August 18, 2014, by Tony Hong

Fighting Extremism in Iraq or Political ‘Free-Riding’?

By Dr David O’Brien,

Assistant Professor, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies,

The University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

As America seems once again pulled into the mire in Iraq, President Barack Obama has hit out at what he describes as China’s ‘free-riding’ in that beleaguered land.

Not surprisingly this had provoked an angry reaction in China, but like with so much else, that the two superpowers are in this together whether they like it or not.

As the fanatical and murderous Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) run rampant throughout the land the Americans are still trying to fix a problem that they did so much to create.

In a recent interview with the New York Times Obama said the Chinese had exploited America’s military presence in the region for its own political gain.

“They are free-riders and they have been free-riders for the last 30 years and it has worked really well for them,” Obama said, before adding that “people look to America in ways that don’t look to China”.

Not surprisingly many in China do not appreciate the President’s words and an editorial in the People’s Daily strongly defended China’s role in the Iraq arguing that its reason for being there is to help stabilise the region and describing America’s invasion of Iraq as a ‘disaster’.

China’s official paper of record said the remarks came “out of nowhere” and laid bare the “confused logic” of the U.S. administrations, which have made a string of mistakes in Iraq and had to face a growing threat from extremism.

The United States is obviously the “invader” and “deserter” of Iraq, whereas China has been a “partner” and “builder,” the opinion said, listing China’s efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Iraqi people and to reinvigorate its economy, and citing Chinese contractors engaged in oil and telecommunications projects for reconstruction in Iraq.

In a separate article in the same paper Zhang Yaowu a researcher at the Chinese Association for International Understanding asked if it was wrong for China to benefit in Iraq?

“After the Iraq War, China invested enormous resources in Iraq for trade and reconstruction. China also became Iraq’s biggest trade partner, exceeding America in 2011. There are more than 100 Chinese enterprises in Iraq, with millions of employees. China imports 1.5 million barrels of crude oil from Iraq every year, taking up over half Iraq’s output.

“Taking advantage of stability in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole, China makes substantial profits from the petroleum trade, which further promote the healthy development of relationships between China and Iraq.

“There is nothing wrong with any of this, and the U.S. and other western countries can still participate”, Zhang wrote.

While Obama’s comments seemed to have niggled the Chinese, which was probably his aim, the truth is the two countries have very much in common in the region.

China has benefited greatly from its involvement in Iraq as well as Afghanistan but this would be under real threat if they extremists gain the upper hand. Even worse a triumph for the radicals there and in Afghanistan could have significant repercussions in Xinjiang which has seen serious escalation in violence this year.

Yet as the two countries butt heads like this the danger is that rivalry will lead to an ever slippery slope of distrust and resentment.

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