As Shannon Tiezzi reported for the Diplomat, seven Chinese citizens were among the 170 hostages taken at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali on November 20. According to Xinhua, a total of 27 hostages were killed, including three Chinese nationals. The three killed were senior executives in the China Railway Construction Corporation, a state-owned firm. The attack was carried out by the jihadist groups al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Mourabitoun.
These killings are symptomatic of the vulnerability Chinese citizens face abroad. Although the Chinese citizens present at the Radisson were probably not the main target for these attacks, they are as vulnerable to transnational terrorism as anybody else. Secondly, it shows that for all the hype, China’s non-interference policy in Africa is under threat and Beijing is struggling to find an effective way to secure its economic interests there.
Over the last couple of years, the protection of Chinese nationals overseas has become a key priority for Beijing. This is a problem that is not isolated to China’s presence in Africa. For example, as Shannon reported last week, a Chinese hostage was recently killed by ISIS in Syria. Chinese nationals have been kidnapped and killed in Sudan, Ethiopia, the Gulf of Aden, and throughout the Middle East. In fact, in the African context, Chinese nationals are increasingly at risk, not least due to the fact that there are so many of them on the continent. This has generated pressure among the population for the Chinese Communist Party to do more to protect its citizens overseas.
This challenge has been met in a number of ways. Traditional methods, such as strengthening consular support services in Beijing and at China’s embassies, have proven to be effective but not sufficient. China has also been attempting to strengthen its cooperation with other states during emergencies abroad. During the Libyan Civil War in 2011, Beijing was able to evacuate over 35,000 citizens through countries like Greece, Malta, and Tunisia. However, what makes Chinese citizens particularly attractive targets for kidnappings is that, as opposed to, for example, the U.S., Beijing usually pays ransoms.
China has also been gradually exploring more forceful options to protect its people abroad. Since 2009, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been conducting a continuous anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, consisting of two warships, a support ship, and a complement of naval special forces. These assets have primarily functioned as a deterrent against Somali pirates in the region, but have also been involved in limited hostage rescue operations, albeit in a support role (for an introduction to the PLAN’s mission in the Gulf of Aden, Andrew Erickson’s latest book is a great place to start.)
In Sudan, China has faced threats especially from Darfuri and South Sudanese rebel groups, due to its cooperation with Khartoum. Dozens of Chinese laborers have been kidnapped on both sides of the Sudan-South Sudan border since 2005; several have also been killed. Beijing has been developing a range of tools to deal with these challenges, some of them military or semi-military. One interesting development, reported by the Diplomat all the way back in 2012, is the increasing use of Chinese Private Military Companies (PMCs) in areas where Chinese businesses are under threat. According to the Wall Street Journal, these PMCs have been used both to protect Chinese installations in hot spots and, apparently, have conducted hostage-rescue operations in Sudan. Chinese PMCs have also undertaken similar missions in Afghanistan, the Gulf of Aden, and Iraq.
Another interesting development is the possibility of PLA peacekeepers being used for protecting Chinese citizens. According to a Foreign Policy piece published last year by Colum Lynch, Beijing has quietly secured a deal that will put the U.N.’s famed blue helmets to work protecting laborers in South Sudan’s oil installations, where China has invested billions of dollars over the years and holds a major financial stake — at least 40 percent — in South Sudan’s largest oil field. The PLA has recently deployed force protection units to two of its missions, one of which is UNMISS in South Sudan.
The other mission is in MINUSMA in Mali. This is interesting as it could indicate that China has been expecting attacks against its interests and citizens in the area. However, an anonymous officer in China’s MINUSMA contingent who was recently interviewed by Global Times stated that “Companies have to rely on local military forces as well as the Chinese embassy, as our protection unit was not directly connected with Chinese communities there.” It is possible that the attack on the Radisson Blu might change this; having non-controversial UN military assets on the ground in case of a hostage situation or terror attack occurs could be a useful way for Beijing to look out for its own.
The attack in Bamako shows that Beijing is in the process of figuring out a credible response to violent threats to its citizens. Don’t be surprised if Chinese forces cooperate with their local Malian counterparts the next time there is an attack in Bamako.