Beijing’s response to the intensifying violence has been more subdued while Western leaders hastily go to the Middle East.
In July, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy expressed optimism that Beijing was prepared to facilitate peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. At the time, there were hopes that the warming relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran would lead to a “wave of reconciliation” throughout the Middle East.
Chinese President Xi Jinping asked Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu to visit Beijing last month and welcomed President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.
A lot of attention was paid to China’s role in the détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia; some saw it as a turning point that showed China’s influence was growing in the region while the US was losing ground.
Then, on October 7, the militant organization Hamas unexpectedly attacked Israel, resulting in the deaths of at least 1,400 people and the kidnapping of over 200 others. In response, Israel has been bombing the blockaded Gaza nonstop and has lately started ground assaults into the Hamas-controlled coastal strip.
At least 9,770 Palestinians have died so far, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
In order to prevent any other parties from escalating the conflict in the area, US President Joe Biden promptly denounced Hamas’s attack. His government also prepared to send 2,000 troops and two carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean.
As a gesture of support, Biden also traveled to Israel. Biden was supposed to meet with a number of Arab leaders, but it was called off in the wake of the bombing at Gaza’s Al Ahli Hospital that claimed hundreds of lives.
In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa have all visited Israel and Jordan.
Concurrently, it has been reported that Egypt and Qatar have been instrumental in mediating the release of the Hamas detainees.
But China’s involvement has taken on a very different appearance.
Since the war started, neither Chinese President Xi nor his foreign minister, Wang Yi, have traveled to the Middle East, despite Beijing sending its envoy, Zhai Jun.
While Wang has stated that the “collective punishment” of the Palestinian people must end and that the root of the conflict “lies in the fact that justice has not been done to the Palestinian people,” Xi has called for a truce.
When conflict arises between Israelis and Palestinians, such statements follow the standard Chinese script, according to William Figueroa, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen who has studied China’s interactions with the Middle East.
He told Al Jazeera, “At first, they adopt a very cautious stance, and then they call for peace and condemn violence against civilians, while primarily focusing on Palestinian grievances.”
Yao-Yuan Yeh teaches international studies at the US University of St. Thomas, where she specializes in Taiwan, China, and Japan. He acknowledges that China has recently stepped up its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, but this hasn’t translated into a major mediating role in the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel.
“The Chinese haven’t really shown that they are leading the conflict or doing anything new.”
Israel and Palestine in the Middle East policy of Beijing
Following the attack on Israel by Hamas, the Chinese government was charged for replying in a noncommittal manner and using ambiguous language.
“They initially adopted a wait-and-see strategy,” Figueroa added.
The Chinese foreign ministry urged calm, caution, and abstention from denouncing Hamas.
Beijing has always placed a higher priority on its connections with the Palestinians in the dispute between Israel and Palestine.
Professor Hongda Fan of Shanghai International Studies University’s Middle East Studies Institute claims that under Mao Zedong’s reign, Beijing saw the Palestinian struggle for land as a component of the global national liberation movement.
Fan said Al Jazeera, “The understanding of the Palestinian Question still stems largely from this perception.”
The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was granted permission to establish a diplomatic mission in China in 1965, and in 1974 it was elevated to an embassy. The Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut claims that during a period in the 1960s and 1970s, Beijing was likely the PLO’s main supplier of weaponry. Beijing has recognized the State of Palestine since 1988.
China has, nevertheless, strengthened its relations with Israel.
China invested billions in Israel’s economy after establishing full diplomatic relations with it in 1992; by contrast, China’s investments in the Palestinian territories pale in comparison.
However, China’s economic ties with Saudi Arabia make up for its investments in Israel.
According to Figueroa, “China has made significant investments in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries.”
In June, $10 billion in investment deals were announced by Beijing and Riyadh.
The value of trade between the two in 2022 was $106 billion, about twice that of trade between the US and Saudi Arabia.
Additionally, China is the main market for oil from Iran and Saudi Arabia.
This is a part of a wider trend that has seen China emerge as the primary trading partner of the Arab world.
Figueroa asserts that China’s perspective on the Middle East is centered on specific Middle Eastern nations, such as Saudi Arabia, as a result of China’s close economic relations to the Gulf states.
Therefore, the Chinese language became much more overtly pro-Palestinian when it became apparent that these nations would launch a major backlash against the Israeli military operations in Gaza, Figueroa noted.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang then charged that Israel’s military operations in Gaza went “beyond self-defence.”
Rejecting the US
The Chinese government and the US are at conflict because of this.
Analysts claim that although China has not taken the lead diplomatically in the dispute, it has been more vocal in criticizing Washington even as the two nations work to mend their extremely fragile relationship.
The government-run China Daily published an editorial in which it claimed that the US was “adding fuel to the fire by blindly backing Israel in the ongoing conflict.” In an editorial published on October 18, the state-run Global Times claimed that the United States was “stained with the blood of innocent civilians” in response to the US vetoing a resolution proposed by Brazil to the UN Security Council that called for a humanitarian halt in the fighting to allow supplies to reach Gaza.
On October 27, 120 nations backed a resolution that Jordan had authored and presented to the UN General Assembly. China voted in favor of it, while the US did not.
Prior to that, a US draft resolution that upheld Israel’s right to self-defense and required Iran to cease supplying weapons to extremist organizations was rejected by China and Russia.
Following the voting, China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun addressed the council, saying, “The draft does not reflect the world’s strongest calls for a ceasefire, an end to the fighting, and it does not help resolve the issue.”
As the president of the Security Council this month, Beijing has said that the conflict between Israel and Gaza will be a top focus.
Zhang outlined China’s November plans, stating that the council’s performance was “not as good as what the global community expects” and that every attempt would be made to steer it in the direction of meaningful initiatives that would support political agreements.
To be more precise, he stated that resolving the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict—specifically, the Gaza conflict—is the top priority for this month.
The United Arab Emirates and China have requested that the 15-member body undertake additional private discussions about the issue on Monday.
“China’s ideal situation would be for the conflict to end as quickly as possible and for China to play some sort of role in any future negotiations,” Figueroa stated.
“But to be honest, I don’t think they will be able to participate at all.”