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Does China Benefit from Gaza Conflict?

Jan 02, 2024
  • Niu Xinchun

    Director of Institute of Middle East Studies, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations

As the war in Gaza escalates, so are comments about major power relationships. Some familiar arguments against China have resurfaced, too. For example, an Oct. 19 article in The Economist claims that “Only America can save Israel and Gaza from greater catastrophe,” and “Iran, Russia and China are profiting from the mayhem.”

This statement represents the fundamental stance of mainstream Western media and public opinion about the ongoing conflict. But the West is not alone. On Chinese social media platforms, many comments assert that China is a beneficiary of the Gaza conflict. It is a groundless allegation that sullies China’s national image.

A review of domestic and international comments reveals that the allegation is based on two arguments. First, China can take advantage of the large-scale humanitarian crisis in Gaza to blame America’s Middle East policy, as well as its hypocritical double standards, thereby weakening its international reputation. Second, the Gaza conflict, or a greater Middle East crisis in the future, could plunge the United States into the chaos of the Middle East again, thus reducing China’s strategic pressure in the Indo-Pacific region. These arguments are extremely deceptive. They seem simple and reasonable on the surface but cannot withstand scrutiny.

Indeed, China and the United States do not agree with each other’s Middle East policy, but this does not prevent them from pursuing the same policy goals in this region. After all, a stable and prosperous Middle East is in their fundamental interests, even though they pursue their goals in different ways.

Since the outbreak of the conflict in Gaza, China and the United States, the two most important powers in the world, have been seeking ways to reduce humanitarian disasters and avoid spillover. Both countries have launched intensive diplomatic efforts and have also maintained communication and consultation with each other — this is a major element. While they complain about each other’s remarks and actions, these are minor issues. If one claims that China ignores the large-scale humanitarian disaster in Gaza, gloats over American mistakes and exploits the suffering of people in Gaza and Israel — using these as ammunition with which to criticize Washington — then one is taking a radical approach to the highly complex China-U.S. relationship, assuming that there are no common interests between the two countries even on basic humanitarian issues or on issues of global war and peace.

It’s true that if Washington shifts some of its attention to the Middle East, it may siphon off some of the resources it might otherwise have invested in the Indo-Pacific region, thereby reducing strategic pressure on China. To achieve such impact in the real world, however, the crisis in the Middle East must be extensive enough to consume a lot of American energy and affect China-U.S. competition.

Yet if the Middle East really plunges into full-scale turmoil, China, as the region’s largest trading partner and the largest buyer of Middle East oil, will turn out to be the biggest victim. If the current confrontation worsens between China and the United States, Washington will naturally adopt a more hostile China policy instead of reducing pressure. If the two countries expand their rivalry to the Middle East due to the point of a new crisis, the situation will be more detrimental to China, because compared with the Asia-Pacific region, the United States has a more obvious advantage. In fact, China is the only country among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that does not have military bases or troops stationed in the Middle East. In other words, its influence on the emergence and scale of crises in the region is limited.

The fact is, like other major powers, China has been a victim of every crisis in the Middle East. In 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, China evacuated 10,000 workers from the two countries, or 75 percent of all the Chinese workers in the Middle East, and suffered a direct economic loss of $2 billion. When the war broke out in Iraq in 2003 and when the country began to rebuild itself in 2007, China canceled its debt valued at $80 billion, most of which consisted of investments and loans. Following the outbreak of the Libyan civil war in 2011, China spent 3 billion yuan in evacuating its citizens and suffered 1.5 billion yuan in property losses. When projects undertaken by Chinese companies are taken into account, its total loss would amount to $20 billion.

The same is true for the conflict in Gaza, where the lives and property of Chinese citizens are under threat. Currently, the conflict has left four Chinese citizens dead, two injured and four missing. In Israel, thousands of Chinese citizens are to be evacuated, and major projects operated by Chinese companies, such as the Port of Haifa, the Port of Ashdod and the Tel Aviv Metro, have been affected to varying degrees. At present, the international oil price has risen from $80 to $90 per barrel, and because China imports approximately 1 billion barrels of crude oil every day, it loses $1 billion every day — no small number. In 2022, China relied on imports for around 70 percent of its total oil consumption, 54 percent of which came from the Middle East. If the conflict expands, China will suffer even greater losses because it has a far greater economic stake in the region than other major countries, including the United States.

Whenever a catastrophe occurs anywhere in the world, the statement that “China may be the biggest winner” never fails to crop up. This is not only a manifestation of the hegemony of Western discourse but is also the result of the rampant spread of specious views on China in recent years. This is a simple either-or statement and an extremely conflicted worldview. The world is complex, diverse, and interdependent. It experiences not only struggle, conflict and competition but also cooperation, mutual assistance and win-win results. Although China and the United States are strategic competitors, they have many common interests, share the same fundamental humanity and compassion and pursue global stability and prosperity. Their relationship is not a zero-sum game on all issues.

The conflict in Gaza is by no means the product of the great power game. It is a disaster for the people of the Middle East and all mankind, and consequently it doesn’t make sense to interpret it through the lens of the China-U.S. rivalry. From both a moral and national interest perspective, China is a beneficiary of peace in the Middle East, not disaster or turmoil.

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