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Seven Chinese workers kidnapped last week in Ethiopia were freed on Sunday by the Ogaden National Liberation Front which has repeatedly warned foreign oil companies to leave the region bordering Somalia.

After nine Chinese workers died in the armed attack on an Ethiopian oil project, Beijing declared it would not be deterred from pursuing resources and jobs for its ­citizens in Africa.

“This policy will not change,” said Liu Jianchao, a foreign ministry spokesman. The message was repeated by Sinopec, the Chinese state oil company subcontracted to explore for oil in the Ethiopian concession.

Behind the firm response, however, is a vigorous debate about whether the government and the state companies pursuing China’s mission in Africa should be more assertive in protecting their swelling interests on the continent.

Such a debate is sensitive in China, as “non-interference” in the affairs of other countries has been a core principle of Chinese foreign policy since the 1949 communist revolution.

As its own economy has raced ahead, China has rapidly raised overseas investment in recent years, especially in Africa – mostly in search of raw materials – and has also sent large teams of Chinese workers overseas to work on related construction projects.

Beijing has been forced to take sides in many cases, as corrupt and autocratic countries are among those to have accepted its money in Africa. Several have internal political conflicts which, on occasion, flare violently.

For Beijing to go further – by taking an active, high-profile political role in moulding the policies of host governments – would mark a sharp and uncomfortable departure from its traditional stance.

China has contrasted its investment in Africa with that of the west and international agencies, by saying that it comes with no conditions attached. Even then, China has become a target for local groups, ranging from opposition politicians in Zambia, gangs in Nigeria and now separatists in Ethiopia.

China’s African profile has drawn international criticism over what many see is its refusal to pressure Sudan’s government to halt the killings in Darfur.

Li Zhibiao, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing should expect more attacks such as last week’s in Ethiopia, and needs to help stabilise and even democratise African countries in order to prevent them.

“If China wants to maintain a long-term relationship with Africa, it must also integrate itself into local communities,” he said. “Local residents are unhappy about the fact that Chinese companies only base their facility in a local area, while recruiting all their workers from China itself.

“Chinese companies are treating their African employees in a way that mirrors how Chinese migrant workers are treated at home, as well as disregarding environmental regulations and labour safety.”

Zhang Zhixin, a professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, envisages China co-operating more with host governments to develop more effective crisis management. “China’s government should dismiss concerns about whether their moves would intervene in the internal affairs of other countries and whether they will annoy local governments,” he said in an article on a government website.

“In an attempt to hedge various security risks, the Chinese government should take account of international practice and establish security co-operation with countries with overseas military presence, such as the US.” Although such ideas remain radical in China, the mere public discussion of such topics is evidence of a vigorous internal debate.

Chinese officials privately acknowledge they are on a steep learning curve in operating as powerful investors in often violent and unstable foreign environments.

Even in the area of consular services for its citizens in danger abroad, China has relatively little experience.

At the foreign ministry, Mr Liu said that, after the Ethiopian attack, “relevant departments” were reviewing ways to help Chinese businesses “smoothly develop economic and trade co-operation abroad and ensure the safety of personnel”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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