As the conflict between Israel and Hamas intensifies, the death toll of civilians in Gaza has risen to more than 10,000, including 3,700 children. In this catastrophic context, China has stepped forward to mediate between the parties. Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, discussed the conflict situation with officials in Washington, perceiving the fear of a wider regional war. The US counterpart has assured full support for working with China to find a resolution. President Xi Jinping has dispatched his Middle East special envoy, Zhai Jun, to the region to meet with Arab leaders. There is hope that only China, with strong diplomatic relations with both Israel and Palestine, as well as with Iran, which backs Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, can mediate a ceasefire. Beijing has previously emerged as an impartial and successful mediator, notably brokering a rare détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has also been one of the most vocal proponents of a ceasefire in UN meetings. However, China’s initial silence and its first statement on the conflict have angered Israel. Apparently, Mr. Netanyahu is not in the mood to listen to any world leader. So, it will be a gargantuan task for Beijing to bring all the actors to the table.
China has consistently supported the Palestinian cause, owing to its alignment with Maoism and liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Chinese Communist Party founder, Mao Zedong, even sent weapons to Palestinians in support of ‘National Liberation’ movements worldwide. Mao even compared Israel to Taiwan, both backed by the US imperialism. During those years, Beijing armed and trained the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Palestinian militant groups. After Mao’s death in 1976, China began opening up to the world and softened its position. It normalized relations with Israel in 1992. China’s strategic approach to the Middle East for more than a decade has sought to portray itself as a friend to all in the region and the enemy of none.
For the past decade, China has invested considerable diplomatic energy in building its influence in the Middle East. President Xi has adopted the policy to promote multi-alignment among countries in the region, described in Chinese government documents as “balance diplomacy” and “positive balancing.” Briefly, balance diplomacy entails not taking sides in rival countries, and positive balancing aims to create a strategic balance among global or regional powers in the Middle East. Chinese foreign policy initiatives are designed to appeal to countries in the Global South that feel increasingly alienated from the US-led rules-based international order.
In 2016, China entered into a comprehensive strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, and in 2020, an agreement of 25-year cooperation was signed with Iran. It has expanded economic ties with other Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman. China has also deepened its economic ties with Egypt. Beijing is the largest investor in the Suez Canal Area Development Project and reconstruction projects in Iraq and Syria. So, after the Saudi-Iran breakthrough, Beijing began to position itself as an impartial and trustworthy mediator in the region.
Beijing’s initial response to the conflict was to continue with its balanced diplomacy. China did not condemn Hamas; instead, it urged both sides to “exercise restraint” and to embrace the “two-state solution.” This was consistent with Beijing’s long-standing policy of “non-interference” in other countries’ internal affairs and its fundamental strategic approach to the region. However, to counter Western powers and their allies, Beijing sought to highlight its positive balancing and used its veto power at the United Nations. This stance became the strong appeal of the Global South. China has significant economic engagement with the Middle East and North Africa, and its dependency on Middle Eastern countries for the energy sector and the Belt and Road Initiative encourages its efforts to challenge the West’s strategic maneuver. Africa and Latin America sympathize with the Palestinian cause, and Arab nations are united on the Palestinian issue. So, China is likely making a strategic move to gain the support of these nations, which are also increasingly searching for an alternative partner to the US.
In June, China signed a strategic partnership deal with the authority of the West Bank. Beijing also has a lucrative tech-sector trade with Israel, worth $1 billion in semiconductors per year. China has previously supported normalization efforts between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, Chinese diplomatic actions are far more neutral than the stance of the US and its allies.
Global powers like Russia and the USA have overtly sided with their strategic partners in the Israel-Hamas conflict. For Israel, after enduring humiliating and devastating sufferings, the renowned ‘Mr. Security,’ Benjamin Netanyahu, and the army are subjected to immense domestic pressure. The Israeli Government and the army need to achieve tangible gains and win over Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad. But, psychologically, Israel has lost the battle. Their formidable espionage agency failed to warn them, and more than 200 hostages were held by Hamas, making the conflict very critical. The Israeli indefensible army is now killing innocent civilians and children in Gaza instead of Hamas fighters. This disproportionate killing cannot continue for an extended period. In this context, it will be a golden opportunity for Beijing to burnish its reputation.
China’s economic interests in the Middle East would be endangered if the conflict widens. The Chinese government has maintained a relatively balanced relationship with all actors related to the conflict, including the Palestinians, Arabs, Israel, Türkiye, Egypt, and Iran. It would be relatively comfortable for Beijing to bring all the players to the table. Moreover, China will not miss the opportunity to position itself as a superpower to rival the US in a multipolar world.
[Photo by Al Araby, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a political and defence analyst based in Bangladesh.