Despite criticism that it is being too lenient with Hamas, China seems to have determined that supporting the Palestinians is the best way to boost its international standing.
After Beijing’s original statement downplayed the ferocity of the attack carried out by Palestinian militants against Israel this past weekend, it received quick response from Israeli and American officials.
However, China is likely playing the long game by trying to win friends and influence people in the Middle East and in other parts of the world that are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, such as Africa and Latin America.
However, China may pay a steep price if it alienates Israel. Profitable tech trade includes importing over $1 billion in semiconductors from Israel each year. In addition, this could undermine Beijing’s efforts to play the role of mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
It’s obvious that China doesn’t want to upset the Arabs. “They’re very careful about how they tip their hat to the Israelis,” said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who is now at the Middle East Institute in Washington. The Israelis, seeing this, might conclude that the arbitrator is not impartial.
Immediately after the attacks, China issued a statement urging all parties to “exercise restraint” and work towards a “two-state solution.”
A senior official at the Israeli embassy in Beijing named Yuval Waks responded by expressing sadness, telling Reuters that Israel viewed China as a friend.
“When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution,” Waks told reporters on Sunday.
As the leader of a congressional delegation, Schumer began his trip to China this past weekend by lecturing Chinese President Xi Jinping for being too kind towards Hamas.
In order to mitigate the potential for the most severe backlash, Beijing does appear to be striking a balance in its messaging. China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement more forcefully denouncing harm to civilians not long after Schumer vented his fury to Xi.
However, on balance, China’s position has been much more impartial than that of the United States and certain European countries, which have mostly concentrated on sympathy and support for Israel. This is consistent with Beijing’s long-held policy of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other countries.
No one from the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC was willing to talk to us about this.
Meanwhile, initial responses from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries reflected the strong pro-Palestinian sentiments among their populations by blaming Israeli policy for the Hamas attack.
While Beijing may be concerned about the Middle East, it is more likely to be planning ahead by many years.
The struggle of the Palestinians against occupation, or what a United Nations expert has claimed is an Israeli “apartheid” policy, is often equated by countries outside of Africa and Latin America with the struggle against colonisation.
The government of South Africa, for example, released a statement saying, “the new conflagration has arisen from the continued illegal occupation of Palestine land, continued settlement expansion, desecration of the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy sites, and ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.”
The rhetoric coming out of Beijing could bring it closer to countries that have benefited from Chinese investment in infrastructure like motorways and huge new ports.
Chinese state media has portrayed the United States as a regional villain working “behind the scenes” of Middle East crises in the days following the Hamas strikes, and has hinted at a Beijing-led role in resolving them.
The Israeli-Palestinian problem “requires a more powerful collective effort from the international community to change it,” the state-backed Global Times tabloid wrote on Sunday.
It’s consistent with China’s strategy of using international crises to boost its global standing. As an alternative to the American-led international system, Xi is lobbying for stronger backing for his Global Security Initiative.
According to Michael Singh, a former official in the administration of George W. Bush with expertise in the Middle East, “increasingly [in] all of these sorts of issues, when there is a conflict somewhere in the world, China sees it as an opportunity to try to undermine the United States — to try to take, essentially, a shot at the United States.”
White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan stated on Tuesday, when asked about the People’s Republic of China’s reply, “We were not entirely surprised by the PRC’s response based on their history of commentary on these kinds of issues.”
China has always stood with the Palestinians. China was one of the first countries to officially recognise a “state of Palestine,” and during President Mahmoud Abbas’s June visit there, the two leaders signed an agreement for a strategic alliance. Xi utilised the event to present his own three-point plan for achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians. (The West Bank is ruled by the Palestinian Authority.)
The Hamas strike might put years of effort into negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians in jeopardy. China’s efforts to play mediator in the Middle East haven’t been without success thus far.
China played a key role in reestablishing diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year. Both countries have a long history of supporting Palestinian rights, and Iran in particular provides significant financial and military support to Hamas despite their ongoing rivalry.
This is happening just as the United States was facilitating talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel to establish diplomatic ties. As a reflection of the shifting political landscape in the region, Israel has developed similar ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco in recent years.
An ex-high ranking State Department official in charge of the Middle East has claimed that China’s statement regarding the fighting that broke out this weekend shows the country’s regional weakness.
Since at least the early 2000s, “the Chinese have wanted to present themselves as equal to the big boys,” Satterfield explains, meaning the United States, the United Nations, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. However, it’s clear that they’re not the main attraction. Not because they were excluded, but because China’s voice doesn’t carry much in these debates.