U.S. President Barack Obama announced late Thursday night that he was authorizing targeted air strikes in Iraq. The decision sparked discussions around the world, including in China. Beijing has major interests in Iraq, and could potentially benefit should the airstrikes help halt or even roll back advances by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). On the other hand, China generally disapproves of U.S. intervention in other countries’ affairs, particularly when such intervention involves the use of military force.
Officially, China’s response has been neutral. According to China Daily, a spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry said that Beijing “takes an open attitude toward any actions that facilitates ensuring security and stability in Iraq on the precondition of putting respect in place for Iraq’s sovereignty.” In other words, China reserves judgment on the airstrikes until it becomes clearer whether the strikes provide a net positive for China’s two main goals: preserving Iraqi sovereignty and improving the general security situation.
Unofficially, state media are extremely doubtful that U.S. airstrikes will be able to achieve those goals. An analysis in Xinhua warns that IS may in fact become emboldened by U.S. military involvement, leading to even more violence. Xinhua predicts that Obama will be forced to choose between breaking his promise not to send in U.S. ground forces or watching as IS further destabilizes Iraq.
Chinese media outlets also point out that military attacks cannot address the root problem of the Iraq crisis. Only a political solution, one that unifies Iraq’s government and Iraqi Sunnis, can end the violence, Xinhua writes. On this point, at least, Chinese media and Obama are in agreement. In his remarks on the Iraq situation, Obama acknowledged that “there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.”
In addition to calling the efficacy of the airstrikes into question, Xinhua placed a special emphasis on Obama’s motives for authorizing the strikes. In his remarks, Obama highlighted the necessity of protecting U.S. personnel in Iraq, particularly in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, which is in danger from IS advances. However, Obama placed even more emphasis on the need for U.S. intervention to prevent IS from carrying out genocide against religious minorities, such as Christians and Yezidis. Obama authorized air strikes to prevent IS advances toward Erbil or Baghdad, but also to help break the siege on Mount Sinjar, where thousands of Yezidis are trapped by IS militants.
Xinhua, however, dismisses humanitarian concerns as a rationale for the strikes. Instead, its analysis argues that recent IS advances (including the seizure of the Mosul Dam and oilfields in northern Iraq) pose a direct threat to U.S. economic interests, providing the major reason for Obama’s decision. Xinhua also posits that Obama acted because he faced a growing amount of domestic criticism from political opponents. Obama’s idea of humanitarian intervention is dismissed as an excuse to gain domestic support and international approval for U.S. military action in Iraq.
Yet even as Xinhua criticizes the U.S. airstrikes, it simultaneously attacks Obama for being “abnormally weak” in his response to the Iraq crisis. One article specifically questions Obama’s political resolve, noting the number of times he used the word “limited” in describing the U.S. airstrikes. Strangely, Xinhua’s analysis seems to suggest that Obama should have intervened sooner, rather than not intervening at all. By waiting so long to act, Xinhua argued that the U.S. had decided “limited chaos” in Iraq best served Washington’s interests.
This ambivalence reflects China’s own mixed interests in Iraq. In principle, China is against U.S. military intervention in other countries’ civil disputes. However, China has its own interests in seeing Iraq’s crisis resolved quickly — not the least of which are the thousands of Chinese workers who still remain in Iraq. At the start of the crisis, China had 10,000 workers in the country, mostly concentrated in the south and in the Kurdish-controlled north. At least 1,200 have since been evacuated, and Beijing might have to move to evacuate more as the fighting begins to threaten Kurdish areas. More generally, China has an increasingly urgent need to prevent the spread of terrorism and religious extremism given recent attacks on Chinese soil. An IS victory would be disastrous for Beijing.
Yet, to date, China’s contribution toward promoting stability in Iraq has been limited to providing unspecified assistance to Baghdad and its security forces. Beijing knows this will not be enough to prevent the crisis from spreading.U.S. military intervention might bring peace, at least in the short term, although Chinese media have grave doubts it will be beneficial in the long run. And perhaps more importantly, Baghdad itself has asked for U.S. military intervention, a crucial difference between the current airstrikes in Iraq and previous U.S. interventions that explicitly targeted standing governments.
In the end, supporting U.S. airstrikes in a third country goes against Beijing’s natural instincts — but as the crisis continues to worsen, China is willing to wait and see if U.S. intervention actually helps. In a sense, Obama’s decision is a win-win for China: if airstrikes succeed in quelling IS, China will benefit from an improved security environment, including restored stability for Chinese workers and oil extraction. And if Obama’s decision backfires, and Iraq falls deeper into chaos, Beijing stands ready to reap the diplomatic benefits of a juicy “I told you so.”