POLICY ALERT: Asian Powers Respond to Crisis in Iraq
Sectarian conflict erupted earlier this month as Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, swept through northern Iraq, inflicting violence against the Shiite majority and Shiite-ruled government. In this Policy Alert, we examine reactions to the ongoing Iraqi crisis from India, China, South Korea, and Japan.
The crisis in Iraq touched India in a personal way after 40 Indian construction workers in Mosul were abducted by ISIS aligned forces, prompting strong reactions from Indian leaders and the Indian public; thousands of Shiite Muslims living in India have pledged to defend Iraq’s holy shrines and join the fight against ISIS.
Several media outlets in India were intensely focused on how to free its citizens and mitigate the spillover risks for India:
- The Business Standard called the insurgency the “first foreign policy test” for the new Modi government, which the newspaper felt “has been again taken by surprise by developments, and is uncertain about how to respond. This is not reassuring.” This perspective was also raised by The Hindu.
- The Hindustan Times suggested India use its “clout with Baghdad and the neighboring countries to secure the safe exit of Indians from Iraq.” The Hindu suggested collaborating with Bangladesh on plans to “evacuate overseas workers” in case of future crises.
- The Times of India worried India was “in the crosshairs of global jihadi groups,” especially after ISIS published a map claiming parts of Kashmir in their territory of influence. This was also noted by The Pioneer, a paper with long standing ties to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
- The chaos in Iraq prompted Dr. Sushil Aaron, Director of Projects at the Centre for PolicyResearch, New Delhi, to wonder in the Hindustan Times whether Afghanistan would see “asimilar turn of events after U.S. forces withdraw in December.” He said Indian officials were concerned Afghanistan “does not emerge as a radical space for anti-Indian jihadi groups to operate from.” This concern was also raised by The Times of India.
- In early January, Vijay Prashad in Frontline warned that ISIS was gaining ground and traced its origins to the ongoing civil war in Syria. He pointed out the group’s “brutality” in another piece.
Several observers commented on how the crisis would impact broader democracy movements and sectarian strife in the region:
- In an editorial, The Economic Times concluded non-organic democracy efforts in the Middle East have so far “resulted in chaos rather than in triumph of the people’s will.” The Pioneershared similar criticisms, questioning whether “foreign occupation, rather than the reconfiguration of political power or the deepening of sectarian divide is the real Casus belli for the collapse” of Iraq.
- In an op-ed for The Pioneer, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra contended Washington held responsibility for the violence in Iraq by supporting ISIS in Syria and harming Indian security interests elsewhere. The author warned the Modi government against adopting similar tactics.
- Culture critic Shajahan Madampat argued in an op-ed for The Hindu that gains by ISIS are an “ominous reflection of the deepening of sectarian animosities within contemporary Islam.”
- The Hindu explored whether the now “serious humanitarian crisis” and war crimes by ISIS will lead the United States and the United Kingdom to seek help from Iran, which the newspaper claimed could “be an immense contribution to regional peace.” In an op-ed for The Indian Express, C. Raja Mohan seconded this perspective and added the West and Iran needed to move quickly since neither party “can accept an ISIS victory in Iraq.”
Other commentators have explored how events in Iraq could impact economic growth and domestic politics at home:
- The Hindu warned “New Delhi has to be prepared for the internationalization of the events in Iraq, as well as a sharp and painful spurt in oil prices, especially if the United States chooses to launch air strikes against opposition strongholds.” This view was echoed by The Economic Times, The Pioneer, the Business Standard,and the Hindustan Times.
- Deepak Sinha, in an op-ed for The Pioneer, advised India to diversify its energy sources away from the Middle East and “seriously consider a joint Sino-Indian response to combat Islamist fundamentalism.”
- A spokesperson for the now opposition Congress Party criticized a “naive” Modi government for “laxity” in its efforts to protect Indian citizens in Iraq.
Chinese media expressed concern for the large number of Chinese citizens living in Iraq while simultaneously placing partial blame of the current situation on the United States.
- The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed concern for the 15,000 Chinese living in Iraq, many working for energy companies such as Petro China and Sinopec. “China urged Iraq to reinforce security to protect Chinese citizens and businesses, and citizens were advised to take precautions,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a news conference.
- The state-run China Daily advised the Obama administration to “be as prudent and realisticas they can when they weigh options, especially military ones, to help Baghdad end the crisis, which they are partially responsible for.” It also encouraged the international community to “rally behind the government as it clamps down on the growing terrorism and religious extremism inside Iraq, and help the Iraqis rebuild their country.”
- Another China Daily editorial described the Iraqi War as “The worst reflection of U.S. might.”
- Zhao Minghao, research fellow at the Charhar Institute, a Chinese foreign policy think tank, emphasized the importance of the Middle East in China’s “march west” strategic framework. “This [framework] reflects China’s broader goal- established partly in response to the United States’ ‘pivot’ toward Asia – of rebalancing its strategic focus westward, with emphasis on the Arab world.”
- “The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 has broken the once delicate balance of the country’s political structure, and further amplified the hostility between the sectarian groups, making it even harder for the ensuing Iraqi governments to achieve national reconciliation,” said Xinhuawriter Liu Chang.
After the United States announced it was sending 300 military advisors to support the Iraqi government against ISIS, several media outlets questioned whether this strategy would succeed:
- The Japan Times predicted that “a token U.S. force will not turn the tide in Iraq; only sweeping changes, and perhaps even radical options, will stop the disintegration of that country.”
- Questioning whether the United States had “taken sufficient measures to maintain law and order in Iraq following its withdrawal,” The Yomiuri Shimbun wrote,”it is necessary for the international community to support and cooperate with the Maliki administration to avoid further turmoil.”
- In another editorial, The Japan Times highlighted the “humanitarian catastrophe” that could develop as hundreds of thousands of refugees join people already fleeing violence in Syria.
Other commentators examined how ISIS could have possibly taken control over so much Iraqi territory and who is to blame for letting it happen:
- Ikeuchi Satoshi, associate professor of Islamic Political Thought at the University of Tokyo, called ISIS a “terrorist organization” which has taken advantage of political instability in Iraq.
- The Japan Times placed blame on the al-Maliki government for exacerbating the deep sectarian divide, refusing to “share power in a meaningful way,” and creating a “sense of disenfranchisement and discrimination” that “has robbed the government of legitimacy and set the stage for its unraveling in the face of the ISIS advance.” The Yomiuri Shimbun echoed this view.
Media outlets explored the direct threat posed to South Korean citizens and economic interests in Iraq:
- In an editorial, The Korea Times saw the violence “escalating into a religious war” that could risk the “already moribund Korean economy” and “the safety of Korean companies and residents in the war-torn country.” In the aftermath of the recent Sewol ferry disaster, the newspaper urged companies on the need to “hammer out more realistic evacuation plans.”
- While Iraq is not a major oil supplier to South Korea, JoongAng Daily reported that turmoil in the region could mean higher oil prices and a drain on Seoul’s economic recovery efforts. “The Korean economy belongs to the bloc that is sensitive to oil price fluctuations,” argued Park Sang-hyun, a researcher at HI Investment & Securities.