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China Tightens Its Grip On Iraq With Major Successes in Licensing Rounds

Iraq remains crucial to China’s ongoing efforts to establish dominance over the Middle East for three main reasons, which is why the slew of new ‘fifth-plus’ and sixth oil and gas licensing concessions its firms won last week is not just enormously significant for it, but also for the U.S. as well. On the first day of the concessions round, China’s Zhongman Petroleum and Natural Gas Group (ZPEC) was awarded the northern extension of the Eastern Baghdad field, its United Energy Group won the development rights for the Al-Faw field, its Zhenhua Oil company was awarded the rights to develop the Qurnain field, and its Geo-Jade company won the bid to develop the Zurbatiya field. Over the next two days, further major oil and gas field awards went to Zhongman (for Abu Khema, and Middle Furat), Zhenhua Oil (for Abu Khema), Geo-Jade (for Jabal Sanam), China National Offshore Oil Corporation (for Block 7), Sinopec (for Sumer), and Anton Oil (for Dhuriyah). Aside from a few awards to Iraqi firms, it was largely a clean sweep for Beijing. It was precisely what China has been trying to do since it manoeuvred into position to fill the vacuum left after the U.S.’s scaling down of its presence in the Middle East following its unilateral withdrawal from the ‘nuclear deal’ with Iran on 8 May 2018.

The first reason why Iraq is so important to China is that it – along with neighbouring Iran – possesses one of the two great global oil and gas reserves that remain relatively underdeveloped. Officially, according to the Energy Information Administration, Iraq holds a very conservatively-estimated 145 billion barrels of proved crude oil reserves (nearly 18 percent of the Middle East’s total, and the fifth biggest on the planet). Unofficially, it is extremely likely that it holds much more oil than this, as analysed in full in my new book on the new global oil market order.

In October 2010, Iraq’s Oil Ministry increased its own official figure for the country’s proven reserves but at the same time stated that Iraq’s undiscovered resources amounted to around 215 billion barrels. This was also a figure that had been arrived at in a 1997 detailed study by respected independent oil and gas firm, Petrolog. Even this figure, though, did not include the parts of northern Iraq in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. As separately highlighted by the International Energy Agency (IEA), most of these had been drilled during a period before the 1970s began when technical limits and low oil prices gave a narrower definition of what constituted a commercially successful well than would be the case now. Overall, the IEA underlined that the level of ultimately recoverable resources across all of Iraq (including the Kurdistan region) at around 246 billion barrels (crude and natural gas liquids).

This would place it only marginally behind Saudi Arabia’s reserves figure (267 billion barrels) – although this is highly disputed - and slightly further behind Venezuela’s (303 billion barrels). In short, for China, Iraq is a huge oil and gas filling station that it can use to power its economic growth.

Better still, it can do so at a huge discount to the global market prices for oil and gas, due to the terms of its 2019 ‘Oil for Reconstruction and Investment’ agreement, as also analysed in full in my new book on the new global oil market order. This allowed Chinese firms to invest in infrastructure projects in Iraq in exchange for oil and was later broadened and deepened in the all-encompassing ‘Iraq-China Framework Agreement’ of 2021. Part of these deals involved China being given a 10-30 percent discount (depending on the field) to China for at least five years on the value of the oil and gas it recovers from Iraq. Another part is that its huge investments into Iraq in recent years were also to be rewarded with first refusal for Beijing on most of the oil, gas, and petrochemicals projects that come up in Iraq for the duration of the ‘Iraq-China Framework Agreement’. It appears that the latest fifth-plus and sixth licensing rounds have followed this pledge.

The second reason why Iraq is so important to China is that it, together with Iran again, forms a Shia Islam counterpoint to previously U.S.-aligned Sunni Islam leader of Saudi Arabia. This allows China to play one side off against the other, with the threat of an increasingly aggressive Iran being used by Beijing to persuade Saudi Arabia to fully break away from the U.S.’s sphere of influence and to sign the 10 March 2023 resumption of relationship deal with Iran. It also means that China has a direct influence on the ‘Shia Crescent of Power’ that runs through the Middle East, as analysed in full in my new book on the new global oil market order. This comprises not just Iran and Iraq but also Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen, among other borderline countries, and gives China three key geopolitical advantages. First, it can be used to hold the U.S. in check in those areas. Second, it offers several direct transport routes into Europe that can be utilised overtly or covertly. And third, it has other oil and gas reserves, many of which are currently going cheap.

The final reason why Iraq is so important to China is its geographical position in the very heart of the Middle East, with connections to Turkey (and Europe) to the north, Syria (and the Mediterranean) to the northwest, Jordan (and then Israel) to the west, and Saudi Arabia (to the south). Each of these routes is crucial to one or more key strategic elements of China’s multi-generational power-grab project, the ‘Belt & Road Initiative’. The expansion of its original oil and gas contracts into a spider’s web of supporting infrastructure projects has been central to all of China’s oil and gas developments in Iraq, just as they have been in Iran. Indeed, shortly after the 2019 ‘Oil for Reconstruction and Investment’ agreement, Baghdad approved several potentially far-reaching new infrastructure deals that heavily involved China in the heartland of Iraq.

One was for nearly IQD1 trillion (US$700 million) of infrastructure projects in the city of Al-Zubair in the southern Iraq oil hub of Basra. Another was for Chinese companies to build a civilian airport to replace the military base in the capital of the southern oil rich Dhi Qar governorate. The Dhi Qar region includes two of Iraq’s potentially biggest oil fields – Gharraf and Nassiriya. This airport project would include the construction of multiple cargo buildings and roads linking the airport to the city’s town centre and separately to other key oil areas in southern Iraq. In the later discussions involved in the 2021 ‘Iraq-China Framework Agreement’, it was decided that the airport could be expanded later to be a dual-use civilian and military airport. The military component would be usable by China without first having to consult with whatever Iraqi government was in power at the time, as also analysed in full in my new book on the new global oil market order.

It is apposite to note in this regard that oil and gas developments in a foreign country legally allow the companies undertaking those investments to safeguard them by whatever means they deem necessary, including by the stationing of tens, hundreds, or thousands of heavily-armed security personnel around the sites. Several of China’s oil and gas firms are subsidiaries of its leading defence contractor, Norinco, including Zhenhua Oil. Indeed, it was Zhenhua that on 2 January 2021 made a multi-billion-dollar deal with Iraq’s Federal Government in Baghdad to prepay for four million barrels every month for five years to be delivered to China by Iraq’s State Organization for Marketing of Oil (SOMO). As also analysed in depth in my new book on the new global oil market order, it was exactly the same strategy to take over Iraq’s oil industry in the south as Russia had successfully used to take over the industry in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017.

So extraordinarily obviously dangerous to U.S. interests in the Middle East and elsewhere was this deal that Washington eventually succeeded in forcing the Iraqis to suspend the deal. However, with this new slew of oil and gas license awards, it may be that China has ultimately got where it wanted to be in Iraq, albeit three years later than intended.

By Simon Watkins for