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China and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: An Enduring Yet Cumbersome Relationship

Kurdish issues will never reach the highest level of foreign policy decision-making in the Chinese bureaucratic apparatus, given the region’s general low priority on China’s foreign policy agenda.

12/27/2022 11:52:00 AM

 By/ Sardar Aziz

Key Points:

 - China was the last member of the permanent five in the UN Security Council to open a consulate in Erbil, demonstrating China’s sensibilities and caution toward the Kurdish issue in Iraq.

  - If China can maintain its position in Iraqi Kurdistan, it will have greater symbolic significance in big power competitions in the rest of Iraq.

  - Erbil will be forced to make a difficult choice if the relationship between the two superpowers deteriorates due to the hegemonic stalemate between the US and China.

  - Kurdish issues will never reach the highest level of foreign policy decision-making in the Chinese bureaucratic apparatus, given the region’s general low priority on China’s foreign policy agenda. 

  - Several characteristics of China’s relationship with Iraqi Kurds are critical to understanding China’s foreign and regional policy in the KRI and Iraq.


China is rapidly emerging and expanding its presence in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). In the region, Beijing is involved in soft power building, linking to universities and Chinese language schools, funding local NGOs, and energy, infrastructure, and trade. China has primarily focused on energy in the south but has recently expanded into other sectors, such as construction and infrastructure.


However, the China-KRI relationship is also plagued by several sensitive issues that make it cumbersome. This paper examines the various modes of Chinese power in the region, their methods of connecting with various elites, and how they compete with others. Will Erbil become a Belt and Road project hub? How will this impact Iraq and the region? The paper focuses on China’s difficulties and explains why the relationship is so complicated.


The Relationship


Several points of departure exist in the China-Kurds relationship. One can depart from the arrival of Maoism as an ideology as a part of the global Maoist movement. However, Kurdish Maoism was linked to global Maoism indirectly. Before becoming the world’s economic power, China tried to shape the world order and influence other countries’ domestic politics by exporting Maoist ideas. Maoism influenced an Iraqi Kurd faction via the Revolutionary Organization of the Tudeh Party (ROTP), an Iranian branch of Maoism. 


In his 2012 book Call to Arms: Iran’s Marxist Revolutionaries: Formation and Evolution of the Fada’is, Ali Rahnema mentions that Krush Lashai, one of the group’s four leaders, visited Sulaymaniyah in 1967. He became the movement’s leading theorist, and the movement later became the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This history has contributed to the nature of the PUK-China relationship. From the first ambassador in 2007, Muhammad Saber, to the current ambassador, Shorish Khalid, the PUK has sent many Iraqi ambassadors to China


Jalal Talabani, the leader of the PUK, had a special relationship with Mao Zedong and China. He considered Mao his “political role model.” In 1955, Talabani traveled to China as the head of an Iraqi socialist student delegation. He met with Chou En-lai, the Chinese prime minister at the time. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the first construction project awarded to the Chinese in Kurdistan was in the PUK area. Another line of departure in the China-Iraqi Kurd relationship was when China opened its consulate in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) in 2014. China was the last member of the permanent five in the UN Security Council to open a general consulate in Erbil, demonstrating China’s sensibilities and caution toward the Kurdish issue in Iraq and minorities in general.


Following the consulate’s opening, China transformed its relationship with the region from a low-key secondary actor to a partnership with diverse interests. It began a multi-faceted relationship with the region, using the consulate as a medium to connect the region to China and vice versa. China communicates with various Kurdistan elites via the consulate, including party cadres, business people, academics, students, and intellectuals. The two starting points are compatible, despite representing two very different Chinas. 


The first point of departure is the Maoist era when China viewed foreign policy through an ideological lens. The second point of departure is capitalist China, a country desperate for markets, energy, raw materials, and influence. As previously stated, China, Kurdistan, and the Kurdish elite have a distinct history from the rest of Iraq. Because of this background, China could establish a relationship with the KDP. 


This focus on political partisanship is still one of the relationship’s characteristics. China is inviting more Kurdish political party cadres than government bureaucrats. The market is the dominant feature of the current relationship, but it is not without state and ideological roles. China’s development model is inextricably linked to political and geopolitical concerns at home and abroad. Although Iraq plays a vital role in the relationship, China’s relationship with Kurdistan can also be studied independently.


Why Does it Matter?


  1. Several characteristics of China’s relationship with Kurds and Iraqi Kurds are critical to understanding China’s foreign and regional policy in the KRI and Iraq.

  2. The relationship models China’s interactions with a minority and a regional government. Beijing’s stance on Kurds contradicts its stance on minorities within China. This complicates an already delicate situation weighing on the relationship. Due to these factors, the relationship is shrouded in mutual silence in many areas.

  3. China uses the relationship to challenge the United States, especially symbolically. Some political and armed groups in Iraq see China as an alternative to the US, a role that China does not welcome.

However, if it can maintain its position in Iraqi Kurdistan, it will have greater symbolic significance in big power competitions in the rest of Iraq. Since the 1990s, the US has shielded the KRI, and the latter’s decision to turn to China indicates that US power is dwindling.


Political Relations and Issues


China’s relationship with the KRI is multi-faceted and complex. Both parties see opportunities and dilemmas in their relationship. While China’s opportunities are limited to economics, trade, and soft power, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) cannot trade these for US military alignment and security guarantees. So far, the region has reaped the benefits of American security and Chinese economic opportunity. However, Erbil will be forced to make a difficult choice if the relationship between the two superpowers deteriorates elsewhere due to the hegemonic stalemate between the US and China. As long as the current arrangement is stable, it is appealing.


The KRI has a strong interest in preserving the dual system. However, its influence is limited. The US and China are playing a low-scale game of indirect competition in the region through media outlets, propaganda, recruiting local activists, and funding various groups and societies. Aside from the big power quandary, the direct China-KRG relationship is fraught with difficulties. 


While China expands its presence in the KRG, it does not grant the latter the same rights. China, which established a consulate in Erbil in 2014, has not allowed the KRG to establish a consulate in Beijing. Both sides downplay the significance of this issue. During an interview in 2021, KRG officials Falah Mustafa Bakir and Safeen Dizayi emphasized the technicality of the issues reiterated by Ni Ruchi, the Chinese Consul-General in Erbil. Moreover, PUK officials Mohammad Sabir and Azad Jundiani pointed out that “China suggested the KRG open a commercial office, registered under a company name, to operate as a political representative.” The discrepancies show that China lacks interest in that area.  


The primary goals of soft power are to make China more appealing, to present China as an alternative to the American democratic model, and to build an image of Chinese partnership as a quick and feasible way to rebuild the region. So far, the model is operational. Chinese firms are winning contracts in Iraq and Kurdistan, leaving other companies and countries needing help with how to compete. China is becoming more visible in the region’s education sectors, particularly universities. It has partnerships with seven public and private KRI universities, and education is a vital component of “people-to-people” diplomacy in China. They are also attempting to localize the face of China’s storytellers by funding local NGOs, journalists, and translators, Chawi Kurd, for instance.


China used several methods to implement these in multiple areas. For example, various explanations have been advanced for why Chinese firms outperform others. “China’s strength lies not only in its economic power but also in its willingness to take risks supported by state-owned enterprises,” Akiko Yoshioka, a Senior Analyst on Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, explained.This [Chinses] government intervention was critical in securing contracts for Chinese firms.


The Chinese firms’ close relationship with the government has allowed them to compete on risk and cost. According to the KRG’s agriculture minister, Chinese firms were awarded contracts to build four dams because they were willing to build them for less than others. To summarize, China’s ability to win contracts, expand, and compete with others is founded on state-company fusions, risk-taking, long-term plans, and thinking bigger.


However, China’s relations with the KRG are not without issues. By prohibiting political relations with Taiwan and vice versa, China imposes its “One China” policy on Kurdistan while claiming no political intervention. According to an insider, China once canceled the former KRG prime minister’s visits to Taiwan. However, while China is winning more contracts in the region than any other country and influencing various types of elites, it has yet to win the hearts of ordinary people.


Furthermore, unlike the rest of Iraq, no movement or political group has officially endorsed China. In Iraq’s south, political and grassroots organizations are advocating for and pressuring the government to become an official member of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Popular Movement for the Silk Road, which has held rallies, conferences, and meetings from Karbala to Basra, advocating closer economic ties with China, is unique to the south. However, China still focuses on the elites in Kurdistan.


While China intends to build a new facility for its consulate-general in Erbil, indicating the intention to improve the relationship, it comes with difficulties. A new consulate suggests that more Chinese citizens will visit the region, and more people from the region will be encouraged to visit China. However, China considers the KRG a local government with no diplomatic presence or influence. As a result, China’s approach differs significantly from that of the world’s other major powers, particularly the US.


This situation leads to a distinct asymmetry of overall strength in the China-Kurdistan relationship, which has psychological and behavioral consequences for both sides. Kurdish issues will never reach the highest level of foreign policy decision-making in the Chinese bureaucratic apparatus, given the region’s general low priority on China’s foreign policy agenda. In practice, policymaking for Kurdistan occurs primarily at the operational levels of consulates, embassies, and branches of government agencies, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and the Ministry of Commerce (MoF). This contrasts sharply with the KRG’s relationships with other countries, where hosting, reception, and other displays of relationship-building are of the highest caliber.


In the West, the KRG can lobby, form friendships and influence various centers of power; this is impossible in China. Hence, in its relationship with China, the KRG must restrain, tolerate, respect, and sometimes even obey the status quo. The KRG political elites know that the US is concerned about China’s regional expansion. Kurdistan faces a dilemma in its relationship with China, referred to as a “dual hierarchy” by John Ikenberry in Between the Eagle and the Dragon: America, China, and Middle State Strategies in East Asia. Kurdistan could benefit from Chinese economic and technological investments and America’s security commitment.


It will be difficult for the KRG to choose between the US and China in the future. Because of the possibility of this happening, both parties have chosen to keep a low profile.  Another notable distinction is China’s preference for an absolute Westphalian approach to international relations, as opposed to the KRG’s preference for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) model, which allows the international community to intervene in domestic affairs.


Energy Relations


With roughly 10.2 percent of China’s needs, Iraq is the Asian giant’s third-largest crude oil supplier. China intends to go beyond oil in the context of its energy security strategy paradigm, which is obsessed with energy self-sufficiency and a security concept centered on avoiding sudden changes in energy availability. China’s energy companies are mostly concentrated in Iraq’s south. In the 1990s, China, as it did in other countries, attempted to fill the void left by sanctions and the isolation of Iraq by replacing other firms. 


The 1997 agreement between CNPC and the former Iraqi Baath government to develop the Ahdab oil field, though never implemented, laid the groundwork for subsequent deals. Sinopec paid US$ 7.24 billion for Swiss oil explorer Addax Petroleum Corp in June 2009 to enter the Kurdistan oil market. The contract was about the Taq-Taq oil field, located between Kirkuk and Erbil, besides Sinopec Anton oilfield service group, which works on several oil sector projects in the KRI. Before that, Chinese companies were mostly engaged in engineering, procurement, and construction, and they worked for other companies, as a former junior diplomat at the Chinese consulate in Erbil reported. In addition, China bought KRG oil in 2019 for $US 2 below the market price.


China’s low investment in the KRG energy sector could be attributed to several factors, including latecomers wary of the regional government’s status. In addition to these, the oil itself may be a problem. In Iraq, oil is more than just an energy source or an economic commodity for Kurds and the country. It is also one of the most contentious issues between Baghdad and Erbil. China is aware of the delicate relationship and has a policy of doing everything to avoid imbalance.


As China becomes the primary investor in Iraqi oil and the latter becomes one of the primary sources of oil imports, the Chinese will be unable to focus on both Baghdad and Erbil simultaneously. Despite its limited investment in the sector, the KRG’s energy sector indirectly supports China’s trade and infrastructure. Due to its rentier system, the Kurdistan region imports most of its goods and commodities instead of producing them. China is one of the leading suppliers to the KRG market, alongside Iran and Turkey. According to a trade and industry ministry source, 70-80 companies registered in the KRG import Chinese goods into the region.


Chinese Investments in Non-Oil Sectors


China is eager to invest in Kurdistan. Erbil’s status as a reasonably secure city and its business-friendly environment offer two compelling factors for Chinese regional investment. China is also capitalizing on the KRG’s need for investment and its lack of legal constraints. Because Erbil is part of Iraq and borders Iran and Syria, China could use it as a distribution hub for goods to other parts of the country and the region. While it is widely known that China is looking for energy, particularly oil in Iraq in Kurdistan, its approach can be described as being beyond oil with its attempts to invest in every area.


On the outskirts of Erbil city, the Peking Company for Investment is planning a funded cultural tourism megaproject called Happy City. Besides the tourist park, Happy City has a megamall, and the project aims to become a tourist destination for the rest of Iraq. This one-of-a-kind space will be used to display Chinese products, familiarize the general public with them, and eventually become a distribution center, according to the company’s website.


China has attempted to use the Expo to connect Erbil with Chinese cities, online exchanges, and marketplaces. On March 8, 2021, the Jinhua Export Online Trade Fair, which was organized specifically for Iraq’s Kurdish Region, went live. The Jinhua Municipal Commerce Bureau, the Jinhua Committee of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT), and the Erbil Branch (Kurdish Region) of the Iraq Chamber of Commerce for Imports and Exports organized the Fair.


China has made efforts to establish itself in several other fields. This happened before and during Covid-19, and numerous tools were used to accomplish this. For example, the international director of Chinese oil company HBP, Qin Liang, has been trying to get a foot in the door in Erbil. During the Covid-19 era, the same company provided 5,400 emergency test kits and 30,000 masks to one of Kurdistan’s main charity organizations, the Barzani Charity Foundation. Chinese companies operate in various sectors, including Detective Quantum Efficiency, an oil and gas service, refineries, and dams.


Chinese companies are also building partnerships with local companies: PowerChina has a partnership with Dabin Group and Mellat Holding for a cement plant and with Khoshnaw Group for wheat manufacturing. China has set up state security (Guoanbu) and police stations abroad to expand globally. According to sources, China’s Guoanbu is active in Erbil as part of its expanding roles, wooing the local intelligentsia, gaining access to the region’s decision-makers, and launching a media company that will translate Chinese books into Kurdish to reach a larger audience.


China’s Soft Power


In Iraqi Kurdistan, China’s emphasis on soft power is telling. Beijing has shown insatiable curiosity and an obsession with soft power throughout its rise. Maria Repnikova, in Chinese Soft Power (Cambridge University Press, 2022), says that in domestic and international contexts, Xi Jinping emphasizes and frequently invokes “soft power.” It is not surprising that China has a strong soft power relationship with the KRI. This section will focus on China’s activities within KRI universities and civil societies.


China is collaborating with KRI universities in the following ways. It organizes trips, provides fellowships, opens corners (a program to establish affiliations between KRI and Chinese institutions and individuals that promote and facilitate linkages and relationships across various fields), and establishes language centers. This is besides the establishment and rapid expansion of its Huawei Information and Communication Technology centers. Huawei develops partnerships with academies worldwide, delivering technology training, encouraging students to get Huawei certification, and developing talent with practical skills.


The Chinese consulate approached other universities after establishing the Erbil language center. Dohuk University recently opened a China Corner. Sources indicate that the Chinese consulate in Erbil is in talks with Sulaymaniyah and Raparin universities to do the same. In addition, there have been frequent visits by KRI students to China and Chinese universities. China combines education and diplomacy through these academies, centers, corners, and visits. Together, China’s involvement in the education sector aims to improve China’s image by building grassroots support in local communities and creating a positive image of China among the educated elite.


In 2017, the Chinese consulate proposed to Salahaddin University’s College of Languages the establishment of a Chinese language department to achieve this objective. Many other links with different universities in the KRI followed. Establishing several Huawei Information and Communication Technology (ICT) academies can be viewed as both soft power and business, with potential data-gathering implications. Currently, Huawei ICT academies offer courses and certificates at the Lebanese French University (LFU), Garmyan University, Dohuk University, Sulaymaniyah Polytechnical University, and Salaheddin University.


Huawei encourages and supports these academies, which educate and train students in numerous fields, including 5G, cloud computing, AI, and blockchain. According to a university source, the centers are thriving, and students who obtain certificates have a better chance of being hired by one of the region’s major telecommunications companies, as Huawei is one of their leading suppliers. Besides offering training and granting certificates, the company hosts the Huawei ICT Competition. In 2022, a team from KRI Salahaddin University defeated teams from all over the world to win the Grand Prize in the Innovation Competition.


Media and civil society are two other areas in which the Chinese are actively involved. The Chawi Kurd Center is a Chinese-funded civil society organization. China attempts to localize its efforts to reach the Kurdish people through these local civil societies. The Chinese consulate in Erbil funded the Kurdish translation of President Xi Jinping’s book The Governance of China. Following the book’s publication, the former director of the center was invited to China. Chawi Kurd, which the Chinese regard as a Center for Political Development, interacted with the Center for International Cooperation of China’s National Development and Reform during the trip. 


However, the emphasis is on development rather than democracy. According to Dilshad Namiq, president of the Chawi Kurd Center, “Kurdish political issues and democracy are never discussed in their meetings with Chinese officials.” This could be one of Xi Jinping’s “three no” principles: no proxies, no sphere of interest, and no attempt to fill any power vacuum in the Middle East. However, the emphasis on development implies that there are more than three no’s in the relationship, the most notable of which is no mention of democracy-related issues but simply doubling down on development.


The development framework, rather than democracy, also excludes the KRG as a political entity. China is connected to the main media channels in the region through interviews, op-eds written by the consulate, and trips to China. In addition, Erbil’s Chinese consulate maintains the “China in Kurdish” Facebook page. A cursory examination of the published materials reveals that, besides promoting top political elites, China primarily focuses on images of mega infrastructure projects, new cities, dams, bridges, and other construction sites, emphasizing intensifying development while marginalizing democracy. 


These efforts serve multiple objectives. Among them is China’s attempts to distinguish itself from the American model, particularly the American experience in Iraq, through this discourse. It tries to associate democracy with chaos and development and the Chinese development model with stability and growth. Because it avoids touching any aspect of politics, environment, or human rights, the developmental approach allows China to concentrate on getting contracts more efficiently. The KRG elites, albeit cautiously, welcome these features.



China is making inroads into Iraqi Kurdistan in infrastructure, trade, energy, education, and soft power. Both parties work within their capabilities, a constraint complicating the relationship. While China expands and tries to attract people from the region to its model and products, the KRG has no chance of being present in China, let alone having any influence or lobbying there. Regardless of how limited the relationship is, it will not be immune to broader US-China tensions. As a result, in the future, the KRG will be forced to choose between economy and security, especially if China-US relations deteriorate further on a global scale.


The dilemma becomes more acute when the US is unwilling to invest, and China is unwilling to provide security. China’s expansion may concern the United States and other countries, particularly in gaining contracts and taking risks.  China attempts to de-Americanize Iraq by emphasizing development over democracy. The rise of Chinese influence will stymie democratization, especially as the United States and other countries experience democratization fatigue. China is not afraid to offer its surveillance model, contributing to greater regional social and political control.


Even in the administration model, the Iraqi Kurdish political elites prefer the China Model. This model embodies a close and symbiotic relationship between the party and the state, the decoupling of economic and political rights, and the old Maoist model driven by a synergy of power and violence. Despite their fondness for this model, Iraqi-Kurdish elites cannot embrace it openly. China’s soft power is spreading quickly through universities in the KRI in a uniquely Chinese way.


Education, Chinese language learning, employment opportunities with Chinese companies, and other factors contribute to China’s good image. Furthermore, China is attempting to localize its efforts to connect more with local elites. Against this backdrop, it is clear that despite Kurdish reservations, China has become an integral part of the KRI economy, education, market, and politics in its unique way and is only growing. 


Despite challenges, China’s KRG relationship will continue for the time being. However, for numerous reasons, the specter of the US military power, the dire need for protection, and China’s unwillingness to fully recognize KRG, it is not easy to imagine the two sides developing trust and friendship. Hence, a cumbersome atmosphere will engulf the relationship.




Sardar Aziz is a senior adviser in the Kurdish parliament as well as a researcher and writer. His areas of interest include civil-military relations, Middle East regional politics, and governing. He has a Ph.D. in Government from the University College Cork.


                                            This study was previously published by the Emirates Policy Center