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Iraq and the interests and agendas of a multipolar world

April 30, 2024 at 10:22 am

Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meet in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 09 December, 2022 [Iraqi Prime Ministry Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

We can understand the goals of China and the West towards Iraq by shedding light on the nature of their strategies towards the Middle East in general, and the relationship with Iraq’s geographical and economic importance, given the attention that the Arab and Islamic world receives in the struggle of the rising global powers to undermine US unilateralism. This has been defended by all US presidents and their administrations, regardless of political affiliations. With China’s domination of commercial exports and technological progress, it is the top competitor to US and European interests in Africa and the Middle East. Iraq, meanwhile, is an example of the clash of interests and agendas in the conflict between unipolarity, represented by US policy, and multipolarity, which emerging countries aspire to establish in the world.

It is not difficult to read the shape and nature of the relationship between the US and Iraq — which is similar to that between the latter and China — if we take into account China’s trade links and their importance in implementing and supporting the multipolar strategy. The aim of this strategy is not only to compete with the unilateralism enjoyed by US and Western companies, but also to confront them politically and militarily through a spider-web policy aimed at confronting the great economic power.

Chinese economic influence in the Middle East is expanding on all levels, especially due to Beijing’s need to import raw materials, especially oil, which is probably the main factor in the development of the Chinese economy. China receives more than 50 per cent of Iraqi and Gulf oil exports, as well as Iran’s, and has come to dominate the trade balance, making it one of the largest economies in the world. This has exceeded the capabilities of the US to the point that it has become the world’s top exporting country in terms of its foreign currency reserves.

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With China as one of the main emerging powers aiming to challenge the Western dominance in Africa and the Middle East, and able to influence the global economy through its management of its wealth of global currency reserves, most notably US dollars, Beijing has shown great interest in Iraq because it is an important strategic extension of the Asian continent. The Chinese leadership was keen to establish friendly relations and cooperation with the regime in Baghdad, taking advantage of the political and sectarian tension between the government and various influential parties over the problem of the continued US presence in the country, not to mention China’s strategic relationship with Iran, which can tip the balance in its favour regarding the power struggle in the region.

There is also the New Silk Road project, or the Belt and Road Initiative, which China is developing and which shapes its links with the world; it was started by President Xi Jinping in 2013. The project aims to revive old trade routes and connect oil pipelines, stations, ports and airports across the countries on the borders of Russia and the Middle East, to ensure the continued growth and economic development of the Asian giant as far as exports to the Middle East and Europe are concerned.

As a result, China’s industrial and economic development has become a matter of concern to the major industrialised countries, because Beijing has clear goals for establishing relations and alliances to cement its position in the international system and support its strategy vis-à-vis US domination, and thus work to turn it to China’s advantage internationally. This is why it seeks to attract countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Iraq, which has apparently become a priority state for Chinese foreign policy. Beijing has shown increasing diplomatic openness with officials in Baghdad, without neglecting the strong relationship between the US and the West and Iraq.

Beijing is fully aware that it will be difficult to overcome the historic European and US influence in Iraq and the Middle East.

In order for China to maintain its influence in the Middle East, despite its deep-rooted European and US connections and the stalling of the Silk Road project, the Chinese leadership is convinced of the importance of reviving the latter based from Iraq. No matter what form it takes, it will be financed by loans from China. This will provide opportunities to enhance Iraq’s influence through superficial partnerships, without worrying too much about the possibility that it may lead to a serious debt problem for Baghdad.

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Although the “Development Road” project announced by the Iraqi government with the participation of the transport ministers of neighbouring countries, including Gulf Cooperation Council countries, does not entirely serve the interests of China’s Silk Road, which is defended by the Chinese-Iranian lobby in Iraq, the Chinese ambassador’s attention to the details and the new project and his agreement to finance it have exposed Beijing’s goals.

It must be noted that the Chinese development banks grant huge loans to projects that are launched in countries contributing to the Silk Road, despite the lack of conditions and transparency necessary to secure the loans in the event that the projects fail, or that the funds are embezzled due to widespread corruption. If this happens in Iraq, it may lose control and sovereignty over these projects, allowing the banks to influence Iraq’s affairs as it falls into a dangerous debt spiral.

There is no doubt that the stated goals of developing and financing projects in Iraq only partly disguise China’s intention to continue the development of its economic influence in order to boost its exports to Europe, given the proximity of Iraq to Turkiye. There is also the matter of China’s desire to dominate across Africa and Asia culturally, technologically and economically, not least with greater economic and military influence in the Middle East.

All of this must be seen in light of the decline of the US military, security and economic presence in the global system, and its impact on the Middle East in general, specifically Iraq. This may lead Baghdad to welcome China’s embrace and move into a grey area, ultimately making it a prisoner of conflicting agendas in a multipolar world, given China’s still limited ability to challenge and end the US military and security presence in Iraq.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 28 April 2024

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