National Security

Taking a Seat at the Table

October 20, 2014  • Karam Singh Sethi

In order to be a power player in the international community, China must take a stronger stance against ISIS

                         U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, New York, 2010 

Unfortunately, Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is now a household name: the black clad, social media savvy jihadists are bent on world domination (literally). ISIS garnered fame earlier this year by combining 21st century digital connectivity with conventional terrorist intimidation. More recently, they’ve used gruesome public executions to keep global attention — a key factor that influenced world leaders to finally get off the sidelines.

The international response to ISIS has been late in coming. President Obama’s now infamous “we don’t have a strategy” speech highlighted how unprepared the world was for this new threat. Eventually, the U.S. decided to carry out targeted airstrikes through a global coalition. This multilateral effort, however, does not include a key world leader whose assets in Iraq are particularly large – the People’s Republic of China. The PRC is on a do-nothing path that will haunt them as Beijing continues to diversify energy suppliers and attempts to bolster its foreign policy credentials.

Aside from a nominal visit by a low-level diplomat, the boldest action China has taken in response to ISIS’s rise has been to evacuate 10,000 Chinese workers from Iraq. This action, though important for the workers’ safety, is insufficient. A more comprehensive response is necessary against a group that threatens the stability of Iraq, where China has deep economic bonds. But Beijing has thus far been unable to match its economic engagement with strong security ties.

When China’s special envoy to the Middle East, Wu Sike, visited Iraq in July, he made toothless promises to then Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki about helping the Iraqi government crack down on terrorism and increasing bilateral aid. The PRC has yet to make good on the pledge. Since the visit, no comprehensive strategic – military or otherwise – assistance proposal has surfaced (which may explain why Wu has been replaced).

Beijing has a great deal riding on Iraq’s continued stability – so why are they sitting out the fight? It’s time for China to take a stronger stance against ISIS.

China needs a stable Iraq

There are two reasons China needs a stable Iraq – bilateral energy ties and security concerns along China’s Xinjiang border. Not only does China import 10% of its crude from Iraq, but the Asian giant is the gulf state’s largest investor. Since 2003, China has gradually increased energy reliance on Iraq and has also rapidly invested substantial amounts in the country’s oil infrastructure in the past five years. The state-owned China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) has $5.6 billion invested in four of Iraq’s oil fields. Sinopec, another state-owned energy firm, owns fields in Iraqi Kurdistan. Peter Ford of The Christian Science Monitor writes, “CNPC lifted 299 million barrels of oil from Iraq last year, one third of its total overseas production, and China intends to buy nearly 25% of Iraq’s oil exports this year.” At this rate, Iraq will export 80% of its oil to China by 2035. Beijing could opt-out of this lucrative relationship for less friendly markets in Russia, but with so many projects in production, this scenario seems unlikely. China’s population isn’t going to dip anytime soon, so it’s doubtful the PRC’s thirst for oil will disappear in the near-term (even with impressive investment in renewable energy sources).

The potential for Islamic State influence on China’s disenfranchised populations is another reason for the nation to be concerned with Iraq’s stability. The vast Xinjiang region – about 2,500 km from Kabul – has a marginalized Uighur Muslim population susceptible to outside influence. Since 9/11, China has used a small number of Uighur extremists as scapegoats for repressive policies in the province. Replicating cultural suppression tactics used in Tibet, China is eliminating Uighur language from schools and halting religious expression in Xinjiang. The most recent event agitating the Uighur population was the sentencing of economics professor, Ilham Tohti. Tohti, a Uighur Muslim economics professor, was given a life sentence for “inciting separatism” and accepting interviews with international journalists.

                              Ilham Tohti, 2014

In one of his rare appearances, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi named China as an oppressor to Muslims and called “brothers” to arms against the state. This direct appeal to China’s Muslims should cause alarm in Beijing. Instead of using their fluid definition of terrorism for ethnic cleansing purposes, China should take this opportunity to partner with the U.S. against a shared threat and shift its focus away from Xinjiang and onto ISIS in Iraq.

The U.S. has gone so far as to explicitly request China for help, but Beijing has responded with only quiet neutrality. This response has worked in the past; Matt Schiavenza of The Atlantic argues China was able to come out on top of the 2003 Iraq War by remaining disengaged. China’s passive response proved an attractive alternative to former president George W. Bush’s emboldened unilateral action, thus expanding Beijing’s international soft power. But this “ideologically-blind engagement” is no longer an attractive alternative to the U.S. Schiavenza writes, “Obama’s foreign policy, if imperfect, is nonetheless sober – and as a result Beijing’s own activity now faces heightened scrutiny.” China’s inability to build economic deals up into stronger bilateral ties with developing countries will eventually be a limit on the country’s foreign policy ambitions.

China’s reasons for staying out of the ring aren’t completely without merit. In an interview with the Global Times, director of the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University, Zhu Weilie said, “China will be more actively involved in [Middle East] efforts but will never be as involved as the United States.” Beijing sees the U.S.’s two misadventures in Iraq as solid evidence against becoming too involved in the region. The U.S.’s multilateral approach to the new threat, however, indicates history will not repeat itself. ISIS presents a rare, unequivocal enemy to unite world leaders. If there was ever a time for China to join in the effort, it’s now.

In its mission to expand its foreign policy, China is creating more bilateral connections with Middle East states. This so-called “March West” however is void of security agreements and mostly focuses on loose business deals. The limited geographic buffer that currently safeguards China’s investments won’t last long. If ISIS militants gain control of many more oil fields – and conveniently disregard China’s existing deals made with Iraq’s ever-weakening central government – China will have seen the folly of not matching business plans with security cooperation.