Coronavirus could cause US to lose Iraqi Kurdish region to China

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, China has been working to expand its influence over the KRG through medical aid.

Chinese aid to Erbil
Since March, China delivered several large batches of medical aid containing personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing kits to the KRI [Consulate General of China in Erbil/Facebook]

The coronavirus pandemic created an opportunity for China to strengthen its burgeoning relations with Iraq’s semi-autonomous oil and gas-rich Kurdish region of northern Iraq (KRI) through medical aid.

On March 8, the Chinese government sent 200,000 face masks to KRI to help the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) efforts to stem the spread of the virus in the region. 

In the following weeks, Beijing delivered several other large batches of medical aid containing different types of personal protective equipment (PPE), medical devices and COVID-19 testing kits to the KRI.

The aid shipments were highly publicised and widely celebrated in the KRI. On April 20, for example, China’s Consul General to Erbil Ni Ruchi and KRG Health Minister Saman Barzinji held an hourlong news conference to announce the arrival of a new shipment of aid.  

Speaking in front of Chinese cargo planes at the Erbil International Airport, Ruchi said China was going to be “a friend of the people of the Kurdistan region during hard times”. At the height of the crisis, the Chinese Consul General also appeared on local TV channels in KRI, offering advice to the Kurdish people on how to take the necessary measures to contain the virus. 

China also sent a medical team to the Kurdish region to help the KRG. During their four-day visit, Chinese doctors visited local hospitals and held panels to share their experience in treating coronavirus infections with their Kurdish counterparts. 

Chinese companies also chipped in to help the Kurdish region during the COVID-19 crisis. On April 1, China Oil HBP group, a Beijing-based oil and gas resource development company, donated 30,000 masks and 5,400 COVID-19 testing kits to the KRG.

Sino-Kurdish relations are relatively new despite the overwhelming influence communist China’s founding father Mao Zedong’s political thoughts had on the Kurdish freedom movement. 

China only started to become a real diplomatic and trade partner to Iraqi Kurds after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. 

Jalal al-Talabani, then leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) who would later become president of Iraq, paid an informal visit to China in early August 2003. Subsequently, delegations from the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) visited China. These visits were promptly reciprocated by senior Chinese officials.  

In December 2014, when the ISIL (ISIS) group was at the peak of its strength in Iraq, China showed its support for the Kurdish people and the regional government by opening a consulate general in Erbil. China chose to send delegates to the region at such a dangerous time because it believed the economic gains it would make as a result of the move outweighed the risks. At the time, the KRG had already taken control of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk and built a link to connect the oilfields there to its newly built pipeline to Turkey, raising its oil production to 400,000 barrels per day.   

Last year, China visibly increased its efforts to strengthen ties with the region.

In April 2019, Li Jun from Communist Party of China‘s (CPC) Central Committee paid a visit to Erbil and officially invited KRI President Nechirvan Barzani to Beijing. Li told Barzani that China’s President Xi Jinping “recognises the vital role the Kurdistan Region played in combating terrorism and defeating the so-called Islamic State“.

A few months later, in August, the Chinese Consul to Erbil, Ruchi, launched the official Facebook page of the consulate with a video message. In the Kurdish language message, Ruchi said the Chinese government is eager to develop its relations with the KRG, highlighting the two peoples’ historic “friendship” that dates back to the ancient Silk Road.  

In October 2019, a delegation from the Chawy Kurd Center for Political Development, a Kurdish political education NGO, visited China on the invitation of the Chinese government to promote Sino-Kurdish ties. The same month, the centre published  China’s Governance“, a two-volume book authored by President Xi in which he highlights his thoughts on governance, economic development, and leadership.

Also in October, the KRC’s first Chinese language department was opened at Erbil’s Salahadin University. Subsequently, in November 2019, a Chinese cultural and commercial centre was established in the region for the first time.  

Despite these efforts, China’s relationship with the KRG remained limited and superficial until recently. The COVID-19 crisis, however, finally provided China with the opportunity to deepen and expand its relationship with the region and emerge as a strong strategic partner that could offer crucial help in times of need. 

Indeed, during the coronavirus crisis, Beijing’s image and prominence in the Kurdish region have improved significantly. Common Kurds who previously viewed China solely as an exporter of cheap but poor quality goods and products started to perceive Beijing as a global power that could provide the region with much needed economic and structural support. Moreover, more and more Kurds started to acknowledge China as an effective and powerful actor in the Middle Eastern political arena that could influence the KRG’s future international prospects.   

China has a lot to gain from strengthening its ties with Erbil. If Beijing succeeds in becoming a prominent player in the KRG, it can not only make significant trade gains, but also use it as leverage against Turkey. 

In recent years, Turkey has become a sanctuary for political organisations and NGOs that are working to end the persecution of the Turkic Uighur minority in China. The Turkish government has also been vocal on the issue, calling on international organisations and other states to sanction China for its human rights abuses against Uighurs and other minorities.  

China can try to use its growing influence over the Iraqi Kurdish region to silence Turkey through engagement with Kurdish organisations and groups defending Kurdish rights in Turkey. Although there is no indication of such cooperation yet, Beijing’s investment in cultivating stronger political, economic, and cultural ties with the Kurds could pay off in the long run.  

China’s rapid move into Iraqi Kurdish region could well be an opportunity for the KRG, but it presents a problem for Washington. 

The United States has been the primary provider of financial, security, military and political support to Kurds in Iraq since 1991. However, recent events significantly damaged the relationship between Erbil and Washington.  

In 2017, after Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted for independence in a referendum rejected by the central Iraqi government as “unconstitutional”, US President Donald Trump failed to support the Iraqi Kurds. Consequently, Iraqi forces and Shia armed groups known as Popular Mobilization Forces drove Kurds out of Kirkuk. And some two years later, the Trump administration disappointed Kurds in Iraq once again by abandoning their brethren as they were facing an existential threat in Syria. All this led to Kurds viewing the US as an increasingly untrustworthy ally, and starting to look for other supporters. 

Today, China appears to be capitalising on Washington’s fading popularity in the Iraqi Kurdish region. Eventually, Beijing’s multipronged outreach strategy that is clearly already increasing economic, cultural and political ties between KRI and China, could allow it to claim the role of primary global power in the region.  

The Iraqi Kurdish region is one of the US’s most successful state-building projects to date, despite its failures and shortcomings in the rest of Iraq. Moreover, the KRI, with its vast natural and human resources, has immense geopolitical importance for the US and its allies. Washington, which is already at loggerheads with China on many issues, cannot afford to lose the KRG to Beijing. 

But the coronavirus crisis that allowed China to make significant inroads into the KRG also offers the same opportunity to the US.  

Erbil still needs significant financial and medical assistance to manage the ongoing public health emergency. The Kurdish enclave is in dire straits due to the decline in oil prices and Baghdad’s decision to cut its share of the national budget.  

Washington can easily improve its image in the KRG by sending medical help and helping Erbil and Baghdad reach an acceptable financial agreement.

Today, Washington may well think Iraqi Kurdish region is not one of its priorities. But if it does not take swift action to assure Iraqi Kurds that the US still has their back, China can easily take its place as the primary benefactor – and decision-maker – in the region.  

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.