China and Iraq: Possible Areas of Cooperation

Published December 28th, 2021 - 09:27 GMT
Iraq and China
Sino-Iraq relations have undergone a period of political growth and regression since 1958. (Shutterstock: esfera)
An examination of geopolitical and political motives for cooperation between Iraq and China

The history of relations between China and Mesopotamia dates back to ancient times, the land and sea routes of the Silk Road connected them, more than two thousand years ago.

Sino-Iraq relations have undergone a period of political growth and regression since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1958. Undoubtedly, this was due to the instability of the Iraqi political systems due to repeated military coups, political fluctuations in China, the reflection of the Cold War, and so on. 

After the 1980s, China abandoned its ideological policy toward the Middle East, including Iraq. China's policy of reform and openness to the world over the past 40 years has allowed the country to unleash all its political, economic, social, and military capabilities.

The issue of peaceful development without war in China's foreign policy also helped it to boost relations.
Over the past two decades, approaches such as controlling China, turning to East Asia, or reducing the Middle East's position with the United States have attracted more Chinese attention to Iraq.

Iraq's geostrategic position, especially its huge oil reserves in the present and the future, is such that China wants to fill the vacuum created by the full US withdrawal from Iraq.

China is also trying to ensure that the balance of power in the region is not to China's detriment. In this regard, it considers comprehensive policies and measures within the framework of large cooperation mechanisms between China and the Arab countries. In this regard, China reopened its embassy in Baghdad in 2004, supported the new political regime, and expanded relations with Iraq.

In December 2015, the level of diplomatic relations between Iraq and China was upgraded to a strategic partnership. In addition, with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi's visit to Beijing, bilateral relations were described as a "quantum leap."

On this trip, eight memoranda of understanding were signed and they announced their plans for including Iraq in China’s Road and Belt Project (BRI). The recent view of Chinese President Xi Jinping to develop relations and enhance strategic partnership with Iraq reflects China's willingness and seriousness to increase relations extensively in the political and geopolitical spheres with Iraq.

On the other hand, China has a very important place in Iraq's foreign policy. Iraqis are also seeking a balance in their relations with major world powers and actors. Therefore, expanding relations with China is seen as necessary. In this context, and in the context of declining US attention to the region, Shiite groups and parties appear to be more inclined to expand multidimensional relations or alliances with China.

Opportunities for security cooperation

Beijing is considering counterterrorism cooperation with Iraq to establish a long-term security structure, exchange intelligence, cooperate and train to counter international threats, prevent the teaching of extremism, and inciting Muslims in western China. In fact, given major Uighur groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party, China sees any further links to ISIS in Iraq as a significant threat. The return of ISIS Chinese Uyghurs to their homeland is also a major threat.

Therefore, China does not want Iraq to become a place for the parade of ISIS again, and it evaluates the Baghdad government's war on terrorism, the liberation of its territories, and its efforts to control the IDP crisis, in its favor.

In contrast, Iraq supports China's behavior toward the Uighurs in Xinjiang and Hong Kong National Security Law at the United Nations, which is a platform for increased cooperation between the two countries in the field of international organizations.

In addition, China and Iraq are working to develop military and security ties. In fact, the United States, Russia, and China are the top arms sellers.  Iraq used to be one of the customers of Chinese weapons. But with the advancement of the quality of China's military industry, the chance of supplying more weapons from China and even transferring military technology, etc., could be under Baghdad’s consideration.

Economic motivations of relationships

Although, Chinese trade in Iraq was somewhat disrupted in the early twentieth century, and Chinese companies largely withdrew from the post-war reconstruction of Iraq due to Western corporate monopolies, insurging of violence, and other domestic reasons. But further stabilization of the political and security situation improved the state of economic relations. At the end of 2013, China overtook the United States as the largest foreign investor and then as Iraq's main trading partner.

The defeat of ISIS in late 2017 provided an opportunity for Iraq to address its reconstruction needs and economic problems. But the Iraqi central government's reconstruction plan depends on reviving and expanding the oil sector (the main part of export earnings).

 Iraq is a good investment opportunity with exports of more than three million barrels of oil and oil reserves (about 150 billion barrels). Therefore, China has tried to expand its footprint in Iraq by more investment. Energy cooperation is the basis of bilateral relations and Iraq is among the top five oil exporters to China. Extensive cooperation between the two countries in energy projects has emerged in most areas, with Chinese companies (with $ 20 billion of capital) becoming the largest investor in Iraq.

Baghdad also needs more China’s attention to Iraq to diversify economic partnerships, reduce dependence on Western companies in oil exploration and production, plan to expand the oil industry, achieve oil production of 6.9 million barrels per day by the end of 2023, solve domestic demand problems, repairing damaged infrastructure (pipeline shortages and export capacity), etc.

Iraq's post-ISIS reconstruction needs are estimated at $88 billion. But international obligations are much lower. Baghdad is also looking to China's liquidity capital to add about 4 percent of GDP to Iraq's annual revenue and improve foreign exchange reserves. For example, China's participation in generating electricity in Iraq or generating more than 50 percent of electricity in and around Baghdad has greatly helped reduce power outages in the country.

In fact, Sino-Iraq bilateral expansion of economic ties and investment has led to $ 30.1 billion in trade (approximately a quarter of Iraq's foreign trade) by 2020. Cooperation now covers new areas such as industry and infrastructure, as well as construction projects, services and industries, agriculture, road construction and bridge construction, construction of oil storage facilities, and so on.

Cultural and scientific fields

With the outbreak of COVID-19 from early 2020, China used its medical expertise and technology to meet Iraq's vaccine needs, and Chinese-donated Sinofarm vaccines and medical equipment arrived in Baghdad to bolster Iraq's efforts to fight the epidemic.

Also, nearly 3.2 million Iraqi children of school age do not have access to school. The two countries are taking an important step towards rebuilding Iraq's education system with contracts such as the construction of 1,000 schools in Iraq. Also, projects such as the construction of Confucius institutes in Iraq in the future can promote scientific and cultural exchanges between the two countries


What is clear is that the economy is the cornerstone of the China-Iraq strategic partnership. China needs Iraqi energy and Iraq needs Chinese money.  Iraq is also one of China's largest investment destinations in the Middle East.

Access to the $500 billion trade prospect over the next ten years may seem difficult, but the implementation of China’s economic agreement and its clauses is a key to Iraq's entry into the One Road, One Belt initiative. In the meantime, Iraq needs to rehabilitate dilapidated infrastructure,  and China and Iraq can expand cooperation in infrastructure, satellite, space, and vital projects.

Also, if the future Iraqi Prime Minister succeeds in implementing the previous agreements between Iraq and China, creating an economic revolution, achieving rapid success, and reducing popular dissatisfaction can be achieved more quickly. This process can also be important steps towards expanding strategic relations and the strategic Beijing-Baghdad alliance.

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