Christina Lin

As ISIS grows, China upgrades ties with Iran and Kurdistan

On 23 October, the editorial board of the New York Times exposed how the battle of Kobani and Turkey’s obstructionism “highlights the enduring weaknesses in America’s strategy.”

The centerpiece of U.S. anti-ISIS strategy is based on conducting airstrikes on ISIS-controlled areas in coordination with indigenous ground troops; however, local ground forces are either unorganized, politically divided, and where there are effective fighting forces such as Kobani Kurds they are being outgunned.

Turkey’s continual obstruction of aid to Kobani prompted Washington to resort to arming the Kurds via airdrops. However, ISIS has overrun a large portion of the airdrop zone, making future resupply difficult.

Moreover, Erdogan made a meek gesture of allowing 200 Peshmerga forces to reinforce Kobani fighters, which in face of nearly 9,000 ISIS jihadists streaming against the 2,000 Kurdish fighters will hardly turn the tide in the battle. The Peshmerga forces have not yet arrived in Kobani, to boot.

Effectively, Turkey is straitjacketing the U.S.-led coalition.

In light of the coalition’s inability to arrest the ravenous growth of ISIS, a rising power is stirring in the East—China.

On 23 October, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan met with Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari to upgrade military ties in the Persian Gulf, on the heels of the September China-Iran naval war games in the Strait of Hormuz.

On the same day, when an unauthorized mapping drone flew near Beijing airport, China sprinted into action by deploying 1,226 military personnel, 123 military vehicles, 26 radar technicians, two fighter jets and two helicopters. China’s swift and overwhelming military response to protect its national security may be a harbinger of its overseas military posture.

Tang Zhichao, a research fellow with the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the September China-Iran naval drills are a result of China’s expanding role in Middle East security. Tang views the West’s capability and will to maintain regional security is weakening, so Gulf regions are looking to other world powers such as China to step in.

He noted “As China’s economy grows, its security interests in the Middle East and strategic maritime passages such as Persian Gulf are of growing importance to China. Therefore, military cooperation with Gulf states, including Iran, is increasingly critical.”

Given majority of Gulf states have U.S. military presence with U.S. 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, and airbases in Qatar and UAE, Iran is a natural and potential future base for the Chinese navy.

China is also upgrading ties with Kurdistan.

In September, China established a new general consulate in Erbil, in midst of negotiation for the potential sale of 4 million barrels of oil.

A 17 September Reuters article noted that should Erbil establish a buyer as large as China, it could provide reassurance to other countries and companies that would like to buy oil from the Kurds but fear crossing Baghdad. This would also provide much needed finance for Kurdish military to fight ISIS.

While China also has oil interests in southern Iraq, it values stability, and likely sees the U.S.-led coalition will be unable to stop ISIS’ southern advance towards Chinese oil interests.

Kurdistan is thus a rock of stability in the sea of upheavals in Syria and Iraq, and Beijing is upgrading ties with Erbil to safeguard its oil interests, following a similar pattern of gaining a beach hold in South Sudan prior to Juba breaking away from Sudan in 2011.

In fact China is deploying an infantry battalion of 700 troops to join its 350 peacekeepers in the UN mission (UNMISS) in South Sudan to safeguard its oil interests, bringing Chinese troop presence to over 1,000.

China has high stakes in Sudan and South Sudan, having invested US$20 billion in Sudan prior to the 2011 partition and an additional US$8 billion following South Sudan’s secession. Beijing learned a bitter lesson from its $20 billion Libya losses and is now resorting to military tools to safeguard its energy security.

China is also South Sudan’s top weapons provider having recently sold US$38 million worth of ammunition, grenade launchers, machine guns and missiles to help protect its investments.

Likewise in Kurdistan, China is expanding its investments.  China’s energy giant Sinopec entered the Kurdish market in 2009 when it took over Addax Petroleum which had assets in Kurdistan’s Taq Taq field as well as Africa.  Sold for $7.2 billion, this was the largest-ever international takeover by a Chinese oil and gas firm.  Seventeen other Chinese companies, including oil and gas service company DQE, operate in Kurdistan.

As ISIS continues to expand, it is likely a matter of time before China also deploys troops to Kurdistan to safeguard its interests

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst specializing in China-Mediterranean relations. She has extensive US government experience working on national security issues and was a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) research consultant for Jane's Information Group.
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