When asked recently by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman whether China, as the “biggest energy investor in Iraq,” should behave more like a stakeholder there, U.S. President Barack Obama had a pointed reply. The Chinese, he said, “have been free riders for the last 30 years and it’s worked really well for them,” while the United States has had to bear the burdens of maintaining international security and prosperity for the good of the world.
Those comments triggered a sharply negative reaction in the Chinese press. Although Obama might not have intended to be so blunt, his remarks reflect a widespread view within Washington that China, in order to minimize its foreign risks and costs, has not been as helpful as it should on a range of global challenges, especially nonproliferation.
China has benefited in many ways from decades-long U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq. The wars have diverted U.S. attention and resources from Chinese actions in Asia, driven the U.S. government into deeper debt, alienated many countries from American foreign policy, and allowed Chinese analysts to learn too much about the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the U.S. military. While reaping those gains, Chinese policymakers skillfully managed to avoid antagonizing the U.S. over Iraq. Its opposition to U.S. actions there was more constrained than that of many other governments, including close U.S. allies like France and Germany.