Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.09.24

United States, China, and Islamic State

In an interview in The New York Times (article dated August 8), Thomas L. Friedman asked President Obama, "What is the president going to do? China today is the biggest energy investor in Iraq. At some point, do you want to say to them 'It's time you become a stakeholder'?" and the President responded, "I do say that to them. They are free riders. They have been for the past thirty years." Sharing his views on a superpower's self-awareness and responsibilities and how people look to America to act on behalf of other countries, he pointed out that people do not expect China to act the same way and he sharply criticized China for not being a stakeholder.

Iraq's oil production, which had declined during the war, is rapidly recovering. In April 2014, it surpassed 3.04 million BPD, becoming the second largest oil producer in OPEC behind Saudi Arabia. Along with the major oil companies and Russia, China has made large investment in Iraqi oil fields in southern Iraq, Rumaila, West Qurna, Halfayah, al-Abdab, etc. and is involved in development and production in these fields. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which is said to be the most important business partner for Iraq, is currently pursuing numerous projects to construct pipelines and oil export terminals, and it is estimated that the number of Chinese laborers, including those working in infrastructure projects, surpasses 10,000. This may be an underestimate, compared to the figures in other countries in the Middle East and Africa. During the political turmoil in Libya, 30,000 Chinese left the country.

The United States paid a great price in Iraq, with the number of deaths during the war amounting to about 4,500. China and Russia, which not only did not participate in the war but actually were rather critical, are now its largest beneficiaries. This situation amounts to free riding in the eyes of the United States. From the interviewer's question, we can surmise that this is the view not of only President Obama but also of the American people.

But, things are not simple for China, either. On April 9, Hong Kong's Phoenix Weekly posted an article reporting that ISIS plans to occupy Xinjiang in a few years, with China at the top of the list of targets for revenge. ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, has become a major problem for not only the Iraqi government but also the United States. The Islamic State's warriors from England executed American journalists and posted videos of these horrific acts on the internet.

Phoenix Television is known in Japan. Even though it is based in Hong Kong, it acts internationally as a mouth piece for mainland China. The other day, when a Chinese fighter jet came very close to U.S. Navy plane and a White House spokesperson called that a "deeply concerning provocation," a Phoenix Television reporter claimed that the U.S. was spying on China.

Leaving aside this item of background information, Phoenix Weekly reported as follows (rough translation):

"The aim of the Islamic State (IS) is grander than that of the Taliban to create an Islamic nation in Afghanistan. The IS calls for return to the traditions of the Islamic Caliphate and it plans to occupy West Asia, North Africa, Spain, Central Asia, India and Chinese Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in a few years."

The IS declared that "Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, Pakistan, Somalia, Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, Morocco, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Shia Iraq, Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria from the east to the west. The hardships in Central Africa and Myanmar are only the tip of the iceberg. We must revenge!" with China on top of the list. In the statement, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdadhi several times referred to China and Xingjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and criticized the Chinese government's policy towards the Uyghur. He called for Chinese Muslims to pledge allegiance to his group, like other Muslims in the rest of the world.

Many of the areas where China has made forays for securing natural resources are in Muslim countries. For these Muslim countries, China had become a reliable actor in protecting the interests of the Third World, but the discrepancy between this position and its interests is now becoming highly visible. China's relations toward Muslim fundamentalists are a special case, but it is also a symbol of this discrepancy.

At the same time, President Obama's remarks indicate that China has discrepancy with the United States vis-à-vis the Islamic world. How will China react under these circumstances? At present, it is not likely that China will participate in multinational forces even if the U.S. needs a strong ally in its fight against Muslim fundamentalists, but that is something to bear in mind as a possible change in the future balance of power.
(The essay was written based on the August 2014 issue of "Jiopoli", with permission from Tasuku Shibuya, the president of Energy Geopolitics.)