China’s Kurdish Policy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 1

One of the basic components of post-Mao China’s policy, domestic and international, is opposition to separatism. This policy reflects China’s uncompromising adherence to the maintenance of territorial integrity at all costs—primarily with regard to Taiwan, but also to Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Similarly, the Chinese are fundamentally and officially opposed to separatist movements elsewhere, suggesting recently that self-determination should not necessarily involve national independence and that stateless nations should not necessarily form, or be given, states.

These rules also apply to the Kurds. To be sure, Chinese scholars deplore the Kurdish “tragedy:” the fact that a nation with such a long history could never set up its own country; the refusal of any country to seriously help the Kurds; and the use of force by host governments (primarily Turkey) to suppress Kurdish nationalism. Nevertheless, the Chinese ultimately admit that the Kurds’ demand for independence endangers these countries’ territorial integrity and national security. They claim that Kurdish legal rights should be respected and protected, but only within an autonomous arrangement in an existing state. Separatism will only lead to war, engender terrorism, and will ultimately be rejected by the international community [1].

At the time of the July 1959 Kirkuk riots in Iraq, Beijing rhetorically identified with the Kurds’ fight for independence against Baghdad (Asian Survey, 6:11, 1966).

As the Kurdish revolt ended in March 1975, relations between China and Iraq began to improve. Moreover, in the 1980s Iraq became a major market for Chinese arms, some of which may have been used by Saddam against the Kurds. To be sure, until the early 2000s there was no real evidence of any Chinese interest in the Kurds, who claim independence from countries with which Beijing maintains full diplomatic relations (Iraq since 1958, Turkey and Iran since 1971).

Estimated at over 23 million, about 14.5 million Kurds live in Turkey (20 percent of the population); 4.6 million in Iran (7 percent); 4.3 million in Iraq (17 percent), and at least 1 million (some 9 percent) in Syria. Beijing has legally and officially recognized the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all these countries. Simultaneously, Beijing has undoubtedly been aware that already since the 1991 Gulf War, Kurds in Iraq have enjoyed de-facto independence, protected from Baghdad’s violence by a U.S.-enforced no-fly-zone. Since Saddam Hussein’s downfall in 2003, the Kurdish northern enclave has remained practically off-limits to the new Iraqi army. Correspondingly, there have been indications of growing Chinese interest in the Kurds.

In early August 2003 Beijing hosted Jalal Talabani, chairman of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and member of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council, who was later to become the first president of post-Saddam Iraq. Representing Iraq rather than the Kurds, he was invited by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, an official “unofficial” instrument, and headed the first Iraqi delegation to visit China after the war. Tang Jiaxuan, PRC Foreign Minister and State Councilor, urged his guest to restore stability under the auspices of the United Nations, underscoring that the legitimate interests of various countries in Iraq (and by implication China) should be guaranteed. He indicated China’s concern about the implementation of Iraq’s post-war economic reconstruction and willingness to actively participate in it (Xinhua, August 7, 2003).

Since then the Kurdish stake in Iraq’s politics has grown dramatically. Following the January 30, 2005 election in Iraq, a Kurdish coalition won a major 75-seat bloc in the parliament. This led to the appointment of the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as Iraq’s first Kurdish president. Closely following these events, the Chinese media failed to mention the actual relations between China and the Kurds. These include a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) delegation led by Ding Lifen— who reportedly represented the International Department and the Central Committee—that arrived in early May 2005 through the Al-Munziriyah Crossing near Khanaqin (on the Iranian border). The delegation was received by the heads of the PUK Khanaqin media office and organization center. A member of the delegation said that the visit came in response to the PUK invitation and followed a visit by a PUK delegation to China that led to the “strengthening of relations between the two parties.” He added that these relations have gathered momentum, particularly after the “historic visit” by PUK leader Jalal Talabani to China (Al-Ittihad [Baghdad], May 11, 2005).

On May 15, chairman of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Massoud Barzani met the Chinese Ambassador to Iraq and the Embassy’s economic and trade counselor. On behalf of his government, the ambassador invited Barzani to visit China. Stressing the Chinese people’s appreciation for the many sacrifices endured by the Kurdistan people, he expressed his hope for closer relations between the two peoples through expanded ties between the PRC and the Kurdistan regional government and especially between the CCP and the KDP. He underlined the important role of the Kurdistan people in rebuilding a federal and democratic Iraq. In response Barzani expressed his hope that the Chinese government would play its role in rebuilding Kurdistan (Khabat [Arbil], May 16, 2005).

One of the outcomes of these exchanges emerged in July 2005 when a weekly journal published by the Communist Party of Iraqi Kurdistan said that worldwide support for China was rising at the expense of the United States. Although the article, which was based on a U.S. publication (The Connecticut Post, June 24, 2005) did not mention the Kurds, it contained an implicit hint: “We [Kurds] should also say that the war of liberating Iraq has provided a big service to the people of Iraq and has encouraged others in the region and this war is still not finished” (Regay Kurdistan [Arbil], July 10, 2005, emphasis added). While Kurdish leaders, especially President Talabani, publicly brush aside the possibility of secession, they still insist on their right to self-determination “in case trouble erupts in Iraq in the future” (, August 17, 2005).

China’s gestures to the Kurds are motivated by several interests. First, they are used as leverage against Turkey, which still hosts Uyghur separatist activists and organizations. From the mid-1990s, Beijing has been applying pressure on Ankara to curb Uyghur separatist activism in its territory. Fully aware of the Kurdish issue in Turkey’s domestic politics and foreign policy, Beijing can use its relations with the Kurds—who claim Turkish territory—to twist Ankara’s arm even further [2]. Beijing uses the analogy between Uyghur and Kurdish separatism, implicitly threatening that if Ankara would continue to support Uyghurs, Beijing would support Kurds. Alluding to the Kurds, when President Jiang Zemin visited Turkey in April 2000 he commented that both countries were faced with the task of protecting national unity and territorial integrity and both opposed all kinds of international terrorism, national separatism and religious extremism (Turkish Probe, April 23, 2000; Guangzhou Ribao, April 21, 2000). Another consideration is China’s attempt to outflank the United States in Iraq by gaining a foothold in the north. Finally and most importantly, Beijing is interested in northern Iraq’s rich oilfields, primarily those controlled by the Kurds. According to official sources in Kurdistan, this region contains about 40 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves, or about 130 billion barrels.

The Chinese are evidently aware that Iraq’s new constitution, approved on October 15, 2005, uses ambiguous language on the issue of who is to control the oil industry—the central government or the local governments (Renmin Ribao, October 19, 2005). The constitution says that the central government and the local administrative authorities will cooperate in “managing” the “present” oilfields. It fails to precisely define what it means by “manage,” since such a definition may have certainly led to friction and conflict (Renmin Ribao, September 22, 2005). Similarly, while the use of the word “present” oilfields maintains ambiguity with regard to the “management” of “old” oilfields, it implies that the “management” of new oilfields—and their profits—would be controlled by local authorities. Consequently, the Kurds would likely control the old oilfields in their territory (notably in Kirkuk and Khanaqin) and will definitely control the new oilfields and oil explorations.

Indeed, it was recently disclosed that already in 2004 the KDP that controls much of northwestern Iraq, discreetly signed a deal with Norway’s DNO Company to drill for oil near the border city of Zakho, without Baghdad’s knowledge, let alone approval. DNO subcontracted the building of the oil drilling rig to the Chinese (unlisted) Great Wall Drilling Oil Company “that copied the latest American model.” Imported from China, the 30-floor tall rig was erected in 90 days and is capable of drilling 6,000 meters deep. This is the first rig in Kurdish Iraq since the 2003 war and the first in Iraq built by an international company in 20 years (The Globe, November 8, 2005). Drilling was launched on November 29, 2005, reportedly providing Nechirvan Barzani, prime-minister of the Kurdish northern government, with an occasion to vow: “There is no way Kurdistan would accept that the central government will control our resources […] The time has come that instead of suffering, the people of Kurdistan will benefit from the fortune and resources of their country.” Similar oil ventures are being explored with other foreign companies in other parts of Kurdish northern Iraq (Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2005).

It is inconceivable that the Chinese are not exploring possible oil resources in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. Last October Beijing hosted a PUK delegation led by Korsat Rasul Ali, member of the PUK Politburo, conveniently referred to as an “Iraqi guest.” Welcoming the delegation, Wang Jiarui, head of the CCP International Department, expressed the hope to further increase cooperation between the two parties in various respects, noting China’s willingness to make active efforts for Iraq’s reconstruction (Xinhua, October 20, 2005). China’s interest in Kurdish oil reflects Beijing’s growing thirst for energy resources, especially since its Iraqi oil concessions have been suspended by the United States after the 2003 war. Already in November 1996 Iraq’s National Assembly had approved a proposal by China National Oil and Gas Exploration and Development Corporation to develop Iraq’s al-Ahdab oilfields. Located about 40 miles south of al-Kut in central Iraq, this field has an output potential of 80-90,000 b/d and an estimated reserves of 140 million tons, or 1.4 billion barrels. Based on this approval, in June 1997 CNPC together with NORINCO (China’s Northern Industries Corporation, a huge ordnance production conglomerate) formed a new company called al-Waha and signed a 50 percent post-sanction production-sharing contract to be implemented in 22 years, pledging to invest US$1.26 billion in al-Ahdab’s development and operating costs. While several French and Russian oil companies have conducted negotiations for the development of oilfields in Iraq, the al-Ahdab deal was the first to be actually signed (U.S. Energy Information Administration). By that time the Chinese were holding negotiations aimed at acquiring rights in at least three other Iraqi oilfields. Undoubtedly, these initiatives had been undertaken in anticipation of Iraq’s increased oil production and export once UN sanctions are lifted. Yet as soon as the war ended, Washington swiftly suspended China’s oil concessions in Iraq. Kurdish oil may become a substitute.

Beijing’s overtures toward the Kurds, who are treated as an almost independent nation, undermine its own policies and contradict its own principles on separatism. In no way would Beijing permit another country to treat China’s Uyghurs, Tibetans or Mongols likewise and sympathize publicly with their plight, invite their leaders, send delegations, hold negotiations, or sign agreements with them behind Beijing’s back. Importantly, China’s Kurdish policy does not mean that the Chinese are interested in Iraq’s disintegration, hoping to benefit from a new and independent Kurdish state. In addition to unleashing regional instability that would be detrimental to China’s interests, Kurdish independence would encourage other separatist movements (notably the Uyghur and the Tibetan) to fight for the same cause. On the other hand, complete Kurdish dependence on the “new” Iraq would render complete control over the north (and its oilfields) to not only Baghdad but, furthermore, to Washington. Thus the existing situation in northern Iraq, with increased Kurdish autonomy within a weak Iraqi state is, under the present circumstances, optimal for Beijing’s interests and conforms to its views on limited self-determination.


1. Pan, Zhiping (Ed.), Minzu zijue hai shi minzu fenlie: minzu he dangdai minzufenliezhuyi [National Self-Determination Is Still National Separatism: Contemporary National Separartism] (Urumqi: Xinjiang Renmin Chubanshe, 1999), pp. 88-91.

2. Kuang Shengyan and Chen Zhihong, “Kuerde gongrendang wenti ji qi dui Tuerqi neiwai zhengce de yingxiang” [The Question of the Kurdish Workers Party and Its Impact on Turkey’s Domestic and Foreign Policy] Xiya Feizhou [West Asia and Africa], No 4 (1995), pp. 19-24.