On November 15th U.S. President Biden met with Chinese President Xi on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference. “We have to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict,” Biden said at the start of the summit. For two large countries like China and the United States, turning their back on each other is not an option,” Xi said in his opening remarks. “Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed.” Prior to the meeting Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Washington D.C., where they declared that the two nations would collaborate to prevent the Middle East conflict from spreading. During this precarious period, it is vital to consider China’s key foreign policy objectives regarding the Middle East, and if certain elements of it align with those of the U.S.
China seeks to reshape the U.S.-led global order through a multifaceted approach, primarily through a drastic military buildup, implementing extensive infrastructure development projects in the Global South, and increasing its influence within multilateral organizations. Over the past year, China has sought to present itself as a global mediator, seeking to formulate peaceful resolutions to contemporary violent conflicts. However, the Israel-Hamas war which on November 22 declared a ceasefire and a hostage release, has threatened to derail China’s vision for the Middle East and its role as a global peacemaker, though Beijing can still play a constructive role in the region. In either case, China wants a seat at the table in shaping the outcome of foreign policy that benefits its interests which are both economic and geostrategic.
This new chapter of the conflict between Israel and Hamas looks different compared to previous iterations. On October 7th, Hamas launched an unprecedented attack against Israel that, according to its authorities, claimed the lives of over 1,200 civilians in just four days. In retaliation, President Netanyahu officially declared war on Hamas, and initiated a sustained aerial bombardment of the Gaza strip. The attack caught Israel’s internationally well-respected domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, totally off-guard, and was far more successful than Hamas and its allies believed it would be. However, Israeli intelligence analysts argue that the Hamas air, sea and land incursion was less about its “success” but rather an absolute failure of Israeli intelligence. With the commencement of the Israeli ground invasion following their instruction of Northern Gazan residents to evacuate South, the situation escalated rapidly.
At least 12,700 10,000 Palestinians in the strip have been killed since Israel's retaliation for the Hamas attack began more than six weeks ago, the Gaza Health Ministry has stated. In addition, clashes at the Lebanon-Israel border and in neighboring Syria, have heightened the concern of a broader military conflict in the region.
On Oct 22nd, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployed six warships in the Middle East as tensions escalated. These military vessels were part of the PLAN’s 44th naval escort taskforce that recently took part in a joint military exercise with Oman. China has also strategically invested in the Duqm Port in Oman and other countries in the region.
The current conflict poses significant challenges for Beijing as it endeavors to navigate its position in the region and elevate its geopolitical impact. Over the past year, Beijing has seized the opportunity of a perceived U.S. withdrawal from the region to reposition itself to the countries of the Middle East. In 2022, China held its China-Arab States Summit and the first China-GCC Summit. China is now Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s largest non-oil trading partner. The region has also become a focus for the BRI. In 2022, Middle Eastern countries received about 23 percent of BRI engagement.
China’s crowning achievement for its engagement with the region is the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement which caught many nations, most notably the U.S. by surprise. The deal, announced in March, normalizes ties between long-time rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. During a joint trilateral statement, the three countries announced that Iran and Saudi Arabia would resume diplomatic missions and re-open embassies. They also agreed to “implement the Security Cooperation Agreement” signed in 2022.
Unfortunately for China, unlike its efforts to push for rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, its desire to create a peace treaty to resolve the Israel and Palestine issue will prove much more elusive. As seen with the current conflict, Chinese efforts to forge relations with strategic and historical rivals have challenged China’s response and willingness to insert themselves into this complicated issue. Though the U.S. has historically guaranteed the security in the Middle East, recently Beijing has sought to entice the Middle East more into its strategic orbit with lucrative economic incentives.
Ever since China became one of the first countries to recognize Palestine in 1988, the two countries have maintained friendly relations. In December 2022, Palestine and Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding to join the BRI. In June of this year, during a visit to China, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and President Xi Jinping announced the establishment of a Comprehensive Partnership between the two countries.
In terms of Israel, Chinese and Israeli cooperation has expanded in several areas since the early 2000s. This has been substantiated by the CCP newspaper, The China Daily, with the recently published article, “China-Israel ties bloom spectacularly.” The establishment of a new port in the northern Israeli city of Haifa underscores the expansion of relations between the two countries. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also initially slated to travel to Beijing, but the outbreak of war has undoubtedly changed his priorities.
Although China has worked hard to build relations with both Palestine and Israel, current rhetoric and State-sponsored media coverage have changed the perception of China as an impartial party. During Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning’s press conference, she stated that China is “deeply saddened by the civilian casualties and oppose and condemn acts that harm civilians. We oppose moves that escalate the conflict and destabilize the region and hope fighting will stop and peace will return soon. The international community needs to play an effective role to jointly help cool down the situation.” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin reiterated a similarly neutral sentiment during his press conference the next day.
Additionally, Chinese multimedia has attempted to dictate the narrative surrounding the conflict. The Global Times published a piece accentuating a need for a two-state solution. Phil Cunningham’s CCTV Follies also demonstrates how China’s news networks are primarily spreading reports and images of the damage in Gaza while showing very little of the destruction caused by Hamas in Israel. Further, rather than rebuking violence caused by both sides, in a call with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that "Israel's actions have gone beyond self-defense and it should heed the call of the international community and the Secretary-General of the United Nations to stop its collective punishment of the people in Gaza."
These statements have deeply disappointed those in Israel. An official from the Israel embassy in Beijing tweeted out that “Israel expected 'stronger condemnation' of Hamas from China.” The embassy also encouraged China to stand with Israel.
Instead of sincerely mediating and seeking an end to the conflict, China has been trying to blame the crisis on the U.S. and secure its strategic interests—a similar tactic used for the Ukraine War. Tian Wenlin, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times that “Israel already outweighs Palestine in terms of military might; if the U.S. wants peace, it should take actions to calm down the situation, instead of giving one-sided support to Israel.” Consequently, a few days after the State Department produced a report detailing how China seeks to reshape the global information environment, it was reported that known cyber groups linked to Iran and China are promoting online operations to shape the narrative concerning the conflict.
It is clear that China is attempting not to alienate its Middle Eastern partners, specifically Iran and Saudi Arabia, as more than a third of China’s oil comes from the Persian Gulf. China has tripled its oil imports from Iran in the past two years, secured more than 87 percent of Iran’s exports last month, and buys more oil from Saudi Arabia than any other country. Additionally, despite the ongoing conflict, Chinese tech giant Huawei introduced its 5.5G products in Dubai on October 11, while the Chinese and Saudi military commenced joint naval exercises around the same time.
Although these efforts to maintain relations with the Gulf States in the face of continued violence will create goodwill amongst China’s largest energy suppliers, it will ultimately undermine its endeavors to be an international mediator. Thus, unlike the U.S, China's goal is to appear as remaining neutral, while in actuality nurturing relations with the Arab States. However, China’s aligning with Israel would go against its alliance with Russia
Palestine and Israel are a stark example of the limits to China’s desire to be a global peacemaker. Beijing’s intent to form closer relations with countries worldwide—especially Global South nations—will be an impediment when conflict inevitably arises between different parties. China will likely prioritize its strategic interests, such as reliance on foreign energy sources, rather than assume a hard stance to resolve international disputes. In the end, China can always point to its Global Security Initiative that stresses respecting the sovereignty of other countries. Thus, we will observe a China that is reluctant to anger any one country and risk its economic or political ventures, resulting in a muted and less effective response.