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Can China Enter Iraq?

January 26, 2012

The idea may seem ludicrous at first glance, but if one looks closely this may not be as outlandish as it sounds. The complete withdrawal of American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 in time to be with their families for Christmas was widely reported in the media. There were celebrations across America as men and women in uniform joined their families and friends and an official closure to the Iraq war was announced by President Barack Obama.

There has been intermittent violence in Iraq since the American withdrawal. The religious lines are firmly drawn and there is an air of suspicion. Saddam Hussein may have gone but if one were to believe the Sunni minority Nouri al-Maliki is the new Saddam for Iraqis. The tug of war between the majority Shiite and minority Sunnites is back and this time it seems to be a free for all. Americans have not left behind a stable Iraq as many would have expected. It is a dysfunctional state surrounded by equally hostile neighbors who have their own axe to grind. The Shiite government of al-Maliki has support from Iran. The other Sunnite nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey despise the Shiite influence in Iraq because they feel Tehran is calling the shots. It’s an untenable situation which can only lead to more violence and discord in the coming months. The truth of the matter is that with the exit of the American forces there is a void in the nation that is Iraq. And any student of Physics will vouch for the fact that nothing happens in a vacuum. If the container is too weak it will get mangled or else there has to be something to replace the air that has been taken out of the container.

Iraq is in an unenviable situation.  It’s a fragile state that has ethnic contradictions so deep that some strong force is needed to keep the nation of Iraq in one piece. Earlier there was Saddam Hussein who controlled the state with an iron fist. He killed a few thousand of his own countrymen to secure himself as the undisputed despot that he was. But that was much less than what the NATO forces killed in the decade that they were in Iraq not to mention the deaths of common Iraqis due to the debilitating sanctions by the world community again led by the West.

It is not only the Shiite and the Sunnite who are at loggerheads. The Kurds in the northern part of Iraq have tasted some stability with an autonomous council to look after the affairs of the region. This relative peace has resulted in an economic boom in the region around Irbil. Sad to say but the autonomy to the Kurds is bound to get eroded if not totally rejected in the months to come. Kurds will be again at the receiving end – the only difference being that this time it will be the Shiite led al-Maliki government that will be their bête noir. The relative peace during the West’s presence will soon be a thing of the past.

I am not giving a doomsday scenario for Iraq. I am only outlining the reality on the ground. For has not the Sunnite Vice President of Iraq fled to northern parts to save himself from the ire of Nouri al-Maliki? President Jalal Talabani helped him escape.

There is a void in Iraq post American withdrawal and that will need to be filled. Rick Perry, a Republican hopeful has said that were he to get to the White House he would order troops back into Iraq. Going by current trends I am not sure Rick Perry will make it as the President of the United States but suffice to say that there are some conservatives who understand that complete withdrawal may not have been the best idea in American interests.

Iraq becomes hugely important for the simple reason that this is one country rich in oil – very rich in oil. Known oil deposits are second largest in the world after Saudi Arabia. Oil fields are mainly in the Kurdish north and the Shiite South-East of the country. Oil fields around Irbil are so rich in oil that puddles of the dark liquid swim on the surface. And this is a country abandoned by the US.

Map of West Asia

Map of Asia

One of the main worries for China is to secure its energy needs. The recent sanctions against Iran has Beijing fuming as Iran is one of their main suppliers of crude. Instability in Iraq means that the situation is fluid in this strategically important nation. China did win some oil concessions by the Iraqi authorities but that may not whet the humongous appetite of this nation striding ahead as a possible world power. Securing energy needs will be a huge strategic advantage for China.

China has the largest military in the world. Its army is almost 1.2 million strong. China is building a blue water navy and has just tested an aircraft carrier. It has nuclear powered submarines and intercontinental ballistic missile systems. China has the military might and with a closed totalitarian system – this is a nation which can live with body bags arriving from wars in lands yonder. The Dragon can breathe fire if it wants to.

It is true that China cannot match the West with its limited naval fleet (fast expanding). But China has the army and the air force to challenge the mightiest. Luckily for them if they wanted to, they have a clear road right up till the borders of Iraq on the Iranian side. Were Beijing to think of entering Iraq they won’t take the sea route – they will go via land. The Karakoram highway that they have been building for the past few years will now come handy. They already have a military presence in Northern Areas of Pakistan. They can push troops right across Pakistan and through Iran into Iraq. Both Pakistan and Iran are allies of Beijing. Entering Iraq with their army and air force should not be too difficult. The present Iraqi defense forces will be no match to the Chinese military might. I can understand Turkey and Saudi Arabia resisting any such military maneuvers but they will not enter Iraq to stabilize the situation.

Any Chinese military movement will be detected in no time by the West. They will quote the Scriptures and how it is against international law. But any such incursion into Iraq will be as valid or invalid as was the Western invasion in the early 2003. My hunch is that with increasing frostiness between Moscow and DC the Russians will veto any Security Council resolution against Chinese incursion. Not that the Russians will celebrate Chinese military forays into the Middle East but they would play along to extract some strategic benefits from the West at a later date.

My hunch is that if the Chinese were to contemplate any such strategic move in the Middle East they will do it after the Iran question is settled. Israel and China have had some useful diplomatic exchanges recently. Beijing understands Tel Aviv’s anxiety vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program. Beijing would also hate to see proliferation in the sensitive Middle East. They would go along with Israel in neutralizing the Iranian nuclear program with a caveat that the regime must not be disturbed and that if they undertake any military operation in the Middle East Tel Aviv shall not take any military posture.  Israel will by all means go along with Beijing because for them any proliferation will be an existential threat. Promise of a few oil concessions by the Chinese will be the sweetener that will secure Israel’s tacit approval of Beijing’s plans.

I would also reckon that any Chinese military maneuvers will take place only after the US presidential elections. If Barack Obama were to get a second term the Chinese would fancy their chances of a military foray into the Middle East. For Beijing a foothold in the Middle East will have far reaching strategic ramifications. A long term Chinese presence in the region will mean that the leverage of the West in this strategic region will be neutralized. It will have a more proactive role in the Middle Eastern affairs and will be taken seriously by the world at large. A Chinese military operation in the Middle East will mean that China as a world power would then have arrived.

It is true that Saudi Arabia with an impressive fleet of American war planes will be a threat, as will Turkey. The question that needs to be asked is whether the Chinese air force has the confidence with their J17 and other mish-mashed replicas of Russian and American design planes to take the modern air force of Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Oman? I know that the biggest challenge could be from the American Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain. Fifth Fleet may decide not to take on the Chinese military head on. Numerically the Chinese army is indeed the most impressive war machinery on the face of the Earth. Will they have the confidence to fight it out and secure Iraq for strategic purposes?

If the Syrian regime does not fall in the coming months and if the Iran issue is taken care of before the American presidential polls, as many pundits believe it would, then it is very likely that by the end of this year the Chinese might begin moving their huge military westwards down the Karakoram through Pakistan into Iran and further up to the eastern Iraqi town of Basra. Unlike the American military expedition in Afghanistan, China should have no logistical problems either from Pakistan or Iran as their interests will not be at variance with those of Beijing. Iran may in fact welcome Chinese presence to counter the writ of the pro-West Sunnite nations.

With a beleaguered Iran and an impoverished Pakistan throwing their weight behind Beijing the Chinese could fancy their chances and take the risk. In today’s nuclear world no power would want a direct confrontation. With Barack Obama at the helm again Beijing will be sure Americans will do nothing silly. That might give them the confidence of taking such a risk. If you look at it closely, perhaps it may be a risk worth taking.

Update: There are reports that Pakistan is considering leasing the Gilgit – Balitistan region to China. China already has some 4000 troops in the region as pointed out earlier. This was also the region where India could have attacked Chinese convoys. But if the Chinese have the lease to the region India will think twice before taking any such military action. Chinese plans for the region seem to be long term and they have not ruled out any possibilities.

2 Comments leave one →
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