Published1 day ago
As the conflict between Israel and Hamas intensifies, an unlikely development has emerged – China playing the part of peace broker. But there are limits to what it can achieve.
China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, discussed the conflict with officials in Washington at the weekend amid fears of a bigger regional war. The US has pledged it would work with China on trying to find a resolution.
Mr Wang has also spoken to his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts after China’s Middle East special envoy Zhai Jun flew to the region to meet Arab leaders. It has also been one of the most vocal proponents of a ceasefire in UN meetings.
There are hopes China could tap into its close relationship with Iran, which backs Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, to de-escalate the situation. US officials apparently pressed Mr Wang to “urge calm” with the Iranians, reported the Financial Times.
China is Iran’s biggest trade partner, and earlier this year Beijing brokered a rare détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tehran says it “stands ready to strengthen communication with China” on resolving the situation in Gaza.
As the Chinese government has had a relatively balanced relationship with all actors in the conflict, they could be perceived as an honest broker, said Dawn Murphy, an associate professor who studies Chinese foreign policy at the National War College under the US Department of Defense.
In particular, China has positive relations with the Palestinians, Arabs, Turkey and Iran, she said. “Together with the US which has good relations with Israel, they could bring all of the players to the table.”
But other observers point out that China remains a minor player in Middle East politics.
“China is not a serious actor on this issue. Talking to people around the region, nobody expects China to contribute to the solution,” said Jonathan Fulton, a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council who specialises in China’s relations with the Middle East.
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China’s first statement on the conflict angered Israel which expressed “deep disappointment” that China did not condemn Hamas nor mention Israel’s right to defend itself.
Hamas gunmen launched an unprecedented assault on Israel from the Gaza Strip on 7 October, killing more than 1,400 people and taking at least 239 hostages.
Since then, Israel has been carrying out retaliatory strikes on Gaza, in which more than 8,000 people have been killed, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Israel has now also sent troops and tanks into the territory.
After the furore over its first statement, Mr Wang later told Israel that “all countries have the right to self-defence” – but he also said elsewhere that Israel’s actions have gone “beyond the scope of self-defence”.
China faces a difficult balancing act because it has long openly sympathised with the Palestinian cause.
It stretches back to Chinese Communist Party founder Mao Zedong, who sent weapons to Palestinians in support for so-called “national liberation” movements around the world. Mao even compared Israel to Taiwan – both backed by the US – as bases of Western imperialism.
In later decades China opened up economically and normalised relations with Israel, with whom it now has a billion-dollar trade relationship.
But China has made it clear it continues to support the Palestinians. In their remarks on the latest conflict, Chinese officials and even President Xi Jinping have stressed the need for an independent Palestinian state.
One side effect is an uptick in antisemitism online, fanned by nationalist bloggers. Some on Chinese social media have equated Israel’s actions to Nazism by accusing them of carrying out a genocide on Palestinians, prompting a rebuke from the German embassy in Beijing.
The stabbing of a family member of an Israeli embassy employee in Beijing has also added to the unease.
All this may not be a good look for China when it’s trying to engage the Israeli government.
Given the uncertainties, why is China getting involved?
One reason is its economic interests in the Middle East, which would be endangered if the conflict widens.
Beijing is now heavily dependent on foreign imports for oil, and analysts estimate about half of that comes from the Gulf. Middle Eastern countries have increasingly become important players in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a cornerstone of its foreign and economic policy.
But another reason is the conflict presents a golden opportunity for Beijing to burnish its reputation.
China believes that “standing up for the Palestinians resonates with Arab countries, Muslim-majority countries and large portions of the Global South”, pointed out Dr Murphy.
The war has erupted at a time when China is presenting itself as a better suitor for the world than the US. Since the start of the year, it has promoted a vision of a Chinese-led world order while criticising what it sees as the failures of US “hegemonic” leadership.
Officially, China has refrained from attacking the US for its support of Israel. But at the same time state media is “ginning up the nationalist response… tying what’s happening in the Middle East with the US support of Israel,” noted Dr Murphy.
Chinese military newspaper PLA Daily accused the US of “adding fuel to the fire” – the same rhetoric Beijing has used to criticise Washington for helping Kyiv in the Ukraine war. The state-run, English language newspaper The Global Times published a cartoon of Uncle Sam with bloodstained hands.
One view among observers is that Beijing is contrasting its position against the US so it can lower its Western rival’s global standing. But by not explicitly condemning Hamas, China also risks undermining its own position.
There are challenges China faces in its long-term ambitions.
One is how it can square its diplomatic position with its own track record. While it expresses solidarity with Muslim-majority nations and opposes Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, Beijing remains accused of committing rights abuses and genocide of the Uyghur Muslim minority, as well as forced assimilation in Tibet.
Observers say that this would probably not be an issue for the Arab world, given the strong relations China has built with them.
The bigger problem is Beijing risks being seen as superficial in its engagement, or even worse, capitalising on the Israel-Hamas conflict to advance its own interests.
China assumes that “by saying you support Palestine you’ll score points with Arab countries, and that is a cookie-cutter approach,” said Dr Fulton, noting there is not some unified voice among Arab states on the highly divisive issue.
Mr Wang has claimed China only seeks peace for the Middle East and has “no selfish interests on the Palestinian question”.
The challenge will be to convince the world this is true.
Additional reporting by BBC Monitoring.