SHANGHAI - There’s very little that the Chinese government likes less than the projection of U.S. military power. The reasons range widely — from a general distaste for the U.S. meddling outside its borders to Beijing’s frequent support for autocratic regimes. China steadfastly opposed the idea of U.S. intervention in Syria, for instance, and in 2011, it refused to back military action in Libya (though it abstained from the Security Council vote to authorize strikes).
So a week ago Friday, when the state-owned China Daily newspaper reached out to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a comment on President Barack Obama’s authorization of airstrikes in Iraq, it might well have expected a stock condemnation of U.S. imperialism. It received something quite different.
“China supports safeguarding Iraqi sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and efforts to combat terrorism,” the paper said, paraphrasing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “And keeping an open mind about operations that preserve security and stability in Iraq.”
The response, though unusual, should not have been entirely unexpected. China has a great deal at stake in ensuring that the jihadists of the Islamic State do not continue to destabilize the Middle East. A day after the China Daily story, the popular and influential state-owned Global Times newspaper acknowledged as much in a widely circulated editorial:
ISIS’ rise, combined with the American airstrikes, have a limited impact on China. China’s disadvantage is that our dependence on Middle Eastern oil is increasing, and much faster than any other developed country.
In other words: Unless the Islamic State is dealt with sooner rather than later, its impact on China won’t be so limited.
As with Libya, though, the most help that China seems ready to offer is a tacit willingness not to complain about the U.S. and others intervening in Iraq. This reluctance to defend its own Mideast energy supplies more forcefully has not gone unnoticed by the Obama administration. During an interview last Saturday, Obama smiled ironically when the New York Times’ Tom Friedman referred to China as “the biggest energy investor in Iraq.”
“They are free riders,” Obama said. “And then they’ve been free riders for the last 30 years, and it’s worked really well for them.”
Even if, as seems likely, China’s leadership quietly agrees with this sentiment, they certainly don’t like hearing it broadcast by the president of the United States. After a couple of days, their propagandists struck back in the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party. The tit-for-tat headline nicely summed up the tone: “Experts say the United States is the real ‘free rider.’ ” In the article, Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University, hailed the geopolitical benefits that China’s resurgence has supposedly brought the world, then asked:
“Obama says that China has been a ‘free rider’ for three decades, but didn’t the United States enjoy benefits from China’s economic boom and peaceful foreign policy?”
On Wednesday, the People’s Daily weighed in again, this time with an editorial (its editorials are official statements of policy on behalf of the Communist Party) that suggested how much Obama’s criticism had irked Chinese leaders. The piece notes the “unmistakable” relationship between the current chaos in Iraq and the U.S.’ decision in 2003 to “launch a brutal war in Iraq to overthrow its regime.”
Then, in a passage that’s subsequently been published in part in the state media’s English-language news sites (under the inexplicably off-message headline “Leading newspaper denies China’s exploitation of Iraq”), it offers this unsubtle poke in the ribs: “If the Americans want to compare themselves with China on Iraq, they’ll only embarrass themselves further. America is obviously the ‘invader’ and ‘deserter’ while China has always played the peaceful role of ‘partner’ and ‘builder.’ “
It’s hard to argue that China has played a constructive “builder” role in Iraq recent years, especially as its oil interests have expanded, just as it is difficult to counter China’s claim that U.S. mistakes contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.
Regardless, over time, oil and China’s insatiable energy needs are almost certainly going to push Beijing to become a more active Middle Eastern stakeholder. It’s time that China stops fighting that reality.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Shanghai.