By Andrew Cheong
With rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq and U.S. efforts to keep the conflict at arm’s length, questions of China’s role in the Middle East have resurfaced. As the top oil investor in Iraq following U.S. invasion, analysts have scrutinized China’s silence on the Iraqi conflict and an article in Forbes went as far as to say that China should be responsible for bombing Iraq.
China’s growing economic interests around the world have put it at odds with its much-treasured principle of non-interference. As Chinese firms seek to profit in the developing and developed world alike, they have become increasingly exposed to the risks of political volatility. In addition to growing interdependence with the global economy and direct stakes in countries around the world, China’s call for a “Peaceful World” has proven difficult to achieve. Part of the attraction of Chinese investment lies in its focus on economic profit and strategic investment. Consequently, Chinese investors (many of which are operated by the state) are tolerant of different forms of governance, labor conditions and legal systems. Yet, willingness to take risk has also made Chinese foreign policy increasingly vulnerable.
China in Iraq: Winning the Iraq War
In the wake of the costly war in Iraq, China was reported to buy nearly half of Iraq’s oil last year. It also won significant stakes in its oil industry and promised to invest more in Iraq’s oil sector and infrastructure. These developments occurred in the context of tentative but tangible efforts to strengthen ties with Middle Eastern states and expand Chinese influence in the region. Growing energy dependency and exposure to international markets have pushed Chinese firms to invest heavily in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. This interest has evolved beyond energy, with investment in Israeli technology and burgeoning trade within the region.
What is clear is that Chinese strategy has been gradually evolving in the region. Chinese commitment to non-interference has meant that it sought largely to maintain a low profile even as it established a foothold in resource-rich countries around the world. This principle of non-interference allowed China to justify its economic activities while defending its choice not to pressure unsavory regimes or add conditions to these investments. This also resulted in a general avoidance of involvement that might draw it too deeply into conflict or force it to come into competition with other great powers. However, China has also become aware that securing its investments in the Middle East requires more active engagement on the international arena, with scholars calling for increased “creative involvement” in dealing with international affairs.
Until the recent turn of events, Iraq was an excellent example of the changing nature of Chinese foreign-policy in the Middle East. On top of Chinese promises to enhance energy cooperation and infrastructure investment, China had also sought to deepen defense and strategic relationships. Since the fall of the Saddam regime, China provided Predator surveillance aircraft Iraq in 2004 and received orders for $100 million worth of light military equipment for Iraqi police forces in 2007. These are just some of the examples that indicate Chinese willingness to increase its stake in what was before a risky region for foreign-policy makers.
Forcing China’s Hand: Responding to ISIL
The crisis ignited by the jihadist militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has presented an unprecedented challenge to Chinese foreign-policy. While the majority of Chinese investments have not yet been directly threatened, recent events present an interesting test case – the extreme security challenge will show the extent China is willing to go to protect its interests in the region.
Given China’s involvement in the region and its interest in ensuring a stable source of energy for its expanding economy, there have been calls for China to play a greater role in ensuring regional stability. In light of American unwillingness to become embroiled in the region again, China’s role becomes even more significant. Understandably, China has been much more restrained in its response. Chinese Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua announced Chinese willingness to help the Iraq in “as its capacity allows”, but has since then remained largely focused on its citizens within affected regions. China is cognizant of the complexity of the challenge, and seeks to avoid going down the path of other great powers that have becoming unwittingly pulled into regional conflicts. The media has largely been critical of calls for intervention, with the Global Times accusing Forbes of luring China into a trap and another article emphasizing the relative safety of Chinese investments in Iraq.
Ambiguity in China’s approach to Iraq is also a reflection of its inability in dealing with the complex politics of the region. While some have been smug in their analysis of the pitfalls of American style intervention, few have offered alternatives and seem content to adopt a wait-and-see approach. Part of the problem lies in the fact that China is still new to the region, and hasn’t attained the same level of leverage that other traditional Middle East powers enjoy. Xu Guangyu, a retired Chinese major-general, notes that China’s relative inexperience means that it has no real way of understanding, and consequently navigating, the complexities of the Middle East at the moment. This is particularly relevant in a conflict that intersects sectarian fissures, regional tensions and great power rivalries. Chinese leadership also needs to consider the domestic response to its protection of citizens abroad, a duty that it has not always fulfilled satisfactorily.
China has limited options. While the Chinese military has seen significant improvements, it still lacks the ability to project power in a meaningful way. China also has the option to provide military aid to the beleaguered Iraqi government, but this can only go so far given the state of the Iraqi military apparatus. Beyond a military solution, China has the possibility of playing the role of a peace broker as it did in Sudan, but the multiplicity of actors on various levels and rapidly changing alliances mean that China might only become further ensnared. In this case, a willingness to deviate from the principle of non-interference and engage in “creative involvement” might not be palatable simply because of the potential backlash China might face.
In some ways, the ISIL foray into Iraq is China’s baptism of fire in the region. China’s inaction in the short-term will most likely lose viability in the long-term as the conflict in Iraq looks to persist in the foreseeable future. There is increased discussion of China’s role as an international economic power, and its response to this crisis should present an interesting case study of how it chooses to confront threats to its interests abroad.