As with the previous two decades, the opening of the 2020s has been characterized by geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and China’s increasingly assertive role. Iranian-American relations have seen a sharp deterioration as a result, and fears that Iraq could become a proxy battleground for the two nations have been renewed. These developments have detracted attention from the Sino-American trade war that characterised the closing years of the previous decade.
While the two events are seemingly unrelated, it is the role that China has played that has been the common thread between them. The eruption of the current tensions between Washington and Tehran coincided with the visit of the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, to Beijing. Mahdi’s visit sought to secure a loan from Beijing in exchange for Chinese access to Iraqi oil, labelled as ‘oil for reconstruction’. This echoes China’s earlier policies in Africa, where Chinese investment has been a notable tool in Beijing’s attempts to secure resources and markets.
News of Mahdi’s visit was not well received by Washington, with Trump reportedly threatening Mahdi with significant domestic unrest if he did not cancel the loan. While this appears to be another front in the global Sino-American competition, the case of Iraq has shed light on the interconnectivity within Chinese foreign policy, as Beijing seeks to promote its Belt and the Road Initiative to the world. This comes at a time when other external actors – most notably Russia – have sought to build their influence in a region that had long been thought to be the exclusive preserve of Washington.
China’s push into the Middle East is the latest phase in Beijing’s attempts to cultivate Chinese influence in strategic yet geopolitically controversial regions. Beijing had previously been loath to rely on the region’s abundant resources due to the perceived American dominance of the Middle East. However, China’s thirst for natural resources along with its BRI has ignited greater Chinese interest in the region, as underscored by China’s continued imports of Iranian oil in the face of American sanctions. These sanctions have granted Chinese and other Asian firms a near monopoly on Iranian oil as European firms have been deterred from conducting business in the country.
While China enjoys close ties with Iran, it also has a strong relationship with America’s regional allies, most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, who have been sources of technology and markets as well as natural resources. Chinese firms have also competed with their American and Russian counterparts for the lucrative arms market, with Chinese UAVs and missiles becoming notable features in the arsenals of many Middle Eastern militaries alongside the traditional export of Chinese small arms.
As part of China’s wider soft power push, Beijing has also become involved in the reconstruction of the more war-torn nations of the Middle East. This has been most notable in Syria, where Chinese firms are poised to play a role in the country’s post-war reconstruction. While miniscule when compared to China’s projects in Africa, such efforts have the potential to augment Chinese influence. These softer mechanisms of building influence have been a recurring feature of Chinese foreign policy as China seeks to build consent for projects such as the BRI.
It is these patterns that China’s influence in Iraq has been an example of. As with many developing nations, Beijing has sought to build consent for Chinese projects through cultivating ties with local elites, as demonstrated by Mahdi’s visit to Beijing. As a result, China has been perceived as an alternative source of investment, which has generated greater competition for the more established American presence.
In addition, the Chinese presence in Iraq has shown Beijing’s ability to exploit local politics to further its own objectives. In this case, it is the dissatisfaction over the progress of the country’s post-war reconstruction and anti-American sentiment that are being harnessed by China, as expressed by the Iraqi parliament’s vote to expel American troops from the country. Such dissatisfaction has provided an opportunity for China’s push in the Middle East.
While Iraq is indicative of the recurring means by which China has been able to make its gains, it also shows the recurring problems within this approach. While China’s laissez-faire strategy has enabled it to build closer ties with competing nations, it also means that it is ill equipped to deal with the security challenges in the region. It is this issue that has been a consistent dilemma for Chinese policymakers, who are stuck between domestic calls for a stronger response to attacks on Chinese interests and potential accusations of neo-imperialism, should Beijing choose to act more forcefully. It is this question that Chinese policymakers need to answer in order to navigate the future course of Chinese foreign policy.
Another issue comes in the proposed Chinese projects’ reliance on Chinese firms and labour, with little Iraqi input. While Beijing justifies this by claiming it removes possibilities for corruption, it has the potential to cause a backlash against these proposals if they are seen as having little discernible benefit for Iraqi society. This has been a recurring issue for Chinese policy, and a potential backlash can pose a further challenge to Chinese interests. It is therefore in China’s interests to demonstrate that these projects are truly based on mutual benefit, as they are often proclaimed to be.
The case of Iraq has highlighted the common trends that have allowed China to be able to build its influence across the world as well as the challenges that face them. While it is easy to condemn these policies, it is necessary to understand how these policies have appealed to developing nations. Such understanding would allow for and necessitates competition with China to offer a feasible vision for these countries that addresses local concerns by offering a more attractive alternative. It is this issue that needs to be addressed to effectively respond to China’s global push.