Mali-Niger-Uranium: A Chinese Puzzle

France's President Francois Hollande (C) flanked by Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore (R) arrives at the airport of
France's President Francois Hollande (C) flanked by Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore (R) arrives at the airport of Timbuktu, the second step of his one-day visit in Mali, on February 2, 2013. Islamists had torched the building housing priceless ancient manuscripts as they fled the town. AFP PHOTO / POOL / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

As French fighter-jets pound rebel targets in the northern reaches of Mali, a detachment of French special forces have been quietly dispatched to neighboring Niger.

Now, Niger is supposedly one of the ten poorest countries on the planet, with most people living on less than $1.00 per day. On the other hand, it also has huge deposits of uranium, and the largest uranium miner is Areva, a sprawling French energy conglomerate, in which the French government has a major interest. Areva's Arlit mine is in a desolate northern region of Niger and the mission of the Special Forces is to protect it.

After all, France depends on nuclear reactors to provide 80 percent of the country's electrical power.

Thus, deployment of the special forces is not at all surprising, particularly in light of the spectacular attack by jihadists on the huge Amenas plant in eastern Algeria. Indeed, a group linked to Al Qaeda kidnapped seven Areva employees in 2010, and still holds four of them hostage.

Which raises the cynical question: to what degree was France's dramatic intervention in Mali driven by France's own economic interests?

Which also brings us to the Chinese, and the quandary they face.

As I've previously blogged, the Chinese have huge interests of their own in the region -- including their $300 million SOMINA uranium mine at the desert outpost of Azalik in northern Niger. Generally, pursuing business, the Chinese attempt to work with whatever government is in power. They don't attempt to push any particular political line, or raise questions about potentially embarrassing issues like human rights.

But the Chinese might have as good a reason as the French to be nervous about their operations in Niger. In recent years, the Chinese operators of the SOMINA mine have been the target of protests from Tuareg tribesmen in the region, who were hired to work there. The Tuaregs claimed to have been exploited by their Chinese bosses, poorly paid, poorly housed, particularly when compared to Chinese workers there.

Perhaps that situation was cleaned up, but one would think that, in light of current events, the Chinese would be taking precautions of their own in Niger.

But who are they going to get to protect them? Certainly not their own special forces. One can just imagine the U.S. or French reaction. Do they train and arm their own Nigerian security guards?

What about the project currently in the works of several African countries contributing to a joint military force, perhaps under UN auspices, to take over from France in Mali?

You'd think the Chinese would be cheering the idea.

But, they don't seem to be -- at least not yet. When the African governments asked for close to a billion dollars to fund that joint African deployment, the major donor countries, including the U.S. and Japan, pledged less than half that amount.

And China? A grand total of $1 million!

You figure it out.

Ironically, the Nigerian government, which has been claiming that their country has not profited from its huge mineral wealth, has been pushing France to renegotiate its uranium deal with Niger.

Otherwise, their president Mohamadou Issoufou recently threatened, they might seek other partners to exploit that uranium.

Like China?, he was asked. "There is no reason to exclude other countries that wish to cooperate with us," he replied.