By the series of actions in recent months in Iraq and across the Middle East, Washington has forced a strategic shift towards China and to an extent Russia and away from the United States. If events continue on the present trajectory it can well be that a main reason that Washington backed the destabilization of Assad in Syria, to block a planned Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline, will now happen, short of Washington initiating a full scorched earth politics in the region. This is what we can call unintended consequences.
If nature abhors a vacuum, so too does geopolitics. When President Trump months ago announced plans to pull US troops out of Syria and the Middle East generally, Russia and especially China began quietly to intensify contacts with key states in the region.
Chinese involvement with Iraqi oil development and other infrastructure projects, though large, was significantly disrupted by the ISIS occupation of some one third of Iraqi territory. In September, 2019 Washington demanded that Iraq pay for completion of key infrastructure projects destroyed by the ISIS war– a war where Washington as well as Ankara, Israel and Saudi Arabia played the key hidden role—by giving the US government 50% of Iraqi oil revenues, an outrageous demand to put it politely.
Iraq China Pivot
Iraq refused. Instead Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi went to Beijing as head of a 55-member delegation to discuss Chinese involvement in the rebuilding of Iraq. This visit did not go unnoticed in Washington. Even before that, Iraqi-China ties were significant. China was Iraq’s number one trading partner and Iraq was China’s third-leading source of oil after Saudi Arabia and Russia. In April 2019 in Baghdad, China’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Relations Lee Joon said China was ready to contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction.
For Abdul-Mahdi the Beijing trip was a major success; he called it a “quantum jump” in relations. The visit saw the signing of eight wide-ranging memoranda of understanding (MoUs), a framework credit agreement, and the announcement of plans for Iraq to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It included Chinese involvement in rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure as well as developing Iraqi oilfields. For both countries an apparent “win-win” as the Chinese like to say.