BRICS Response to the Kurdish Referendum: The Chinese Case

The highly acclaimed result of the Kurdish referendum delivered a decisive yes vote (More than 92%) for the creation of a new aspired Independent Kurdish state may change (though not necessarily) the geopolitical dynamics beyond the Middle East. The referendum called by Masoud Al-Barzani the illegal President of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is the first concrete daring step for Iraqi Kurds to realize a more than a century dream of launching an independent Kurdish state. It is acknowledged that since 1991 the Kurds have in all practical purposes created their own de-facto or even de-jure state. The “blood boundaries” the Kurds are talking about cover large swath of so called “disputed areas” liberated from ISIS more specifically “Kirkuk, “so-called the Jerusalem of the Kurds” the oil rich province. This is why it seems essential for any objective analyst to trace and evaluate the world response but more specifically BRICS response starting with the China’s perspective towards this dramatic shocking development.

Thus, “while Beijing fears that Kurdish independence could fuel separatist movements within China, the emergence of a Kurdish state could turn out to be a net positive for the Asian giant.” (Mordechai Chaziza, China and the Kurdish State). Such a dichotomy emerges out of an ironic complex perspective: Though China has maintained cordial promising diplomatic and commercial relations with the Kurds it “opposes a unilateral Kurdish declaration of independence.” (M. Chaziza). How this critical equation can be squared? The prime realiser condition for approving a new Kurdish state has to await the consent conferred by Iraq central government and of the two main regional powers Turkey and Iran which will not be forthcoming. The Chinese knew like other states in the world that without Baghdad and the regional and international recognition the Kurdish futuristic state will remain only a near impossible dream to achieve.

China has expressed its position on Kurdish Independence Referendum: Beijing supports Baghdad (Lu Kang, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman)

In the eyes of Beijing “separatism” is one of 3 “evil forces” China intends to combat including “extremism and terrorism”. (M.Chaziza). Essentially China isn’t ready or willing to compromise on matters directly relating to the preservation of its national security in similar fashion to others perspectives. Thus, maintaining territorial national integrity is an essential priority for China’s defence and foreign policies. Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia are “red-lines” from Chinese perspective to cross, with no prospect of extending any independent status for such political entities including a newly unilateral Kurdish state. The Chinese has therefore at this transitory juncture intends to support the Iraqi central federal state in its efforts to maintain constitutional norms, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity highlighting the importance of advantageous bilateral relations.

Furthermore, Chinese foreign policy towards Iraq is part and parcel of its larger Middle Eastern asserting peace, stability and economic prosperity as valued norms and mutual interests for China and its allies in the region. This is why the Chinese have emphasised the importance of Iraqi efforts at national reconciliation, eco-political reconstruction and counter-terrorism against ISIS. However, when it comes to the evaluation of the futuristic Chinese strategic outlook towards the critical Kurdish Question, conflicting pragmatic approaches may emerge. From the side of enriching Chinese interests in the Iraqi Northern Kurdish region the following themes are in order:

  1. An Independent Kurdish state could provide China with a new Middle East ally to exert more influence as and when necessary.
  2. From a pragmatic point of view the Chinese has expressed strong interest in strengthening their oil and gas interests in the Iraqi – Kurdish region through the activities of Chinese oil companies.
  3. China like others has experienced the Kurds as a reliable ally in combating Violent non-state actors mainly ISIS.
  4. The Chinese may provide the Kurds with a leverage to diffuse Turkish support in hosting Uyghur (so-called separatist organizations).

As to the adverse ramifications the Chinese may very well experience in case of extending effective support to the Kurdish separatists in Iraq the following areas will have to be tackled. First, the establishment of an independent Kurdish state will create insecurity adversely affecting Chinese strategic and economic interests spiralling thereby other separatist tendencies beyond Kurdistan, encouraging the Uyghurs and Tibetans to pursue their own strategic –economic and political designs. Second, the Chinese will have therefore to seriously address the strong repercussions voiced by the regional powers against the Kurdish referendum to prevent an unwarranted chaotic insecure situation or even a likely war with all the entailed serious ramifications. This is why it seems a far-fetched proposition for China to support a futuristic unilateral Kurdish state endanger in the process Chinese national security and interests.  Admittedly, China has – just like other counties- earlier opened its Consulate in Erbil as a step to cement its relationship with KRG (Kurdish Regional Council). However, China is realistic enough to appreciate that an independent Kurdish state without the consent of Iraq and the two principle neighbouring states is not a realistic advantageous objective if the regional boundaries were to be changed. Any retraction from Erbil on its 25/9 referendum accompanied by a strong persistent principled stand from the Federal Iraqi government can promote Chinese interests in Iraq and beyond.

It is informative to be affirmed that the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has well characterized the Kurdish referendum as a “big mistake” calling on the Kurds not to commit further “bigger mistakes” that may land them into the midpoint of fire. Both Turkey and Russia (under President Vladimir Putin) have agreed in their recent meeting that the territorial integrity of Iraq should be preserved. Any failure to reach to a secure Iraqi and regionally agreed upon situation will lead to very hard critical economic situation for the Kurds particularly if the closure of borders (land and air) and the stopping the transfer of oil from the Kurdish Regional Council (KRG) to the Turkish ports come into effect. Admittedly, the Russian position has to be addressed further in a separate piece alongside other BRICS states’ positions.

Ahmad Shikara

Member of the faculty at the EmiratesCenter for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) in Abu Dhabi since 2000. There he works in the Training Department and in Human Resources. He recently published on the ramifications of Iraqi elections. In the past he conducted extensive research at the ECSSR and has conducted graduate and faculty seminars focusing on the effect of resource scarcity on the Arabian Gulf and the United States. Dr. Shikara, and before joining the ECSSR, served on the Political Science Department at the United Arab Emirates University (1980-1994), as an honorary professor at the Institute of Developing Economies in Japan (1994) and as a research fellow in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand (1996-2000).

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