Israel-Gaza war upends China’s Mideast ambitions but may serve Beijing in the end

China has extended its hand to both PA and Israel, but its neutrality following Hamas’s massacre of civilians has infuriated Jerusalem

Composite photo, from left to right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for photographers ahead of their talks at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, Beijing, China, on March 21, 2017. (Etienne Oliveau/Pool Photo via AP); China's President Xi Jinping (right) and PA President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands after a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 14, 2023. (Jade Gao/Pool Photo via AP)
Composite photo, from left to right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for photographers ahead of their talks at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, Beijing, China, on March 21, 2017. (Etienne Oliveau/Pool Photo via AP); China's President Xi Jinping (right) and PA President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands after a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 14, 2023. (Jade Gao/Pool Photo via AP)

In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted the Palestinian Authority president in Beijing and invited the prime minister for an official state visit. Benjamin Netanyahu accepted, and China was on track for a bigger role in the region.

Then came the Hamas terror group’s devastating October 7 onslaught against Israel, in which over 1,300 people were killed, about 1,000 of them civilians. The onslaught, which triggered a war as Israel’s vows to destroy Hamas in Gaza, is all but certain to lead to the cancelation of Netanyahu’s late October trip, and has put Beijing’s Middle East approach to the test. China’s stated neutrality on the war has upset Israel, but Beijing may gain in the long run by forging closer ties with Arab countries, experts said.

“For a while at least, Beijing’s Middle East policy is paralyzed by the war,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing-based Renmin University of China. “The US, which strongly supports Israel, is directly or indirectly involved. Who is there to listen to China?”

That hasn’t stopped China from trying to be heard.

Its Middle East envoy, Zhai Jun, talked to Palestinian and Egyptian officials by phone this past week, calling for an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian support for the Palestinian people.

Zhai also called Israeli officials to say China “has no selfish interests on the Palestinian issue but has always stood on the side of peace, on the side of fairness and justice.” He said that “China is willing to work with the international community to promote peace and encourage talks.”

File: China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends the EU-China High-Level Strategic Dialogue at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing on October 13, 2023. (Pedro PARDO / AFP)

Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, came out more strongly for the Palestinians, saying “the crux of the matter is that justice has not been done to the Palestinian people.”

“This conflict once again proved in an extremely tragic manner that the way to solve the Palestinian issue lies in resuming genuine peace talks as soon as possible and realizing the legitimate rights of the Palestinian nation,” Wang said during a call with an adviser to the Brazilian president.

China has long advocated for a two-state solution that allows for an independent Palestinian state.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while traveling in the Mideast over the weekend, called Wang to ask China to use whatever influence it has in the region to keep other countries and groups from entering the conflict and broadening it, according to the US State Department, which declined to characterize Wang’s response. China is known to have close trade and political ties with Iran, which in turn supports Hamas and the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.

The conversation was the first high-level US contact with China over the Mideast situation since Hamas’s assault.

Beijing, by trying to maintain a delicate balance, wants to position itself as a mediator and exert its influence in the region, said Maria Papageorgiou, a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Exeter, and Mohammad Eslami, a researcher at the University of Minho, in a joint email.

The US support for Israel will give China an opportunity to expand its arms sales to dissatisfied Arab countries, but China also wants to resolve the crisis to protect its economic interests in the region, they said.

“China’s engagement in the Middle East is set to increase during this conflict. Beijing will play an enhanced role in efforts to end the war and secure its economic interests and wants to capitalize on the Arab states’ frustration with the US to establish itself as a great power in the region,” the researchers wrote.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, (third left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (third right) attend their meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, in Beijing, China, on March 21, 2017. (Etienne Oliveau/Pool Photo via AP)

Beijing’s approach, though, risks alienating Israel.

Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, described Beijing’s position as “pro-Palestine neutrality,” much like its position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has signaled support for the Kremlin.

“You cannot be neutral in something like this. Silence is acquiescence,” Gering said. “The problem, I think, the biggest one we have, is that China, instead of being the responsible major power that it claims to be, is exploiting this conflict for geopolitical benefits.”

He said China was looking to win the support of Arab countries on contentious issues such as Beijing’s treatment of the Muslim ethnic Uyghurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Under Xi, Beijing has pursued a proactive, sometimes assertive, foreign policy. It has sought closer ties in the Middle East, the source of much of the oil China needs and a nexus in the Belt and Road network, Xi’s massive infrastructure-building project to connect markets around the world through railways, roads, seaports, and airports, and to extend Beijing’s influence.

This year, Beijing helped restore diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, building its credentials as an alternative to the US in brokering peace deals.

Wang Yiwei, another international relations professor at Renmin University, said China is better positioned than the US to help resolve conflicts, whether between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Russia and Ukraine, or Israel and the Palestinians.

“If you’re just on one side, and make another side hate you, you cannot be a broker,” he said. “So that’s the reason China did not join the West to sanction or contain Russia in the Ukraine war. Because we need to be the bridge.”

File: Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, at right, shakes hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, at left, as Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat, looks on, at center, for a photo during a closed meeting held in Beijing, March 11, 2023. (Luo Xiaoguang/Xinhua via AP)

But China’s proposals to end the war have been seen as benefiting Russia.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “China’s stance might be more about projecting an image of a neutral and responsible global player rather than acting like one,” said Dale Aluf, research director at Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership, an Israel-based think tank.

China’s continued insistence on a two-state solution is “disconnected from reality,” Aluf said. China also has displeased Israel by refusing to join the US and other countries in designating Hamas as a terrorist organization, seeing it instead as a “Palestinian resistance movement.”

Since the war began, Chinese state media have come down hard on Israel. They have cited Iranian news outlets in reporting alleged use of white phosphorous bombs by the military. And they have blamed the US, Israel’s strongest supporter, for fanning the tensions in the region.

Bombarded with hostile messages, the Israeli mission in Beijing now filters the comments on its Chinese social media account.

There has been a surge of antisemitic sentiment on the Chinese internet, said Yaqiu Wang, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House.

“On the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Chinese government has always propagated a narrative that places the blame squarely on Israel, a key US ally, because this aligns with a key objective of [the ruling Communist Party’s] propaganda: to undermine the US in the international community. This time, it is no exception,” she said.

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