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China takes cautious approach to diplomacy over Israel-Gaza war

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A Chinese embassy spokesperson in July expressed confidence that Beijing was ready to play a positive role in promoting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, amid hopes the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia would spur a “wave of reconciliation” across the Middle East.

The previous month, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Beijing and invited Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu to visit.

China’s role in the détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia garnered much attention with some marking it as a defining moment, a demonstration that as the United States’s star was waning in the region, China’s was rising.

Then, on October 7, the armed group Hamas launched a surprise assault on Israel, killing at least 1,400 people and abducting more than 200. Israel has responded with a relentless bombardment of the blockaded Gaza and recently launched ground attacks into the coastal strip, which is controlled by Hamas.

According to Gaza’s health ministry, at least 9,770 Palestinians have been killed so far.

US President Joe Biden quickly condemned Hamas’s attack while his administration later ordered two carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean and readied the deployment of 2,000 troops to deter any other actors from widening the war in the region.

Biden also visited Israel in a show of solidarity. A meeting was scheduled between Biden and several Arab leaders, but it was cancelled following a blast at the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza in which hundreds were killed.

United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron have also visited Israel, while Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa travelled to Israel and Jordan.

At the same time, Egypt and Qatar have reportedly been playing a key role in negotiating the release of the Hamas captives.

China’s engagement, however, has looked quite different.

Beijing has sent its Middle East envoy, Zhai Jun, but neither Xi nor his foreign minister, Wang Yi, have visited the region since the outbreak of fighting.

Xi has called for a ceasefire while Wang has said that the source of the conflict “lies in the fact that justice has not been done to the Palestinian people” and that the “collective punishment” of the Palestinians must come to an end.

Such statements follow the basic Chinese playbook when conflict breaks out between Israelis and Palestinians, according to William Figueroa, an assistant professor at the University of Groningen who has conducted research on China’s relationship with Middle Eastern countries.

“They take a very cautious stance initially and then call for peace and condemn violence against civilians while primarily focusing on Palestinian grievances,” he told Al Jazeera.

Yao-Yuan Yeh is a professor of international studies focusing on Taiwan, China and Japan at the US University of St Thomas. He agrees that in spite of an increased Chinese diplomatic engagement in the Middle East recently, this has not translated into a leading mediation role in the current Hamas-Israel war.

“We have not really seen the Chinese doing something new or taking a leadership position in the current conflict.”

Israel-Palestine in Beijing’s Middle East strategy

In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s attack on Israel, the Chinese government was accused of responding in only vague terms and adopting a non-committal tone.

“They took kind of a wait-and-see attitude at first,” said Figueroa.

The Chinese foreign ministry called for calm, to exercise of restraint and refrained from condemning Hamas.

Beijing has traditionally prioritised relations with the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During Mao Zedong’s era, Beijing considered the Palestinian struggle for land to be part of the world’s national liberation movement, according to Hongda Fan, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University.

“The understanding of the Palestinian Question still largely stems from this perception,” Fan told Al Jazeera.

In 1965, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was allowed to open a diplomatic mission in China, and upgraded to an embassy in 1974. Beijing was probably the PLO’s primary supplier of weapons for a time in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the Beirut-based Institute for Palestine Studies, and has recognised the State of Palestine since 1988.

However, China has also expanded its ties with Israel.

China established full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 and has since invested billions in its economy – its investments in the Palestinian territories being negligible in comparison.

But Chinese investments in Israel are in turn dwarfed by its economic relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“China has invested heavily in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries,” Figueroa said.

Beijing and Riyadh announced investment deals worth $10bn in June.

Trade between the two reached $106bn in 2022 – almost double the value of Saudi Arabian-US trade.

China is also the primary buyer of Saudi Arabian and Iranian oil.

This is part of a larger development which has seen China become the Arab world’s main trading partner.

According to Figueroa, China’s deep economic ties with the Gulf states have contributed to a Chinese Middle East outlook centred around certain Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia.

So when it became clear there was going to be a strong outcry from these countries following the Israeli military operations in Gaza, the Chinese rhetoric became much more clearly pro-Palestinian, Figueroa observed.

Subsequently, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang accused Israel of going “beyond self-defence” in its military actions in Gaza.

Opposing the US

This has placed the Chinese government at odds with the US.

While there has been an absence of Chinese diplomatic leadership in the conflict, according to analysts, China has been more outspoken in its criticism of Washington even as the two countries try to rebuild a severely strained relationship.

China's Wang Yi, Iran's Ali Shamkhani and Saudi Arabia's Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban pose for pictures
China helped broker a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran [File: China Daily via Reuters]

In an editorial in the government-controlled China Daily, the newspaper accused the US of “adding fuel to the fire by blindly backing Israel in the ongoing conflict”. The state-run Global Times said in its own editorial that the US was “stained with the blood of innocent civilians” after the US on October 18 vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution, drafted by Brazil, calling for a humanitarian pause to the conflict to allow aid into Gaza.

On October 27, a resolution put before the UN General Assembly drafted by Jordan received support from 120 countries. The US voted against it while China voted in favour.

Before that, China, along with Russia, vetoed a US draft resolution that stated Israel’s right to defend itself and demanded that Iran stop exporting arms to hardline groups.

“The draft does not reflect the world’s strongest calls for a ceasefire, an end to the fighting, and it does not help resolve the issue,” China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun told the council after the vote.

Beijing is this month’s Security Council president and has said the Israel-Gaza war will be a priority.

Laying out China’s plans for November, Zhang said the council’s performance was “not as good as what the global community expects”, and that every effort would be made to guide it towards concrete actions in promoting political settlements.

“To make it more specific, the top priority [this month] is to tackle the Israel-Palestine – namely Gaza – conflict that is going on,” he said.

On Monday, at the request of China and the United Arab Emirates, the 15-member body will hold more closed-door deliberations on the conflict.

“The best-case scenario for China would be for the fighting to end as soon as possible and for China to be involved in any potential negotiating process in some way,” Figueroa said.

“But I am not sure they will be able to be involved at all, frankly.”

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