China supports Iraq’s unity, the country’s foreign ministry said on Monday, as voting started in an independence referendum organized by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, ignoring the threats of the Kurds’ neighbors. The vote, expected to deliver a comfortable “yes” for independence, is not binding and is meant to give Massoud Barzani’s KRG a mandate to negotiate secession of the oil producing region with Baghdad and neighboring states, according to Reuters. The referendum is being held despite intense international pressure on Barzani to call it off, amid fears that it would spark fresh conflicts with Baghdad and with Iraq’s powerful neighbors, Iran and Turkey. “The Chinese government supports Iraq’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily news briefing, when asked about the referendum. China is generally a low-key player in the Middle East despite its reliance on the region for oil, but has been trying to get more involved.