On March 20th, 2003, one day after the United States and a "Coalition of the Willing" began its military assault of Iraq, China's Foreign Ministry released a statement condemning the war. "The Chinese government appeals to the relevant countries to stop military actions and return to the right path of seeking a political solution to the Iraq question." Four years later, as a vicious anti-occupation insurgency in Iraq erupted into a full-blown civil war, China again expressed its displeasure with the operation, blasting the U.S. for "flagrant abuses of human rights" and "violation of sovereignty" in the country.
And yet, despite these (and many similar) statements, it's worth pointing out that one of the grim ironies of the Iraq War was this: no country, with the possible exception of Iran, benefited more from it than China.
Before we begin, it's worth acknowledging that there's something more than a little gauche about declaring a "winner" in the Iraq War, which, as our James Fallows writes, surely ranks as one of the greatest strategic blunders in American history. For the United States, the Iraq War led to the death of almost 4,500 soldiers and injury of 30,000 others, cost over $1 trillion, and failed to establish a thriving, capitalist democracy in the country. For the Iraqi people, the costs have been far higher: over 100,000 civilians lost their lives during the conflict, and over 2 million others sought refuge in other countries.
Put simply, then, China won the battle by choosing not to fight it. But this isn't quite the whole story. In addition to avoiding the grave costs of the war, China capitalized by offering developing countries an attractive alternative to the United States: ideologically-blind economic engagement. And, as a result, Beijing was able to expand its "soft power" at the expense of an increasingly unpopular Washington.
The Iraq War wasn't just a discrete battle to remove a unique threat in the Middle East, though this has often been the ex post facto justification for it. It was instead the signature element of a Bush Administration attempt to "end tyranny in this world" through an aggressive promotion of democracy -- and market-friendly, pro-Western policies. Washington combined this rhetoric with sanctions against unfriendly regimes, deus ex machina-style involvement in the Gaza elections, and continued support for despots who happened to align with its interests.
For China, America's Iraq adventure coincided with its own embellished foreign policy. After Deng Xiaoping assumed power in 1978, China practiced a modest form of foreign policy, eager to keep a low profile while focusing on development. This worked well -- almost too well. Hungry for natural resources to fuel its breakneck economic growth, Beijing for the first time in decades began to operate in areas far from its periphery, including Africa and South America. Robert Mugabe may have torpedoed Zimbabwe's economy, but Beijing still had use for his copper. Burma's generals may have bankrupted and isolated their country, but China was happy to purchase its timber. Regimes that came under U.S. sanction didn't scare Beijing; after all, China was once subject to American sanctions itself.
To the world, China represented a new kind of country -- one that was both economically powerful and middle-income at the same time. And the approach worked -- a BBC poll in 2012 reported that, across several countries, China remains more popular than the United States.
But will this last? There are already signs that China's unquenchable desire for raw materials is beginning to backfire. First, demonstrators in Burma successfully lobbied the new civilian government to stop construction of a Chinese-funded dam, citing suspicions that the dam project would benefit China more than Burma itself. In Zambia, where China has invested greatly in copper mines, workers have complained of harsh working conditions and corruption. China has consistently claimed that its engagements with other developing countries are mutually beneficial, but a growing number of people around the world are not as sure.
Meanwhile, the U.S. elected President Obama and dialed down its foreign policy, ending the war in Iraq and re-branding the war on terror to a single war against al Qaeda, depriving China of its foil. Washington won't stop interacting with the rest of the world -- no present-day American president could credibly be an isolationist -- but it's clear that the swashbuckling Bush-era days, when the government was drunk with democracy promotion, are over. Obama's foreign policy, if imperfect, is nonetheless sober -- and as a result Beijing's own activity now faces heightened scrutiny.
In a recent editorial in the New York Times, George Washington University scholar David Shambaugh argues that China needs to change its behavior in order to improve its reputation. But that's likely not going to help -- like the proverbial bull in a china shop, Beijing has simply grown too large to avoid tangling with the rest of the world. And so long as China continues to grow, it will necessarily face resistance. Such is the nature of hegemony-- as the United States well knows.
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Matt Schiavenza is the senior content manager at the Asia Society and a former contributing writer for The Atlantic.