#38 event report: Islamic Caliphate in Iraq: What Can China do?

October 22nd, 2014 Bridge Cafè (Wudaokou)

Speaker: MA Xiaolin 马晓霖, Founder and Director of the blog Bo Lian She 博联社


 Ma Xiaolin positioned his talk within the big global debate on the future of the Middle East in the light of the ISIS advance. In a brief historical overview, he traced the roots of today’s crisis to the developments of the last century. In 1968, the Ba’ath Party took power, which was a landmark event after years of instability. Initially, the Ba’ath brought stability and prosperity, as Iraq’s economy started growing, and it had established a social welfare system.

In the meantime, Saddam Hussein rose to power through the Party ranks. He was self-aggrandizing – as Ma Xiaolin puts it – “started acting like he is a new Nabucco.” In the wake of Egypt’s decline, Saddam took on the cause of being a leader of the Arab world, pursuing a pan-Arab unification and regional domination. This put Iraq on a collision course with Iran, itself a growingly aggressive regional power in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. The Iran-Iraq war had did not end with a winner, but rather both sides coming out of it destabilized.

After the with Iran war, a large number of Iraqi and other Arab soldiers who fought were suddenly found jobless and had a hard time finding their place in society. The war also left Iraq with a very high debt, and in a precarious socio-economic state. The exit strategy for Saddam was to invade Kuwait, which destroyed the relatively positive ties between Iraq and the Western World, in particular the US, and subsequently led to the Gulf War. Iraq ever since became treated as a pariah state, and very soon – in 2003 it experienced another American invasion, which brought about the end of Saddam’s regime. Ma Xiaolin shared a lot of personal impressions, as he was there at the heat of the violence as a Xinhua journalist. In his own assessment, the US did two fatal mistakes that helped the rise of ISIS – first, it dismantled the Army of Iraq, which resulted with many soldiers and weapons spilling to guerilla groops; and secondly – it dismantled the Ba’th Party which was the unifying factor in Iraq – suddenly, Iraqi local leaders lost their sense of belonging and protection, did not know who was in charge and who they are supposed to be loyal to, and started pursuing individual interests.

The origins of ISIS should be sought in the politicization of Sunni Islam. Sunnis in Iraq are a minority, but are linked with the rest of the Sunni world. They consider Shia Muslims and Kurds enemies. And it was Sunnis who lost mostly with the fall of the Saddam’s regime, as they used to comprise the ruling class. Facing the reality of the post-Saddam era, Sunni political and military leaders started linking with revolt groups (i.e. al-Qaeda).

Ma Xiaolin identified several key moments that led to the establishment of the Islamic State. A major development in the wake of the US invasion, was the rise of the jihadist leader Zarqawi, who in 2004 rose to prominence by building a transnational network of jihadists; while he joined forces with al-Qaeda although he had different ambitions. However, in 2006 Zarqawi was killed. This was a blow to al-Qaeda; Zarqawi’s terrorist network split the coalition with al-Qaeda and declared itself to be the Islamic State of Iraq, with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, Zarqawi’s successor, declared to be its emir. In 2010, him and Abu Ayobu al-Masri, another former aide to Zarqawi were killed; however, instead of defeating the Islamic State, this gave rise to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who gave new fervor and led the terrorist organization to new heights. In 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq unified with with al-Nusra Front, a jihadi opposition group from Syria, and officially declared the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. However, in 2014 they parted ways with al-Nusra and formally separated from al-Qaeda, declaring the Islamic al-Khalifa (Islamic State).

China has long history of ties with Iraq, that predate the Saddam regime. However, in the past 20 years, Iraq’s importance for China grew exponentially due to the rise of oil imports. Hence, China has huge interests in Iraq. China is the biggest importer of Iraqi oil, as half of Iraq’s oil goes to China – this accounts for a fifth of China’s imports. In 2013, China imported 25 million tones of Iraq’s oil. China is also the biggest investor in Iraq, and has huge energy and infrastructure projects. There are 15.000 Chinese workers in Iraq, working on these projects, which raises the issue of personal security. Finally, China has fear of transnational extremism spilling over in its regions with significant Muslim population; currently, Iraq is a hotbed jihadist movements, that also target China.

Addressing China’s limited political and security efforts in the region, the US President Barack Obama recently called China a “freerider” in Iraq. However, according to Ma Xiaolin, this is wrong. China has historically been concerned about Iraq and tried to act through diplomatic channels. In the wake of the firs Gulf War, China was active in preventing the US invasion, and was lobbying for Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait. China believed that the war will have devastating effects. However, China failed to persuade Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait, and couldn’t prevent American invasion. In 2003, it fiercely opposed the US intervention, and was among the loudest critics in the UN. China disputed the way in which the American intervention was carried out, and problematized the fact that the US engineered a new government, but nonetheless accepted the outcome because China wanted Iraq to stabilize and itself to show responisibility in the international arena.

Moreover, the intervention and the political engineering in Iraq was an exclusively American unilateral business, and the US had kept China out. China did not have a say. However, China still decided to invest and support Iraq, and sent its own workers there. Ma does not dispute that there are business interests, but China is also a developing country so whenever it goes to help others, it also looks for opportunities for its own development. China is still not a major global power, and especially not a major player in the Middle East. It lacks experience in being a big external player and leader, and lacks the military capacity. It cannot macth the role of US, EU or Russia, who were main players in the Middle East for decades now.

What’s China’s strategy in the Middle East? It doesn’t really have one. Strategy, for one, depends on theory. In this regard, China still follows the general principle set out by Deng Xiaoping – we don’t really care too much about outside developments, for now we just make our economy stronger. In Zhongnanhai leaders don’t care much about Middle East, but about China’s domestic interest. Moreover, even in the times of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, China does not aim to develop strategy, but rather short-term policies. That is why China will not play an important role in the Middle East. Xi Jinping for now wants the oil imports to be done smoothly, and to secure Chinese investments abroad – priorities that do not require too much theory or strategy to be completed. Finally, China is hesitant to get deeply involved in the Middle East, as it is very complex and a troublesome place. China is not prepared for the risks that could be encountered there. Often, Chinese political leaders and scholars say that the Middle East is graveyard for empires, as many big empires through history collapsed after getting involved and failing in the Middle East.

Furthermore, when it comes to complex foreign policy issues, China prefers to follow regional circumstances, and to act only within the UN framework. In the Libya, it allowed the two UN resolutions because of the request by the Arab League. In the Libyan experience, it had been disappointed by the abuse of the mandate of the international community to support revolution instead of stopping a war. This, as well as the lack of consensus on Syria, made China use its veto in the UNSC – and used it several times over a short time which is unusual. It believes that invasion is the least desirable outcome.

However, China has several opportunities how to contribute to the international efforts of combating ISIS. First and foremost, it should be vocal in accusing any terrorist act and organization – and not only in Iraq. Silence in terms of terrorism benefits the extremists. Political stance matters, and China needs to formally stand against terrorism.

China should also supporting international efforts to strike terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Extremism is a common enemy – as Ma puts it, today they harm you, tomorrow they harm me. Governments must be united against terrorism, and China needs to join the anti-terror alliance. An important aspect of this is sharing intelligence and information among all partners. China already does this.

China lacks military capabilities to join anti-terror operations. For now, it can learn from US, Europe, and Russia, and maybe in 10 years you can see PLA engaging in anti-terror fight. However, for now, China can instead provide funding, equipment and goods for the allies. It can also help by providing training local army and police personnel, an area in which China is experienced. Last but not the least, China should continue supporting and taking part in peace-keeping operations under the flag of the United Nations. This is a great opportunity for China to show responsibility and learn from others.

Q&A: The question and answers question started with a brief discussion on China’s soft power in Iraq. Mr. Ma argued that in Arab countries in general, people have unclear image of China as people have limited knowledge of the country. In general, however, soft power cannot be built without hard power.

Another important theme of the discussion was the Xinjiang issue, and the potential spillover effects from the Middle East. However, Mr. Ma argued that Xinjiang is a complicated case, and that the main reason for instability is the failure of local management; foreign ideologies are only a secondary factor.

However, Xinjiang is a region with significant Sunni Muslim presence, and is connected with other Sunni regions. When it comes to transnational Muslim solidarity, borders do not matter. Xinjiang separatists had sought outside help from the Islamic world, in particular the Middle East. Extremists in the Middle East also have ambition to expand to new areas with Muslim population, including China (Xinjiang, Yunnan, etc). The Islamic State in fact does aim to “liberate Xinjiang,” and that constitutes a serious security threat for China.

The discussion also touched upon the Israel/Palestine issue. Mr. Ma argued that while China shows solidarity with the Palestinian cause, it doesn’t accept extremism, and will always respect Israel’s sovereignty.

Mr. Ma’s hypothesis that China “is a follower, not a leader” was questioned in the light of the new foreign policy tendencies . While Mr.Ma sees no significant change in the overall policy, he argued that the main difference is that in Xi’s time, China is more powerful, and has an opportunity to learn to be a giant. But it is still not a leader in global affairs.

What’s the fine line between propaganda and what really happens in Iraq? A lot of Western media were basically full of hoaxes and misinformation about weapons of mass destruction, underground shelters and even an underground town built by Saddam. When Xinhua published that there is no WMDs or complex hideout systems, no one really took it seriously – although later it was proven right. Western media portrayed Saddam’s Army as a powerful enemy, but such assessment was far from reality. Saddam, aware of his weakness, thought this was bluffing and that Americans will never strike. Propaganda can be dangerous. It was shown that Bush Administration and the Blair Administration did not have evidence, and carried the invasion on false grounds. The Syrian crisis now is another case where reliability of evidence is contested.

Is China’s involvement in security affairs proportionate to its interest in Iraq? For example China due to oil interest has major interest in keeping Maliki in power. However, Mr. Ma argued that whereas the US has lesser interest in energy security, a politically stable Iraq is a proof of success for American global leadership. If China wants to do more, it also needs room, and for now, the US does not give China enough space to begin with.

Written and Edited by: Anastas Vangeli