BEIJING – China said Thursday that an attack in Ethiopia that killed 74 people, including nine Chinese, will not stop it from investing in Africa — but that it plans to boost security measures.
The attack on a Chinese-owned oil exploration field in Ethiopia killed 65 Ethiopians and nine Chinese. At least six other Chinese workers were kidnapped.
"China supports its enterprises in conducting economic cooperation based on equality and mutual benefits in other countries, including those in Africa. This is our set policy and it will not change," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao.
China has condemned the attack, which underscored the risks big oil companies face when drilling in Africa — even when they have the host country's support. China has used soft loans and aid to woo African governments and gain more access to oil assets for its state-owned petroleum giants.
Beijing prizes African oil imports, which help reduce China's reliance on crude from the instability-prone Middle East.
Sinopec, the state-owned parent company of Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau, which operates the oil field targeted in Ethiopia, said it was undeterred by the attack.
"There is no way we would stay away from Africa due to the fear of risk," a Sinopec spokesman said on routine condition of anonymity. "This is not a game for us. We will try to improve security in the future, but there is no way we will withdraw from our projects there."
Liu said the government will do more to help Chinese enterprises abroad with security.
China-Africa trade has soared fourfold in this decade to US$40 billion in 2005. Beijing has also become a major aid supplier, last year announcing US$10 billion in assistance in 2006-09.
"The stakes are too high" for China to be scared off from doing business in Africa, said June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami Political Science professor. "They need energy, they need markets and there are places there for Chinese merchants."
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing's Renmin University, said the attack may prompt China to "use its influence and business leverage to make the African governments offer more effective protection of China's economic interests."
It remains to be seen if it will lead China to take a more active role in Africa's fractious, often bloody politics.
Beijing's biggest dilemma regarding African engagement is in Sudan.
China buys two-thirds of Sudan's oil exports, and sells the African country weapons and military aircraft, but has resisted using its leverage to push Khartoum to do more to resolve its conflict in Darfur.
As a U.N. Security Council permanent member that has consistently opposed sanctioning Sudan, China has been accused of turning a blind eye to the conflict, which erupted in 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of neglect.
But if China's business interests and African citizens are increasingly caught in the crossfire of homegrown disputes, Beijing may be pushed into a more active role, said Teufel Dreyer.
"I think they have never been uninvolved, but this is a good reason to nudge them forward to more involvement," she said.
The attack Tuesday was the first against a foreign company in Ethiopia, but one of several this year against Chinese in Africa.
Sixteen Chinese were kidnapped in Nigeria in three separate incidents. In January, gunmen in Kenya killed a Chinese engineer and injured another working on a highway project.