Zachary Keck

China’s Deafening Silence on Iraq

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Zachary Keck

China’s Deafening Silence on Iraq

The Iraq crisis again shows that even as China demands major power status, it remains entirely unwilling to act like one.

China’s Deafening Silence on Iraq
Credit: China-Iraq image via Shutterstock

As Shannon noted earlier this week, China has remained remarkably silent as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated over the last week and a half.

In the middle of last year, many Western media outlets became aware of the fact that China had won the Iraq War. That is, while the Chinese contributed nothing to toppling Saddam Hussein’s government, or stabilizing the country afterward, it reaped the benefits of his removal by investing copiously in post-Saddam Iraq’s oil industry. The China National Petroleum Corporation alone has invested $4 billion in Iraq’s oil industry, according to the New York Times. China is also the destination for nearly half of Iraq’s oil exports. Additionally, roughly 10,000 Chinese nationals reside in Iraq working on oil and infrastructure projects.

Yet the Chinese government has been almost entirely silent about the crisis in Iraq, even as many other international powers have fixated on it. On Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying did finally say a few words on Iraq, noting that Beijing does not want to see a repeat of the situation in Libya in 2011 when China had to evacuate 36,000 Chinese nationals in just over a week. Hua also promised that the Chinese government will “take all necessary measures to safeguard the security of Chinese citizens in Iraq.”

Still, Hua’s remarks are amazingly concise and unremarkable given that it’s been well over a week since Sunni militants began taking control over large parts of the country. So what gives?

Part of this reflects that China’s major interest in the country — oil — is not seriously threatened by the renewed fighting. Most of Iraq’s oil fields are located in the Shiite controlled southern parts of the country, and only one of China’s oil investments is located north of Baghdad. Even this field is located in the tightly controlled Kurdish part of the country. Although the fighting has been enough to convince Western companies to evacuate their employees, Chinese oil companies have by and large continued operating as normal.

In addition, China is rarely as quick at formulating a response to rapidly changing international events as many of its Western counterparts. Shannon and I recently conducted a media review of Xinhua News Agency’s coverage of the Ukraine crisis since protests first broke out there at the end of last year. Although I can’t speak for Shannon, one insight that I took away from this exercise was that China always took at least a few days, and often longer, before it responded to events on the ground, presumably because the CCP leadership was debating what Beijing’s response should be.

Beijing’s delay in responding to the renewed fighting in Iraq has now extended beyond a few days, however. It’s possible this has to do with logistics. For example, Premier Li Keqiang is currently in the United Kingdom while State Councilor Yang Jiechi just visited Vietnam.

China could also be withholding judgment on Iraq for tactical reasons. Events on the ground are changing quickly in Iraq and perhaps Beijing wants to wait to see how things look once they stabilize more before passing judgment.

Still, I think something larger is at work here. Namely, this is another indication that even as China increasingly demands it be recognized as a major world power, it remains entirely unwilling to act like one, especially outside of East Asia. Instead, it’s content to allow the U.S. and regional powers to try and stabilize Iraq so Beijing can continue reaping the benefits of this stability. Meanwhile, China will continue to hedge against Iraq’s stability by trying to lock down other sources of oil quickly.

This is a shame on a number of levels. To begin with, no one is going to accord China the status it feels entitled to until it starts acting like the major power it claims to be. This could be dangerous as it creates a situation of relative deprivation wherein China might lash out at the world because the latter is unjustly denying Beijing the status it feels it deserves.

It’s also a shame for the Iraq case specifically as China could play a conducive role in the crisis. As noted above, it is the largest international investor in Iraq’s oil industry and thus has a fair degree of leverage with the government in Baghdad. China also has strong economic ties to Iran, the ultimate protector of Iraq’s Shia government. At the same time, it maintains even more robust ties to the Sunni Arab states in the Persian Gulf, whose futures depend on China’s continuing robust demand for their energy. These same countries support Iraq’s Sunnis, who are rebelling against the central government. Beijing is thus well positioned to bring together the warring parties.

Finally, China’s refusal to help resolve the Iraq crisis is a shame for Sino-American relations. The U.S. and China have agreed to try and establish a new type of major power relations, although it’s unclear whether they have any idea (or at least the same idea) what that actually entails. Regardless, attempts at U.S.-Chinese cooperation are overwhelming focused on the Asia-Pacific. This region is without question the most important one for China and the U.S., and relations between the two. At the same time, it is also the region where the U.S. and China are most likely to have diverging interests.

The same cannot be said of the Middle East, which is of high importance to Beijing and Washington and where both sides largely agree on all the major issues. To begin with, China and the U.S. have a strategic interest in the free flow of oil from the region. Secondly, both are opposed to radical Islamist terrorism. Finally, both sides have an interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It is perhaps because Washington realizes that the Middle East is ripe for U.S.-China cooperation, and for Beijing to take a role in world affairs commensurate with its rising power, that it reportedly asked for China’s help in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Regardless, China’s deafening silence on Iraq once again confirms Beijing’s unwillingness to play the role of the major power it claims to be.