Even before the recent outbreak of violence in the Gaza Strip, China had offered itself up as a neutral broker of peace between Israel and Palestine. Poising itself as a counterpoint to the United States, which has a long history of influence in the Middle East, Al Jazeera reports that China appeared to be gaining influence in the region, especially after brokering a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But with the war expanding, Beijing’s ambitions in the Middle East are being challenged.
In the immediate aftermath of the initial eruption of violence, China did not condemn Hamas for their attack on Israel, according to Voice of America (VOA), which drew waves of criticism. Instead, in the wake of Israeli counterattacks, it strengthened criticism of Israel. CNBC reports that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has stated that Israel’s actions have exceeded self-defense and become retaliation. He further urges all parties to abide by international humanitarian law and focus on protecting innocent civilians. Al Jazeera also notes that China has joined with most other countries in the United Nations to call for a humanitarian truce.
Through its actions thus far, China seems to have sided largely with Palestine, but it also has significant economic ties with Israel. The reason for this dichotomy, Politico claims, is a long-term play to gain favor in the Middle East and with countries searching for alternatives to U.S. partnerships, while maintaining its long-standing policy of non-interference with other countries’ internal affairs. The Hill reports that many Arab countries have blamed Israel for the war, citing their history of abuses against Palestinians as justification. Even beyond the Middle East, this neutral rhetoric is likely to attract more international support than the comparatively polarized rhetoric of the U.S. and many European countries, who view Palestine’s struggle for freedom as similar to struggles against colonization. Politico speculates that, in this aspect, China is thinking years into the future.
However, China faces significant limitations in their potential role due to both their history with Palestine and the reaction of Chinese citizens to the war. Foreign Policy explains that while China has historically supported the Palestinian cause, going as far as to arm and train the Palestine Liberation Organization, the adoption of a less radical government in the 1980s led them to closer ties with Israel. In the years since, China has still consistently supported a two-state solution. Even during the war, BBC News reports that China continues to stress the importance of a two-state solution and its support for Palestine. This in itself may deter Israel from viewing it as a truly independent mediator.
The recent rise of antisemitism in China is also hampering its position as a neutral party. According to The New York Times, inflammatory speech toward Israel has become rampant on Chinese social media, with commenters emboldened by China’s refusal to condemn Hamas. In turn, state media has picked up and perpetuated antisemitic rhetoric. The Times reports that it is not clear whether or not this trend is a coordinated campaign but notes that the position of state media rarely differs from that of the communist party. This kind of rhetoric undermines China’s goal of remaining an independent party.
While it is unlikely that China can remain a neutral party in this war, considering its history with Palestine and internal antisemitic rhetoric, Gedaliah Afterman, head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy and International Relations at Reichman University in Israel, told The New York Times that it is possible for China to increase regional stability through the distribution of humanitarian aid. Dawn Murphy, an associate professor of national security strategy at the U.S. National War College, agreed that China, with a limited influence in the war, would be best to deliver humanitarian aid, in an interview with VOA.
Ultimately, China seeks to use the Israel-Hamas war as a way to gain a stronger foothold in the Middle East by mediating the conflict between Palestine and Israel. However, its own internal rhetoric and historical support of one side are likely to hinder its efforts, even as its policy of non-interference is likely to attract support in the long run.