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China Grapples with 'Hostage Politics' in Africa

China’s unprecedented expansion across Africa encountered a dramatic setback this past week with the kidnapping of dozens of its nationals in both Egypt and Sudan. In all, over 50 Chinese workers were taken captive and although most have now been released, an estimated two dozen remain hostage.

Twice in a week. It could be just a coincidence that both Egyptian and Sudanese militants chose the same week to move against the ever present Chinese labor force now common to most African states. While it is highly improbable that both militant groups some how coordinated with one another, the hostage incidents may instead be more reflective of new trend where non-governmental entities take advantage of a perceived weakness of the Chinese.

The fact is that the Chinese are both unwilling (bound by their longstanding principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs) and unable to deploy highly specialized military forces ( a la Seal Team 6) that that could successfully liberate their compatriots. So, at least for now, Beijing doesn’t have very many options available beyond back-channel diplomacy with both the militants and the host government.

That may soon change, though. In this week’s edition of the China in Africa podcast, Michael McCune argues that these kinds of events offer the Chinese invaluable learning opportunities and may prompt the rise of Blackwater-style Chinese mercenaries who may be deployed to save or protect Chinese interests. Just as such mercenaries have become essential to the US fighting force in the Middle East and Afghanistan, Beijing may very well follow Washington’s lead with its own deployment of such assets.

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