Why China will intervene in Iraq
By Taylor Butch
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.
Iraqi oilfields are primarily located in the south and north of the country. Far fewer oilfields are located in central Iraq. Of the five Iraqi oilfields that Chinese companies produce, four out of five are in the south and one is centrally located. These sites work in Beijing’s favor; nearly ninety-five percent of Iraqi crude oil was exported via the south in 2014, including crude oil from the lone Chinese outlier in the center of the country. By exporting oil to China and other countries using this approach, the Iraqi government is able to avoid most of the internal conflict. Although much of the fighting has occurred away from the production areas where Chinese oil companies conduct business, Beijing has kept itself abreast of any developments in the energy and infrastructure sectors where its citizens are involved.
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.”  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.” 
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. 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. 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.
Beijing likely has a desire to avoid another major evacuation; in addition to the more recent evacuation, in 2011, a full-scale civil war followed the death of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. It was during this instability that the Chinese government—with assistance from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and commercial Chinese vessels—evacuated 35,860 Chinese nationals. As a result of this pullout, Chinese state-owned companies lost billions of dollars in investment. It is likely, therefore, that China will do everything in its power to avoid another large-scale evacuation of its citizens and the projected loss of billions of dollars in investment and energy projects.
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. 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.
China had imported significant amounts of crude oil from Sudan and South Sudan prior to major civil unrest after 2011 that forced Chinese oil companies to rethink their strategy. Chinese oil production dropped almost overnight from 260,000 barrels per day of crude oil in 2011 to an importation of zero barrels of crude oil in April 2012, according to a May 15, 2015, EIA report on China. As in Mali, Beijing has also increased its troop presence for UN missions in South Sudan. It deployed an entire battalion of 700 troops in September 2014 to secure South Sudan oilfields and protect Chinese workers.  This move is likely a counter to at least three separate incidents in recent years, where rebels kidnapped multiple Chinese workers. China’s words and subsequent actions in the Sudanese region increase the likelihood of Chinese troops fully supporting their Iraqi counterparts in the battle against ISIS.
Domestic and International Terrorism Links
While China could send more troops abroad, there are also potential threats at home. The number of Chinese citizens who have joined ISIS is estimated to range from 100 to 300. Chinese officials have expressed concern that these individuals might return home and engage in terrorist-related activities. In a move to counter, Beijing has taken a hardline stance against both domestic and international terrorism. Chinese officials recognize how critical it is for Beijing and the world to work together and create global stability.
To this end, Wu Sike, Chinese special envoy to the Middle East, met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Miliki in July 2014 to discuss the then-current situation in Iraq. Wu expressed that stability in Iraq remains a critical part of the Middle East and the world, according to the semi-official China Daily. Some analysts argue that ISIS poses a greater danger to China than to other nations. One might argue that China shares a similar view and has taken a proactive approach. During a press conference on June 19, 2014, Foreign Spokesperson Hua articulated that, “The international community shares a common responsibility in combating terrorism and has a common stake in ensuring [the] security and stability of Iraq. Therefore, all sides should support and assist Iraq in its reconstruction and counter-terrorism efforts.” Days earlier, she had also articulated Beijing’s firm support for the Iraqi government to maintain security: “The Chinese side has long been providing a variety of assistance to Iraq. We are ready to continue with our help as our capacity allows and hope to see an early restoration of security, stability and order in Iraq.”
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.”
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?
Given that key Iraqi leadership have expressed resistance to foreign troops operating in Iraq, the likelihood remains slim that they would officially allow Chinese military troops on the ground. But there are other ways in which Beijing might provide assistance. China has expressed willingness to help Iraqi forces in a multitude of ways; however, Chinese officials have elected not to specify to what extent they are providing such assistance. In the areas of (1) intelligence and information-sharing, (2) material support and weapons, and (3) training of Iraqi military forces, Beijing remains reserved about how it has provided or intends to further provide these services. Upon examination of these categories, it might be deduced that:
Intelligence and Information-Sharing. Chinese officials have had backchannel discussions with their Iraqi counterparts. According to the International Business Times, Hong said that his government has offered support to help the Iraqi government battle terrorism using intelligence, information-sharing, and personnel training. This is in stark contrast to China’s usual support of non-combat assistance. Additionally, as reported by Financial Times, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Jafari divulged that Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi had expressed interest in supporting the Iraqi side by launching airstrikes during an anti-terrorism meeting in September 2014.
Weapons and Equipment. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) noted in a March 2015 report that China had surpassed Germany as the third-largest arms supplier in the world.  Beijing routinely has delivered combat and non-combat weapons and military equipment to countries throughout the world, specifically armored vehicles, transport aircraft, anti-ship missiles, and unmanned aerial aircraft, more commonly known as drones. While it is not known what China has directly provided to Iraq, it is plausible that some of these military-related vehicles and supplies might be delivered there. While China has not publicly confirmed whether or not it uses drones to perform intelligence gathering or engages drones in any kinetic operation in Iraq, it does possess an increasingly sophisticated and growing drone force. Chinese military officials have discussed using armed drones as an option to eliminate targets within its own borders,  and it might be plausible, albeit an outside option, that they have also discussed using them against ISIS. The United States, in comparison, has legitimized drones for reconnaissance missions and drone strikes against ISIS.
Another option for China to support Iraq in this way is through a third party. Beijing has reportedly sold armed drones bearing a striking resemblance to those of the United States to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of whom are members of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. The conflict with ISIS offers China an open market to export its military technology and, perhaps of greater value, the opportunity to receive feedback and improve its weapons for future use.
To whom might Beijing provide supplies?
China continues to support the Iraqi military, including in the Kurdish region; however, Beijing has not disclosed why it might take this stance. One answer might be energy. China likely has a desire to gain energy influence amongst the northern Iraq Kurdish population, who possess large oilfields. Beijing would likely have a strong political foothold if the Kurds were to form an independent state. In short, backing the Kurds and supporting the Peshmerga forces currently fighting against ISIS would be a “win-win” for all parties. This decision would likely bolster Beijing’s objective to achieve necessary stability within Iraq to continue its energy-related investment and infrastructure-related projects. A second reason might be to simply mirror America’s support of the Kurds against ISIS. Given that America has provided specialized equipment to counter tanks as well as IEDs to the Iraqi forces and the Kurds, it is plausible that the Chinese might have provided similar equipment.
Training of Iraqi Forces. Beijing desires political stability in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, for operation of its energy and infrastructure projects. It has offered assistance to help the Iraqi government achieve stability. China “has provided Iraq with help of various forms to the best of its capabilities. China will continue to do so,” expressed Hua during a press conference on June 19, 2014. She did not elaborate on what forms Chinese help might take. Other officials, like Iraqi Foreign Minister Jafari, divulged that training of Iraqi personnel is happening, but did not disclose how, or, to what extent. If China was to train Iraqi personnel, it might do so in a similar way as the United States. America has as many as 3,500 advisors currently providing “operational training and planning support” to the Iraqi Security Forces. However, American officials have stated that their training reality has not matched its objective due in large part to a lack of recruits. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter articulated before the House Armed Services Committee in July 2015 that the United States had trained about a third of the desired 24,000 recruits. If recruiting numbers remain low, the training of Iraqi forces—whether conducted by Washington or Beijing, or some combination thereof—would likely yield negligible results. While it remains unclear what military training China might provide to Iraqi soldiers, Beijing’s need to achieve stability in Iraq will remain the driving factor for its support.
Declining to Join the US-led Coalition
Major General Jonathon P. Riley of the U.S. military argues that coalitions are more advantageous than alliances in a 2005 piece for The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “Coalitions have ad hoc structures, made for the moment, and the amount of influence is directly proportional to the size of contribution. This means that decision-making will be driven by the most powerful member. […] It is a partnership, but a partnership of unequals,” wrote Riley. In contrast, he notes that “Alliances have hard-wired, permanent structures with all the attendant bureaucracy. Every member, regardless of size, has an equal say.” “The best solution,” he suggests, “is often a coalition formed of alliance members” because of intangibles like trust, familiarity, and links to international organizations.
To Riley’s point, China favors partnerships over alliances. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said of China’s 2014 foreign policy during a March 8, 2015, press conference that “… we are taking a new path of external relations characterized by partnership rather than alliance.” This thinking might be why Beijing declined to join the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS,  instead opting to unilaterally provide assistance to Baghdad. Doing so allows China to secure overseas interests and protect its citizens without fear of being drawn into conflict. Beijing and Moscow are two of several members comprising the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional coalition aimed to promote cooperation among Central Asian countries in political, trade, and security sectors. Russia and Iran, whose bid to become a full member is all but locked, have each decided unilaterally to assist Iraq, but in slightly different forms. Moscow has provided weapons, while Tehran has delivered ground forces and leadership. SCO members emphasis cooperation to combat terrorism, separatism, and extremism.
Although China has declined to join the US-led coalition, it has outwardly supported coalition airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. A more intriguing question may be why Beijing has opted to back airstrikes in Damascus only through UN support. China simply has more long-term investment opportunities in Iraq than Syria and it shows in its support.
Prospects for Chinese Military Intervention in Kinetic Operations
For proper insight into how effective China’s military might be if it was to engage in kinetic operations, it should be noted that the last war in which China fought was nearly three decades ago. This likely means that while Beijing’s military touts an impressive active military force of 1.483 million, it is rather inexperienced when compared to other nations. China, therefore, might view the chance to militarily engage in Iraq as an opportunity to test its growing, yet inexperienced, military. While it might lack combat experience, Beijing does boast extremely skilled special operations forces. As Dr. Christina Lin, specialist on China-Middle East relations, noted during an interview with Theano Agaloglou of Chinaandgreece.com, Beijing’s Special Forces have beaten highly accomplished international Special Forces teams at the Special Operations Games, including those of the United States. Although the PLAN has spearheaded an anti-piracy campaign along the Horn of Africa since 2008, and performed successfully in recent evacuations of Chinese citizens, it too remains inexperienced. Naval operations and military competitions, while effective, simply cannot replicate pressure experiences during real-time combat when planning logistics, intelligence, and other critical elements must operate efficiently and effectively to wage a victorious war. Perhaps Beijing boosted its UN peacekeeping presence to gain “military experience” without actually having to engage in war.
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:
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.
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.
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 China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and Petrochina operate two out of four oilfields in southern Iraq while China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) operates the three oilfields, two in the south and one in central Iraq. EIA, “Iraq Brief,” Updated January 30, 2015, http://www.eia.gov/countries/cab.cfm?fips=iz.
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 China’s active military is estimated at 1.483 million as of 2013. The breakdown consists of 850,000 PLLA, 398,000 PLAAF, and 235,000 PLAN. 2013 China White Paper, April 16, 2013, http://www.china.org.cn/government/whitepaper/2013-04/16/content_28556911.htm.
 2013 White Paper, April 16, 2013, http://www.china.org.cn/government/whitepaper/2013-04/16/content_28556911.htm.
Taylor Butch is a political risk analyst and freelance writer. He graduated from King’s College London with a Master’s in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies. He earned his Bachelor’s of Arts in History from Elizabethtown College, and has lived in or traveled to Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. His work has previously appeared in Real Clear Defense and International Policy Digest.