be released unharmed, saying that the abductors, the Sudan People's Movement-North, are probably using the hostages as bargaining chips in the growing conflict between Sudan and its new neighbour, South Sudan.
Whatever the outcome, the latest incident has highlighted an urgent need for Beijing to conduct a fundamental rethink of its foreign policies, particularly in the areas of bolstering security for its businesses and citizens abroad.
The reason is simple enough: as the mainland's economy, already the world's second-largest, continues to grow, mainland businesses will have to accelerate their push for oil and other resources in the far corners of the world. There are already nearly 1 million Chinese workers overseas.
Last year alone, the number of mainlanders heading abroad for business, pleasure or study was expected to reach 75 million, up from 60 million in 2010.
All this means that there will be more cases of Chinese people being kidnapped or stranded in troubled countries, as they were in Libya. And that requires well-co-ordinated, well-planned and rapid responses from mainland authorities.
Predictably, many overseas media reports have played up the angle that the latest kidnappings are part of the price Beijing has to pay for heading to those resource-rich, but politically unstable regions in Africa and Middle East that are usually shunned by Western firms. Some foreigners even accuse China of neo-colonialist practices that they say have made Chinese workers the targets of disgruntled locals.
But mainland officials have their own reasons to dismiss those criticisms. A senior executive of a major state firm, which has invested heavily in Africa, said privately, 'Do we have a choice? We are more than happy to expand in those politically stable countries in Europe or the Americas, but we are facing not only higher protectionist-led barriers, but also the fact that the Western multinationals already dominate the markets.'
As mainland firms continue to expand in those high-risk areas in search of energy and business, Beijing is facing serious challenges of changing its longstanding, low-profile foreign policies - including that of non-interference in other countries' affairs - without setting off too many international alarms over its growing economic and military clout.
The latest kidnappings - the third abduction of Chinese nationals in Sudan - have shown that Beijing will have to take on an increasingly public role in international affairs. For instance, with huge investments in Sudan and South Sudan, Beijing will have no choice but to play a key role in mediating their disputes. As Beijing is changing its foreign policy priorities, it should also come up with a more comprehensive plan to offer more and better protection of its interests abroad.
First of all, it should consider the establishment of a United States-style, cabinet-level National Security Council to co-ordinate national security and foreign policy matters among various ministries.
More importantly, such an agency can also help co-ordinate intelligence gathering in those troubled regions, which is a weak area as Chinese security agents are traditionally focused on political or business secrets. Currently, the Foreign Ministry is leading the effort, but that is obviously not enough, not least because it has little sway over the country's armed forces.
Second, Beijing should also learn from Washington by stationing well-trained soldiers at Chinese embassies around the world. The US Marine Security Guards have provided security for American diplomats since the 1940s. So far, Iraq is the only country where Chinese armed police are stationed to guard its embassy.
Third, Beijing should also learn from Western countries and allow the major state-owned firms to set up private security firms to beef up security around their interests. These security professionals don't even have to be Chinese, as there is no shortage of foreign former military personnel in this profession.
Finally, Beijing should waste no time in stepping up its training of special forces capable of deploying and tackling a crisis thousands of miles away, as a last resort.
As the lyrics of a popular mainland song go: 'When it is time to strike, strike without delay.'