Why China will intervene in Iraq

China has consistently maintained its core principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries for over six decades, and it continues this policy toward Iraq during its ongoing battle against the Islamic State In Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Although Beijing maintains this strong position of non-intervention, over the past several decades its sharp economic rise and growing middle class, together with its need to secure natural resources, represent markers for potential deviation from this longstanding approach.

China continues to monitor the Mideast crises in Iraq and Syria because of the pivotal role Iraq plays in China’s energy and domestic policy.  Chinese oil companies and the Chinese government share a concern regarding the outcome of the conflict between ISIS and Iraqi security forces due to Beijing’s considerable oil resources and infrastructure investment.  Last year, China was the largest importer of produced Iraqi crude oil at 22%, followed by India at 19%, according to a Jan. 30, 2015, report on Iraq by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).  Baghdad, in particular, holds key energy significance for Beijing, as it was China’s fifth largest oil source in 2014.[1]

Hua Chunying, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, noted in a June 19, 2014, press conference that Iraq was home to over 10,000 Chinese foreign workers and that the Chinese Embassy in Iraq continues to “monitor the [ISIS] situation closely and take measures accordingly to ensure the safety and legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese employees.” [3]  Days later, on June 26, Hua voiced that of the 10,000-plus Chinese citizens working in Iraq, most are in “a relatively safe area,”  though she did also reveal that a small fraction of Chinese workers were facing a “grave security situation.” [4]

In response to ISIS’ territorial gains in the northern part of the country, on June 27, 2014, the Iraqi government and military—with support from the Chinese Embassy in Iraq—safely evacuated more than 1,200 Chinese employees from the Chinese Machinery Engineering Corporation who were working in the northern Iraqi city of Samarra.  China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang stated that the Chinese Embassy in Iraq had bolstered security measures, including issuing security notices, collaborating with Chinese businesses to create contingency plans, and receiving assurances from the Iraqi government that its forces would ensure safety for China’s citizens.[5]  According to media reports, some foreign oil companies, including Chinese companies, had already evacuated personnel prior to the evacuation in Samarra due to the escalating conflict.  The Chinese oil company PetroChina had evacuated some “non-essential staff,” according to Mao Zefeng, co-company secretary of PetroChina.[6]  Of the workers who left Iraq, some likely returned to China, while others traveled to the United Arab Emirates with hope of returning to work on future projects in the south of the country.[7]

China’s Non-Interference Policy

China has a history of providing assistance to countries with which it shares significant economic ties via the United Nations (UN); Iraq, as already discussed, is no different.  Beijing has recently taken a greater interest in regions where it has high economic investment.  In June 2013, China sent approximately 400 PLA “combat troops” to Mali to support peacekeeping operations.  This move was the first time that Beijing had committed troops to peacekeeping missions; they typically provide non-combat manpower.[10]  While this decision was ultimately made to combat terrorism in Bamako, it could also show support for neighboring Algiers, as the countries share a long and porous border.  Algeria, like Iraq, is a massive center of Chinese energy and infrastructure investment.[11]

Domestic and International Terrorism Links

…To what length might Beijing go to support Iraq in its counter-terrorism effort and objective to achieve stability?  When asked directly if China would support airstrikes against ISIS on Dec. 11, 2014, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei sidestepped the question and stated, “China supports the efforts made by the Iraqi government in restoring national stability and combating terrorism, and has been supporting and assisting the Iraqi side, including the Kurdish region, in its own way.”[19]

What is intriguing is not Hong’s response, but rather what he did not articulate.  Hong reserved comment as to whether or not Beijing was providing military weapons or assistance to Iraqi forces, and otherwise did not outline Beijing’s role in supporting Baghdad.  This raises multiple questions.  What role specifically does China have in airstrikes, intelligence gathering, weapons exchanges, and in an advisory capacity?

Prospects for Chinese Military Intervention in Kinetic Operations

That being said, strong wording in a 2013 white paper issued by China reflects how seriously its commitment is to protecting its interests at home and abroad, including its citizens. Section IV of this document, titled “Supporting National Economic and Social Development,” states in part:[41]

With the gradual integration of China’s economy into the world economic system, overseas interests have become an integral component of China’s national interests. Security issues are increasingly prominent, involving overseas energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication (SLOCs), and Chinese nationals and legal persons overseas. Vessel protection at sea, evacuation of Chinese nationals overseas, and emergency rescue have become important ways and means for the PLA to safeguard national interests and fulfill China’s international obligations.

In other words, China will act accordingly to protect its domestic and growing overseas interests, including doing what it deems necessary to appropriately safeguard its citizens.

Closing Remarks

While China still claims to adhere to its non-intervention policy, its actions and doctrine say otherwise.  Beijing appears to be shifting slightly and preparing for a situation when its military may have to intervene in external conflicts.  To this end, China has played a more active role in UN peacekeeping missions and has contributed thousands of combat troops, many of whom are deployed in countries where it conducts major economic and infrastructure development.  China has already evacuated a small number of its workers in Iraq in response to at least one crisis; however, the majority of its workers in Iraq remain to continue their work.  Given Beijing’s substantial stake in the Iraqi oil market and high interest in halting any domestic secessionist tendencies, including collaborative efforts with terrorists at home or abroad, it remains highly likely that China will move beyond providing intelligence and air support for Iraqi troops in its battle against ISIS.  Beijing could lose much more than oilfields in Iraq if ISIS fulfills its objective to overtake territory.  Irrespective of ISIS’ push to dominate Iraq, the region, and the threat it poses against China, all signs indicate that Beijing is ready, willing, and able to join the fight against ISIS.

Full article: Why China will intervene in Iraq (Asia Times)

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