Hoshman Mahmod


Iraq-China relations began centuries ago with the old Silk Road, in the Abbasid dynasty in the middle ages, which facilitated trade between the two regions, the Chines Empire and the Muslim Empire. In the 20th century, the bilateral relations between China and Iraq saw a smooth development since the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1958. Although after the Gulf War in 1991, China applied some trade exchanges with Iraq under the Oil-for-Food plan, China stopped economic, and military sales with Iraq according to relevant UN resolutions.

Accordingly, China-Iraq relations increased twice; first when the revolution occurred in Iraq and Britain left Iraq, and second, in 2011 when US’s last troops left Iraq. In June of 2007, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani visited China. A political consultation mechanism was formed between the two Foreign Ministries afterward. In July 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki paid an official visit to China. Eventually, in December of 2012, the Chinese Embassy in Iraq reopened its consular and visa services.[1]

The importance of the Middle East in china’s global strategy

China’s involvement in the Middle East is a vibrant element of its international partnership network. China has signed fifteen MoUs with Middle Eastern countries, starting across the Gulf, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Red Sea, according to four broad categories in line with their importance. Iraq is in the third group of strategic partnerships with several medium-sized countries and Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar.[2]

Chinese Middle East scholar Wu Bingbing summarized China’s Middle East policy as, “refuse any single power’s unilateral control over the region, oppose formal support of Taiwan independence forces or other separatist forces in China by Gulf countries, prevent the emergence of any anti-Chinese regime in the region and finally Pursue potential support from the Gulf region for China’s foreign policy”[3]

In the past decades, China has become an increasingly important player in the Middle East. The country was forced to increase its interaction with the Middle East due to its growing economic presence. In comparison, China has no historical presence in the Middle East and is regarded as a new global power in the region. Therefore, china is extremely cautious in its policy with internal political and security challenges in the Middle Eastern countries.[4]

Nowadays, China’s relationship with the Middle East revolves around the need for energy, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched in 2013. In 2015 China officially became the most prominent global importer of crude oil, with almost half its quantity coming from the Middle East. Besides, the Middle East is located in a strategic place in the world that links Asia, Europe, and Africa. This makes the region critical to the future of the BRI – which is planned to place China at the center of international trade networks. However, at the moment, China’s relationship with the region focuses on the Gulf States, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia, due to its predominant role in energy markets.[5]

To see the big picture and to understand China’s vision and its strategy in the Middle East, it is better to get insights from traditional Chinese government sources. China’s image is reflected in two critical Chinese government documents: the 2015 “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and the 2016 “21st- Century Maritime Silk Road”[6]

 As Degang Sun states, China’s vision of a multipolar order in the Middle East depends on non-interference in, and partnerships with, other states – one in which the country will promote stability through “developmental peace” rather than the Western notion of “democratic peace.”  This will be especially true if the US speeds up its apparent withdrawal from the Middle East, a trend that is likely to force China to protect these interests itself. China may not want to strengthen its political and security presence in the region – but it may feel that it has no other choice.[7]

Iraq was fourth in exporting oil to china in 2018 after Russia Angola and Saudi Arabia with USD 22,4 billion worth of oil. Middle Eastern countries, particularly those affected by conflict, will need Chinese money to develop critical infrastructure. Such assistance could have far-reaching consequences for them.

The importance of Iraq for China:

Since the declaration of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in 2004, China has been courting the Middle East, extending low-interest lines of credit, investing massively in local infrastructure, and in some cases, even forgiving billions of dollars worth of loans. In 2010, for instance, China dismissed roughly 80 percent of Iraq’s debt. China purchases half of Iraq’s oil production. Chinese national oil companies (NOCs) have been leading investments in local energy companies in the Middle East. In Iraq, they own significant stakes in al-Ahead, Halfaya, and Rumaila oil fields.[8]

In September 2019, the Iraqi delegation visited China. The delegation headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and consisting of eight ministers, the Secretary-General of the Council of Ministers, four consultants, and fifteen governors (including three governors of Kurdistan region), resulted in the conclusion of eight agreements and Memorandum of Understanding and cooperation between the two countries.[9]

According to the Iraqi ministries cabinet’s official website, In his speech, Iraqi Prime Minister, Adl Abd Al-Mahdy praised the “Chinese renaissance and its economic position.” Stressing that the volume of trade exchange between Iraq and China is escalating annually in Iraq’s interest.  Iraq, which has long suffered from wars and terrorism, is part of the booming East and have historically had distinguished relations with China and India.[10]

BRI maritime and new Silk Road

The Iraqi delegation also reached important strategic agreements and MoUs with China. Most notably, “arithmetic credit,” which guarantees oil for reconstruction by deducting 100,000 barrels per day to China, in exchange for Chinese companies implementing strategic projects such as roads, railways, hospitals, schools, housing complexes, ports, energy bases, dams and so on and so forth, which enables Iraq to rebuild its cities in a record period and accelerate the wheel of development, reconstruction, and construction, in the presence of the President of the People’s Republic of China and the President of the State Council, the two most critical executive figures in China. 

The delegation also concluded the MoU with each one of China’s ministries of Commerce, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Oil, Finance, Electricity, Culture, and Industry.  As well as MoUs on the diplomatic side, a Chinese aid and grant agreement provided to Iraq, and an essential deal at the security level, in addition to signing an MoU to rehabilitate Nasiriyah airport, Another is between the Ministry of Communications and the China Satellite Navigation Bureau. Iraq also announced its willingness to cooperate with the Chinese side to establish the Silk Road. The notes also included comprehensive reconstruction, strengthening the communications sector, developing technologies for the internal security system, allocating lands for the two countries’ two diplomatic missions, establishing the Chinese Library at the University of Baghdad, and preparing an executive program for cultural cooperation.

For his part, Chinese President “Xi Jinping” expressed great interest in his country’s relations with Iraq, considering Iraq as a strategic and essential partner in the Middle East. He indicated his country’s desire to invest in Iraq to develop and rehabilitate local industries, find new oil fields, build modern cities, ports, railways, and dams, and establish a fifth-generation communications network.

The Kurds question in Iraq.

Kurdistan is an integral part of Iraq, located in the northeastern part of the country. Since WWI and the British invasion of Iraq, and the establishment of modern Iraq, the Kurds issue has multiplied and intensified. In the beginning, Kurds were struggling to establish an independent state, but later on, their ambition shifted to autonomy and later on to federalism within the Iraqi government. However, from 2003, and the formation of new Iraq, federalism provided for the Kurds and Kurds participate in the new regime. For the first time, a Kurd became the president of Iraq. But there are still tensions between Erbil and Baghdad over border disputes, energy sector, and military.

Regarding Chinese foreign policy, China upholds the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. China supports the Middle East peace process and establishes an independent state of Palestine with full sovereignty, based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.[11] Although chairman Mao, on some occasions, supported the Kurds issue, China has no clear and formal stance in dealing with the Kurds.

Perhaps, it is because of the Taiwan question that concerns the core interests of China. The one-China principle is an essential basis for China to establish and develop relations with Arab states and regional organizations. Arab countries and regional organizations have always been committed to the one-China principle, refrained from having any official relations or official exchange with Taiwan, and supported China in the peaceful development of cross-Straits relations and national reunification. China appreciates all of these.[12]

Why should china maintain a balance between Erbil and Baghdad?

Kurdistan is an essential part of Iraq; it consists of about %20 of Iraqi land, its geostrategic area for the BRI initiative, as it is a corridor to link the belt and road from Iran to Turkey. Moreover, Kurdistan has extensive oil and gas reserves, which is highly important for chinses investment and companies, where there are many Chines companies already working there.

With 45 billion barrels of estimated oil reserves, the Kurdistan Region is poised to become a crucial part of Iraq’s renaissance and a major actor in the world oil market. The KRI could hold as much as 200 tcf (5.67 TCM) of natural gas reserves, representing between 1.5% and 3% of the world’s total resources. This positions Kurdistan for a prominent role in regional gas markets.[13]

Oil infrastructure map in Iraqi Kurdistan

On the other hand, Kurdistan has geopolitical importance; since the 19th and 20th century, the European counters, Russia, and the US always used and still use the Kurdish factor against regional countries like Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq to get them to the table or to force their conditions onto them. The two prominent examples are the Kurdish Republic in Mahabad 1946, which Russia backed and supported this statue against the Shah of Iran to pave the way for the Russian Companies to work in northern Iran’s energy sector; and the US, Iran, Israel support for the Kurdish revolution against Iraq during (1961-1975).

However, there is a growing importance of the Kurdish case internationally after the Cold War and the Gulf War in 1991. When Iraq left Kuwait, the Army attacked the Kurds. Therefore millions of Kurds fled to the mountains near the Turkey-Iran border. Under UN supervision, the United States, UK, and France a no-fly zone was provided for the Kurds to prevent human catastrophes. For the first time after the 30th year of continued struggle, the Kurdistan regional government was generated in 1992 with democratic election and parliament. In 2003, however, the Kurds faced Iraqi opposition on the ground for their support of the US-led invasion in Iraq. After the war, they had a significant role in generating a new Iraq. Since that time, the Kurds have been a true American ally; the region is very safe for Americans and Westerners. Even the public sees them as their allies, unlike central and southern Iraq. Today the US has a large consulate in Erbil, the region’s capital.[14]

Although China, in its foreign policy, always emphasized that they are not interfering with their partners’ internal situation, history has proven that if china wants to hold a stronghold in Iraq, there is a need to have a clear understanding and plan for the Kurdish cause. As history witnessed, without peace in Kurdistan, there are no peace and stability in Iraq. Furthermore, the US always backed the Kurds in Iraq after 1991; the question is how Chines see the Kurds and what is their plan to work in the most complicated country in the region?

The dilemma of Chinese Kurds policy

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Beijing has vehemently opposed separatist movements abroad to gain support for its opposition to secessionist activities within China. Beijing officially considers separatism as one of the “three evil forces” besides terrorism and extremism. This reflects its uncompromising devotion to maintaining territorial integrity at all costs, primarily concerning Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. China avers that self-determination should not necessarily involve national independence and that stateless nations should not necessarily form or be given states.[15]

Beijing’s policy on the Kurdish question in Iraq is part of its all-comprehensive system on Iraq, which is part of its policy towards the Middle East in general, which is part of its foreign policy internationally. China’s official Middle East policy’s core is to provide a stable and peaceful regional environment that facilitates continued domestic reform and development. On the matter of Middle East hot-spots, the Chinese system is to promote peace and the reasonable settlement of disputes through dialogue and negotiation, emphasizing the role of the UN Security Council.

Beijing has officially supported the Iraqi central government to safeguard sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity and establish respect, equality, and mutual benefit based on bilateral relations. It actively supports political reconstruction and national reconciliation and Iraq’s counter-terrorism actions in the war against ISIS. China formally advocates the adoption of a peaceful democratic process to obtain security and stability in Iraq.

However, several interests are underlying Beijing’s Kurdish policy. First, an independent and friendly Kurdish state, particularly one-China, helped provide Beijing with a new ally in the Middle East and a unique instrument of influence. Second, despite Beijing’s formal opposition to separatist movements, Chinese companies have intense energy and economic benefits in Kurdistan, making it different from other parts of Iraq. Third, Beijing has found the Kurds to be a reliable and trustworthy regional ally and a lethal and valuable asset against Islamist organizations. Fourth, the Kurdish case provides China with leverage against Turkey, which hosts Uyghur separatists and organizations. Fifth and most crucial, China is interested in Iraqi Kurdistan’s rich oilfields, diversifying its oil supplies.

Hoshman Mahmod: Lecturer at the University of Halabja & Tishk international University in Kurdistan region-Iraq. He has a Masters in International Relations from Brunel University-London. He is now a PhD candidate and his dissertation title is ‘China-American relation in the Middle East in the post-Cold War era’.

[1] E. o. t. P. R. o. C. i. t. R. o. Iraq, “Bilateral Relations between China and Iraq,” http://iq.chineseembassy.org/eng/zygx/zygxgk/t1031275.htm , Baghdad , 2013.

[2] B. &. R. News, “China’s partnership Diplomacy & Successful Implementation of the BRI,” https://www.beltandroad.news/2020/03/27/chinas-partnership-diplomacy-successful-implementation-of-the-bri/, Hong Kong, March 2020.

[3] A. Graceffo, “China Middle East relations,” Academea, p. 57, 2017.

[4] Camille Lons , Jonathan Fulton, Degang Sun, Naser Al-Tamimi, “CHINA’S GREAT GAME IN THE MIDDLE EAST,” european council of foreign relations , 2019.

[5] Ibid

[6] m. o. f. a. o. t. p. r. o. china, “China’s Arab Policy Paper,” https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1331683.shtml, 2016.

[7] Ibid

[8] A. Graceffo, “China Middle East relations,” Academea, p. 57, 2017.

[9] T. G. S. o. t. C. o. Ministers, “The agreements concluded with China achieve a historic development and economic leap for Iraq,” http://www.cabinet.iq/ArticleShow.aspx?ID=9562, Baghdad, 2019.

[10] Ibid

[11] m. o. f. a. o. t. p. r. o. china, “China’s Arab Policy Paper,” https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1331683.shtml, 2016.

[12] Ibid

[13] M. o. n. r. o. K. R. government, “oil vision,” http://mnr.krg.org/index.php/en/oil/vision, Erbil , 2013.

[14] Rudaw, “In Erbil, US Ambassador announces construction of largest consulate complex,” https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/230420181, Erbil , 2018.

[15] D. M. Chaziza, “China and the Independent Kurdish State,” Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Israel, , no. Paper No. 590, 2017.

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