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The rapid advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has caught China, and the rest of the international community, by surprise. With massive Chinese investments in Iraq’s energy sector and a sizeable community of Chinese workers, the conflict represents a challenge to China’s traditional non-interference policy. Will China be forced to become more active in the fight against ISIS to protect its citizens and economic interests in Iraq? And will this provide new opportunities for China and European Union (EU) member states to identify common interests and cooperate on matters of global security?
Despite the political instability in the wake of the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Chinese state-owned oil companies, particularly China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), have invested more than $6.6 billion in Iraq since 2008. In early 2014 China bought nearly 1.5 million barrels of oil a day, which comprises 60 per cent of Iraq’s overall oil production, making it Iraq’s top oil customer. Despite the upsurge in violence, these numbers have since risen further: China's crude oil imports from Iraq rose to 23.49 million tonnes in the first 10 months of 2014, an increase by nearly a quarter compared with the same period in 2013.
In contrast, China imported just 1 million tonnes of oil from Iraq back in 2006. The oilfields where Chinese companies operate are located either in areas in southern Iraq or the northern Kurdish regions, which are not controlled by ISIS. These areas have, so far, been mostly unaffected by the violence and seem to be operating almost normally. However, some Western experts claim that the advance of ISIS has put a halt to the planned further expansion of Iraq’s oil output and exports to China.
There is also a sizeable community of Chinese workers in Iraq. According to the Chinese embassy in Baghdad, as recently as mid-2013 there were an estimated 10 000–15 000 Chinese citizens in Iraq. The vast majority of Chinese nationals work in large-scale projects in the energy, electricity or construction sectors and mostly live and work in highly fortified camps in remote areas of the country. In June 2014 the Chinese Ambassador to Iraq, Wang Yong, stated that about 80 per cent of the remaining Chinese workers were located in southern Iraq, 10 per cent in Baghdad and central Iraq, and the remainder in the northern Kurdish regions. According to the Ambassador, no Chinese workers remained in the five Northern provinces seized by ISIS.
In fact, attacks against Chinese citizens in Iraq have so far been quite rare. Kidnappings occurred in 2004 and 2005, but all of the Chinese workers were later released unharmed. In 2010 protests by tribal groups against CNPC’s employment of unskilled Chinese oil workers at the Al-Ahdab oilfield occasionally turned violent. However, in June 2014, when ISIS was advancing in northern Iraq, China had to evacuate up to 1300 Chinese workers from Samarra with the help of the Iraqi military.
China’s policy on the crises in Iraq and Syria is officially linked to its longstanding non-interference policy. While China has officially welcomed airstrikes by the US-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq, it has warned against similar actions in neighbouring Syria, instead arguing that the international community should work with the regime of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. While Chinese positions can be explained by using traditional non-interference rhetoric, they also align conveniently with Chinese interests in the region: while China has considerable economic interests in Iraq, those in Syria are negligible.
In addition to its energy interests and the security of its citizens overseas, China is facing the issue of some of its citizens travelling to Syria and Iraq to join jihadist groups, such as ISIS. According to different estimates, there are around 100–300 Chinese citizens currently fighting for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Most are from the Muslim Uyghur minority, although some might be members of the Hui minority or Han Chinese converts.
In 2012 the Chinese Government claimed that Uyghur jihadists had joined the rebellion in Syria. In 2013 several videos emerged featuring supposed Chinese jihadists criticizing the Chinese Government for supporting the Assad regime, and in September 2014 the Iraqi Defence Ministry published photographs that, it claimed, showed a Chinese national who was captured during a fight with ISIS.
China now fears that, despite having sought to keep a low profile in the region, it might become a target of foreign terrorist organizations. In a speech released in July 2014 the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, accused China of ‘forcibly seizing’ Muslim rights in Xinjiang and claimed the presence of Chinese fighters within the ranks of IS. In September 2014 Zhang Xinfeng, director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Regional Antiterrorism Agency, stated that ‘every SCO member state has extremists . . . who are fighting in Syria and Iraq . . . these people have started returning to their homeland, which constitutes a major threat to regional security’.
In January 2015, following the attacks on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that ‘terrorism is an enemy of all mankind and a common threat to the entire international community, including both China and France’ and that China would be willing to cooperate with other countries on counterterrorism.
However, despite recent developments, the EU and its member states should not expect China to take a leading role in the fight against ISIS. The impact of the current conflict in Iraq on Chinese energy interests has so far been limited and non-interference remains a main characteristic of Chinese foreign policy. In September 2014 Gong Xiaosheng, China’s special envoy to the Middle East, warned that international attacks on ISIS in Iraq and Syria ‘must take into consideration the respect of the sovereignty and integrity of any state’.
Therefore, the scope for cooperation between China and the EU in the fight against ISIS remains limited. One potential area for China–EU security cooperation in the region could be non-combatant evacuation operations. EU member states have already contributed to such operations, for example when China had to evacuate more than 36 000 of its citizens from Libya in 2011. China and the EU member states should coordinate and discuss potential, future scenarios in Iraq and the wider Middle East.