The Chinese Balancing Act in Israel-Hamas Conflict

The Chinese stance on the October 7 Hamas attack reflects a diplomatic balancing act by Beijing. After getting the rotating presidency of the United Nations Security Council, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations (UN), Zhang Jun reiterated the need to establish an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Palestine. Earlier, Russia and China had vetoed a U.S.-led draft resolution in the UNSC calling for Israel’s right to defend itself and specifically called for humanitarian pauses to allow unhindered access to Hamas-ruled territory in Gaza.

On its part, Moscow had presented a resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire. This resolution did not get much support apart from countries like Gabon and the UAE, with the UK and U.S. vetoing it. US Ambassador Linda Thomas- Greenfield remarked that the resolution “did not mention Israel’s right of self defence”, while Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun argued that the US resolution was “seriously out of balance”.

Zhai Jun, the Chinese special envoy to the Middle East, had met several members over the crisis, indicating a shift from its previous neutral stance. There was a stark difference in the immediate reaction of the U.S. and China regarding the October 7 attack. The official PRC position on the ongoing conflict has been a diplomatic distancing with cautious statements of “restrainment and protection of civilians”. U.S. President Joe Biden had outrightly condemned the attacks as an act of terrorism, quite obviously showing solidarity with its perennial ally Israel. Beijing, however, has been conflicting in its anti-Western neutral positioning, great power claims, net security provider aspirations in the Middle East, and its longtime support for Palestine. This has made the Chinese authorities refrain from describing Hamas’ attack as an act of terrorism, but focus more on a “ceasefire” and “two state solution”.

The New Mediator

China has been a supporter of Palestinian statehood since its inception in 1988. China also established diplomatic relations with Israel post 1990s, expressing a consistent two-state solution to de-escalate the decades-old conflict. Zhai’s travel to Qatar , Egypt , Jordan , Saudi Arabia and the UAE making a diplomatic spread of the Palestinian question and the two states solution. Later, Xi’s remarks during his meeting with Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly in Beijing reiterated the need to establish an independent state of Palestine. He added that “the top priority is to stop the fight as soon as possible”.

In a telephonic interview to VOA, Dennis Wilder , who had served as National Security Council Director under the Bush Administration, stated “China has made significant inroads in the Middle East since Washington’s general pullback from the region and they don’t want to offend the Arab World”. This encapsulates the way China has used the political vacuum in the Middle East to change its security matrix and push its position as an international mediator. A successful example of this positioning was seen in the Saudi-Iran deal brokered by China, which was considered in many strategic circles as an equivalent to the U.S. brokered Abraham Accords.

Considering Beijing’s newly found brokering potential and the attempt of being perceived as a peacemaker in the region, its balancing act with Israel and Palestine seems more complicated than usual. In an interview with Time Magazine, Clemens Chay, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore states that “As a broker, Beijing will have to straddle between Arab and Israeli interests”. On an economic level, Israel and China have bilateral trade of $106 billion annually while Beijing has to prioritize its long standing ties with Iran, being the key financier of Hamas, making this current conflict challenge the diplomatic capability of PRC in the Middle East and its “neutral” yet pro-Palestinian juxtaposition.

BRI Linkage

China’s interest in being part of the Middle Eastern geopolitical discourse has been solely from an economic bandwagoning perspective historically. But recently, the need to strengthen relations with Middle Eastern nations has emerged given the Chinese aspirations of being a counterweight to the United States in the overall Global South. And the Arab World, particularly the Arab Gulf, remains a significant region of Chinese interest where it is trying to play a larger political role. The past few years China has adopted a more proactive approach in the region showing a greater intent of getting involved in a wide range of issues. The region remains crucial to Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) where Chinese investments in countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Iran are projected to cross $400 billion in the next 25 years, with energy being the key trade component.    

However, it is also imperative to argue that this muscle flexing superpower remains a questionable “neutral” player in the Middle East till now, mostly because of its divided interests. Beijing’s conflicted posturing vis-a-vis its actual diplomatic efforts is a strong reason for many commentators to consider China a “lightweight” in the Middle East. Here, China seems to be focusing on a short-sighted opportunism of being closer to the Muslim world, relying on Arab states legitimization of its repressive policies against the Uighur Muslims.    

Focus on Indo-Pacific

While the PRC tries to navigate the current Middle Eastern game play, Chinese social media platforms remain flooded with anti-Semitic content and conspiracy theories about the United States’ role in the war. This gives us an insight of the enduring suspicion of Israel of being an American ally and partner among the Chinese commentators domestically. Though the CCP controls the messages being circulated in social media platforms, it has used this conflict to further Chinese national interest and to undermine Washington’s global agenda, and further concretize CCP’s domestic legitimacy. While the PRC will utilize the images of war and horror in the region to smear the United States’ position, it will seek to capitalize on the distraction of the United States from the Indo-Pacific region. The growing fears that the United States’ divided bandwidth will allow China to move its cards in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean Region are not misplaced.

Maritime collisions between Chinese and Philippines ships, Chinese “abnormally” increased military drills around Taiwan, and China’s assertive actions across the Indo-Pacific are reminders that Washington needs to reassess its role in these conflicting regions. Beijing has significantly tried to leverage its role as a security provider and a balancer in the Middle East, trying desperately to reproduce a Saudi-Iran brokering model to reaffirm its diplomatic positioning in the region. The Israel-Hamas conflict in all likelihood will further disorient Washington’s priorities thereby allowing Chinese assertiveness to rise in the Indo-Pacific, while trying to meander between Moscow’s attack on Ukraine and Israel’s war on Hamas. The U.S. support for Israel has drawn considerable criticism in the Middle East, a gap which China wants to fill.

While China’s recently developed brokering capability remains questionable with respect to Israel, as compared to its experience with Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is important to argue that China does not necessarily want to replace the U.S. in the Middle East, but would enjoy the U.S. getting involved into a conflict in the region. The emergence of conflicting issues in the Indo-Pacific region poses a threat to the United States’ role as a global stabilizing force, potentially allowing China to capitalize on the situation and achieve strategic dominance in this crucial geopolitical hotspot.