How is China Looking at the Israel-Hamas War Within Its Middle East Calculus?

Trade between Israel and China is worth $106 billion annually, but the latter also must maintain its ties with Iran.

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China's stance after Hamas' attack on Gaza that occured on 7 October, remains a balancing act that highlights how Beijing wants to position itself without compromising on its entrenched yet controversial foreign policy.

After getting the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), China’s permanent representative to the UN, Zhang Jun, reiterated the need to establish an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Earlier, Russia and China had vetoed against a US-led draft resolution in the UNSC calling for Israel’s right to defend itself, and they specifically called for humanitarian pauses to allow unhindered aid in the Hamas-ruled Gaza.

On the other hand, Moscow presented a resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire. This resolution did not get much support apart from countries like Gabon and the UAE, who voted in favor of the motion, with the UK and USA vetoing it.


China's Relations With Israel, Palestine, and Arab States

The official position of China has been one of diplomatic distancing, with the usage of cautious phrases like "restrainment" and "protection of civilians."

On one hand, US President Joe Biden has outrightly condemned the attacks by Hamas as an act of terrorism, clearly exhibiting solidarity with its perennial ally Israel.

Beijing, on the other hand, has been navigating through its anti-western but neutral positioning due to its great power claims, net security provider aspirations in the Middle East, and its longtime support for the Palestinian cause. This has made the Chinese authorities refrain from describing Hamas’ attack as an act of "terrorism", and the focus has been more on a “ceasefire” and “two-state solution.”

China has been a supporter of Palestinian statehood since its inception in 1988 with the Palestinian Declaration of Independence.

Eventually, China also established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, consistently expressing the need for a two-state solution to de-escalate the decades-old conflict. Xi Jinping's remarks during his meeting with Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly in Beijing in October earlier this year reiterated the need to establish an independent state of Palestine, through the two-state solution. This is part of a conscious effort to not displease the larger Arab World.

In a telephonic interview with the Voice of America, Dennis Wilder, who served as National Security Council Director under the Bush Administration, stated that “China has made significant inroads in the Middle East since Washington’s general pullback from the region and they don't want to offend the Arab World”.

This encapsulates the way China has used the political vacuum in the Middle East to modify its security matrix and push its position as an international mediator.

A successful example of this positioning was seen in the Saudi-Iran deal brokered by China, which was considered as an equivalent to the US-brokered Abraham Accords. Considering Beijing’s newly found brokering potential and the attempt of being perceived as a peacemaker in the region, its balancing act with Israel and Palestine seems more complicated than usual.

In an interview with Time Magazine, Clemens Chay, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore argued that “as a broker, Beijing will have to straddle between Arab and Israeli interests”.

Strictly on an economic level, Israel and China's bilateral trade is worth $106 billion annually, but the latter also has to maintain its long-standing ties with Iran, which is the key financier of Hamas.

All these factors challenge the diplomatic capability of China in the Middle East along with its “neutral” yet pro-Palestinian position.


Will Gaza Disorient the US From the Indo-Pacific?

China’s interest in being part of the Middle Eastern geopolitical discourse historically stems solely from an economic bandwagoning perspective. But what has emerged in recent times is the largely Chinese aspirations of being a counterweight to the US in the Global South.

The Arab World, particularly the Gulf, remains crucial to Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) where Chinese investments in countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Iran are projected to cross $400 billion in the next 25 years.

While China tries to navigate diplomatically in the Middle East, Chinese social media platforms remain flooded with anti-Semitic content and conspiracy theories about the US' role in the war, even though the Chinese Communist Party controls whatever is circulated in its social media platforms.

Beijing will also want to capitalise on Washington being distracted from the Indo-Pacific region. The growing fear is that the US' divided bandwidth will allow China to escalate matters around the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

Maritime collisions between Chinese and Filipino ships, China's “abnormally” increased military drills around Taiwan, and its assertive actions across the Indo-Pacific are reminders that the US needs to reassess its role in such hotspots.

The Israel-Hamas war, in all likelihood, will further disorient Washington’s priorities in allowing Chinese assertiveness to rise in the Indo-Pacific while it tries to meander between Russia's attack on Ukraine and Israel’s war on Hamas.

While China’s real brokering capability remains questionable with respect to Israel, as compared to its experience with Iran and Saudi Arabia, Beijing would enjoy Washington getting meddled into regional conflicts.

These diverging sets of conflicts will challenge the US' global supremacy as a provider of regional stability, and at the same time, provide more time and space for China to gain its “strategic domination” in the Indo-Pacific.

(Upamanyu Basu is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in Manav Rachna International Institute of Research and Studies, India. He is currently pursuing his doctorate from National University of Juridical Sciences. He also serves as a non-resident fellow in International Development and Security Cooperation, the Philippines. He writes on Indian foreign policy and South Asian politics. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:   China   Israel-Palestine 

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