x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

First visit by Iraqi PM to China takes in the sights

Maliki is looking to Chinese companies to build Iraq's infrastructure, from harbours to railways to airports, to co-operate on energy deals and to invest.

Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, right and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao review the Chinese military honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Andy Wong / Pool/Getty Images
Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, right and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao review the Chinese military honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Andy Wong / Pool/Getty Images

BEIJING// From the monumental seat of communist power in Beijing to the skyscrapers of high-tech Shanghai, the visit this week of Iraq's prime minister has taken in modern-day China at its most spectacular.

The trip by Nouri Al Maliki, the first by an Iraqi prime minister since diplomatic relations were established in 1958, has focused on the ultra-modern coastal regions, to showcase a China that has transformed itself into the world's second-largest economy while remaining an authoritarian state.

As the fledgling democracy grapples with the challenges of rebuilding a nation, Mr Al Maliki is looking to Chinese companies to build his country's infrastructure, from harbours to railways to airports, to co-operate on energy deals and to invest.

Seo Jeong Min, a specialist on ties between East Asia and the Middle East, and a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said: "China is one of the biggest investors in third-world countries, especially Africa and [some] Middle East countries. There are huge investments from the Chinese government and national funds.

"There are huge construction projects in electricity generation, general construction and industrial development, and China has a comparative advantage in general construction and low-technology industry.

"Also, some politicians in Iraq are trying to balance between the dependence on the United States with co-operation with so-called rival countries."

After arriving on Sunday night, Mr Al Maliki met his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Monday.

China lined up its honour guard and rolled out the red carpet for a high-powered delegation that included Iraq's agriculture, industry and oil ministers, and the chairman of the country's investment commission.

The visit has been headline news in the state-run media, with photographs of Mr Al Maliki and Mr Wen splashed across front pages. The two leaders signed agreements related to economic co-operation and training.

On Tuesday there were further talks, this time with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, while yesterday the Iraqi delegation visited Shanghai, mainland China's business capital, where they viewed the skyscrapers of Pudong, an area beside the Huangpu River that offers what is probably the country's most spectacular cityscape.

The party also took in the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall, a popular stop-off for visitors that explains how this city of 23 million has been transformed in two decades of breakneck development.

According to Iraqi media, Mr Al Maliki said early on in the visit that "the gates of the Iraqi economy open to our Chinese friends for the reconstruction and investment".

He indicated he was keen for further ties in the oil and gas sector, especially with respect to exploration. It comes a month after Al Ahdab became Iraq's first new oilfield in two decades to start producing, following an agreement with the China National Petroleum Corporation.

China's prime minster indicated more Chinese companies would be keen to secure contracts in Iraq, just as they have flocked into Iran as western firms have pulled back in the face of sanctions.

"The Chinese government will encourage companies to establish a long-term and stable relationship on oil and natural gas supply and demand with the Iraqi side and expand co-operation in oil exploration, refinery and equipment trade," Mr Wen said in a statement.

In some of the few public comments touching on political, rather than economic, issues, Mr Hu said China would support the Iraqi government's "efforts in safeguarding independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity" as well as "promoting national reconstruction and long-term peace and stability".

Mr Al Maliki is scheduled to leave China today.

 

dbardsley@thenational.ae