Sudan: Kidnapping of Workers Highlights Risk for Chinese Businesses Abroad

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The capture of Chinese workers by rebel troops in Sudan is putting added pressure on Beijing to protect its citizens and investments abroad. China’s Foreign Ministry says that a Chinese company operating in South Kordofan, the province that borders newly independent South Sudan, was attacked on Jan. 28. While some Chinese employees have reportedly been freed, the whereabouts of the rest remain unclear. China has called on Sudan to “launch vigorous search-and-rescue operations” and to “strengthen the protection of Chinese workers and projects in Sudan.”

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North told China’s state-run Xinhua news service that it was holding 29 Chinese nationals after a clash with government forces. “The Chinese workers have been transported to a safe area, and they are in good health and in safe hands,” a rebel spokesman said, according to Xinhua. On Monday Sudanese officials said that 14 of the Chinese workers had been freed, the Associated Press reported. Update: On Tuesday China denied that any of 29 the workers had been released.

Chinese state media said the kidnapped personnel were part of a road crew working for Sinohydro Corp., a state-run hydropower giant. Their disappearance only adds to Beijing’s concerns in the volatile region. Last year, South Sudan split from Sudan following a 2005 peace deal that brought an end to more than half a century of civil war. But since the South declared independence the two states have teetered on the brink of renewed war, driven by lingering disputes including how much Sudan should be compensated for using its pipelines to transport oil from South Sudan. China is the largest buyer of oil from Sudan and a major investor in oil fields there and in the south. Beijing, worried that any escalation of the conflict could harm its investment and crimp oil imports, has attempted to negotiate a settlement between the two sides. Last year it welcomed Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges including genocide, on a visit to China that was criticized by the U.S. and human-rights groups.

In recent days the tensions have escalated. Reuters reported that talks between the Presidents of Sudan and South Sudan in Ethiopia broke down on Friday after the leader of the South, President Salva Kiir, pulled out. South Sudan’s Oil Minister said his country was continuing to shut down oil production in response to Sudan’s confiscation of some oil exports, Reuters said. The loss of that production would hurt China, which in 2010 bought more than two-thirds of Sudan’s oil exports (although that comprised just 5% of China total oil imports). The split of Sudan and South Sudan left about 75% of the oil fields in the landlocked south, though the key export hub of Port Sudan, as well as much of the pipelines and refineries, is in the north.

China’s investments in African infrastructure and energy extraction have proved risky for its personnel in the past. Five Chinese oil workers also kidnapped from Sudan’s South Kordofan region were killed in 2008. Last year China scrambled to evacuate thousands of workers from Libya after oil facilities were attacked in that country’s civil war.