24 June 2014

Could Iraq Be Another Libya for China?

Andrea Ghiselli, Could Iraq Be Another Libya for China? The Diplomat, 24 June 2014.

The crisis in Iraq again reveals the costs of China’s low military profile in the region.

On June 13, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying declared that China is closely watching the events unfolding in Iraq and paying special attention to the protection of Chinese citizens and investments. Reading between the lines of that statement, it is possible to see Beijing’s fears that Iraq could become another Libya. Indeed, many elements make today’s Iraq dangerously similar to the situation in Libya in 2011.

First of all, there is the countries’ strategic importance for China’s energy security. According to the IEA, in 2011 around 3 percent of the oil imported by China came from Libya; Iraqi oil in 2013 accounted for some 8 percent of total Chinese crude imports. Second, Chinese companies have made significant investments in the energy and communication sectors of both countries. The Heritage Foundation’s Global China Investment Tracker shows that between 2007 and 2013, in Libya and Iraq were respectively invested $14.2 billion and $14.5 billion. Third, besides economic assets and investments, a significant number of Chinese citizens are threatened by a rapidly escalating conflict. In 2011 China successfully evacuated around 36,000 of its citizens from Libya; according to the latest China Trade And External Economic Statistical Yearbook 2013, almost 10,000 Chinese live and work in Iraq.

Despite these similarities, Chinese military presence in the region has remained extremely small and it appears that Chinese armed forces can play only a very limited role, as in 2011. Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins have highlighted in The Diplomat the fact that with the Chinese government apparently blind to the problem, many Chinese state-owned enterprises have turned their attention to a flourishing private security sector. They hope to fill the gap between Beijing’s huge economic footprint and the almost inexistent security support it can give to its companies and citizens in the region. Indeed, Erickson and Collins presciently noted that Iraq risked being a source of trouble for China. …

For full text of one of the articles cited here, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, Enter China’s Security Firms,” The Diplomat, 21 February 2012.

For analysis of China’s evolving effort to protect its citizens following abductions in Sudan and Egypt, with implications for its workers in Iraq and Afghanistan, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “China’s New Challenge: Protecting Its Citizens Abroad,” China Real Time Report (中国事实报), Wall Street Journal, 10 February 2012.

For overall analysis of Beijing’s Libya evacuation operations, see Gabe Collins and Andrew S. Erickson, “Implications of China’s Military Evacuation of Citizens from Libya,” Jamestown China Brief 11.4 (10 March 2011): 8-10.

For details on the air component of military support for China’s evacuation operations, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “The PLA Air Force’s First Overseas Operational Deployment: Analysis of China’s decision to deploy IL-76 transport aircraft to Libya,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 27 (1 March 2011).

For more details on Beijing’s dispatching of the frigate Xuzhou to escort ships transporting Chinese citizens from Libya, see:

–Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “Missile Frigate Xuzhou Transits Suez Canal, to Arrive off Libya ~Wednesday 2 March: China’s first operational deployment to Mediterranean addresses Libya’s evolving security situation,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 26 (27 February 2011).

–Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “China Dispatches Warship to Protect Libya Evacuation Mission: Marks the PRC’s first use of frontline military assets to protect an evacuation mission,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 25 (24 February 2011).

For analysis of Beijing’s interests in Gaddafi-era Libya and the surrounding region, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “Libya Looming: Key strategic implications for China of unrest in the Arab World and Iran,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国) 24 (22 February 2011).

For early projections regarding Chinese efforts to protect citizens overseas, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Looking After China’s Own: Pressure to Protect PRC Citizens Working Overseas Likely to Rise,” China Signpost 洞察中国™ 2 (17 August 2010).