On 4 July 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadid effectively declared war on China by publishing a map of its aspirant caliphate that threatened to occupy China’s Xinjiang, and named China first in a list of 20 countries that had “seized Muslim rights.” In the video, Al-Baghdadi asked Chinese Muslims to plead allegiance to him and referenced Xinjiang numerous times.
With Xinjiang comprising the furthest eastern flank of the planned caliphate, Chinese strategists will now have to worry about how ISIS’s pivot east will impact China’s energy security and its own march west across the new silk roads to the Greater Middle East.
Thus, China is currently debating sending troops to Iraq to fight ISIS and protect its interests.
Given China’s global stature and oil interests in Syria and Iraq, military analyst Zhao Chu argued in his blog that joining the coalition could not only give China valuable combat experience, but allow it look after its own interests as well as enhance its prestige by showing concern for international justice. Likewise, Wang Chong, a researcher at Charhar Institute in Beijing, wrote on Weibo that if there was a need, ‘China could also send troops to help and provide training.”
Dingding Chen from Macau University also argued that China should send troops to fight ISIS. Observing bitter lessons learned from its $20 billion Libyan investment losses and evacuation of 36,000 Chinese nationals, Chen argued how a military presence in Iraq would provide solid security for Chinese investments, especially since Chinese stakes in Iraq are much bigger than in Libya.
In China’s state-owned mouthpiece China Daily, Jin Baisong from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce’s research institute also argued that the ISIS threat demands China to engage in Iraq. However, rather than being seen as following a U.S.-led coalition, he suggested using an alternative banner such as the G20 framework and “take part in joint strikes against the IS if the consensus within G20 is to do so.”
He added China “could even consider sending troops to Iraq to prevent the Islamic militants from sabotaging Iraq’s normal economic order and to protect global economic interest.”
Indeed, recently China has become more proactive militarily to protect its overseas interests.
In 2013 it deployed 500 troops including combat troops to the UN mission in Mali to help stabilize neighboring OPEC member Algeria, where China has vast investments in energy and infrastructure projects, including more than 50,000 workers. In 2014, China decided to deploy an entire battalion of 700 combat troops to South Sudan to maintain stability as well as protect its energy interests.
With the newly discovered Cypriot and Israeli gas sources, China also has a stake in regional stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. The UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus was until August under the command of a Chinese general, and the Chinese had discussed possibly offering troops to the West Bank. Nearby, China has 1,000 UNIFIL troops in Lebanon.
China and Russia have also conducted naval war games off the coast of Syria in January 2014, and in August China and Iran conducted naval war games in the Persian Gulf where China imports roughly half of its oil supply.
Iraq is to be the crown jewel in China’s energy strategy. China is currently the biggest investor in Iraqi oil industry and in 2012, Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Agency, called the rapidly developing ties between Beijing and Baghdad the “B&B” link.
According to Erica Downs of the Brookings Institution, Beijing expects Baghdad to figure heavily into its energy towards the Middle East, with China’s most productive upstream activities in the Middle East located in Iraq. Iraqi fields are among the worlds’ largest with China’s oil giant CNPC holding substantial stakes in the south and Sinopec holding stakes in Iraqi Kurdistan in the north.
However, ISIS also has its eyes on the Iraqi oil prize, as illicit oil sales finance most of ISIS activities. Given this, ISIS poses a looming threat to China’s energy security strategy and Xi Jinping’s legitimacy, and it is likely a matter of time before China deploys troops to maintain stability and safeguard its energy interests in Iraq.
Currently without boots on the ground, the U.S.-led coalition is facing difficulties in degrading ISIS, with the recent Kobani battle symbolizing the shortcomings of this strategy. However, should China put boots on the ground given its energy stakes, this may help change the tide.
While CIA estimates ISIS has 31,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, China has 2.3 million active duty soldiers, with approximately 1 million reservists and some 15 million militia. With 1.3 billion people, China also has a potential manpower base of another 200 million males fit for military service available at any time.
Should ISIS continue to taunt the Chinese regarding territorial integrity in Xinjiang and threaten Chinese oil interests in Iraq, which is a core interest and red line for Xi Jinping, this King from the East has more than sufficient capabilities that could be brought to bear in a battle against ISIS.