China seems to have determined that supporting the Palestinians is the best way to increase its worldwide influence, regardless of the criticism it may receive for being too lenient with Hamas.
Israeli and American officials were quick to criticise Beijing’s initial statement for downplaying the ferocity of the Palestinian militants’ attack on Israel over the weekend.
But China is probably playing the long game, 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, where many governments are seeking for alternatives to the United States as a partner.
However, if China alienates Israel, it could face serious consequences. It has prosperous tech-sector trade with the country, regularly importing over $1 billion in semiconductors from Israel annually. And Beijing’s attempts to act as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians may have been undermined.
China is “obviously worried about upsetting the Arab side. They tip their cap to the Israelis, but they do it very gingerly, according to Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who is now at the Middle East Institute in Washington. This will lead Israelis to believe the arbiter is biassed against their side, you know.
China issued a statement shortly after the attacks, calling on all parties to “exercise restraint” and commit to a “two-state solution.”
Senior Israeli embassy official Yuval Waks was quoted by Reuters as expressing regret with the news, explaining that Israel views China as a friend.
Waks told reporters on Sunday, “When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution.”
In a lecture delivered to Chinese President Xi Jinping over the weekend, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer criticised the president for being too lenient with Hamas.
To mitigate the most severe backlash, Beijing does appear to be striking a balance in its messaging. After Schumer vented his anger to Xi, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement strongly denouncing attacks on civilians.
While the United States and other European countries have mostly concentrated on compassion and support for Israel, the Chinese approach has been significantly more impartial. This is in keeping with Beijing’s long-standing policy of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other countries.
In response to our request for comment, the Chinese Embassy in Washington has declined.
The strong pro-Palestinian sentiments among Arab people are reflected in the immediate statements published by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, which essentially blamed Israeli policy for the Hamas attack.
However, Beijing is probably planning ahead by a number of years and looking outside the Middle East.
The Palestinians’ fight against occupation, or what a United Nations expert has called an Israeli “apartheid” strategy, is widely viewed as analogous to the fight against colonisation by countries in Africa, Latin America, and beyond.
According to a statement released by the South African government, “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.”
Beijing’s rhetoric may entice these countries to work with it, as China has invested heavily in their infrastructure, from motorways to vast new ports.
State-run Chinese media has portrayed the United States as a regional villain working “behind the scenes” of Middle Eastern wars in the days following the Hamas attacks, and has hinted at a Beijing-led role in ending them.
The Israeli-Palestinian problem “requires a more powerful collective effort from the international community to change it,” the state-backed Global Times newspaper declared on Sunday.
It is consistent with China’s opportunistic attitude to global issues as it seeks to become a global superpower. In particular, Xi is lobbying for increased backing for his Global Security Initiative, an alternative to the international system led by the United States.
“Increasingly [in] all 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,” said Michael Singh, a former official in the George W. Bush administration with expertise in the Middle East.
White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan remarked on Tuesday, in regards to the People’s Republic of China’s reply, that “we were not entirely surprised by the PRC’s response based on their history of commentary on these kinds of issues.”
The Palestinian cause has traditionally enjoyed China’s backing. China was one of the first nations to officially recognise the “state of Palestine,” and in June, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas visited the country and signed a strategic partnership agreement with President Xi Jinping. During this time, Xi presented his own three-point plan for achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians. (In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is in charge.)
Any long-term peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians may be derailed by the Hamas strike. Even so, China’s efforts to play Middle Eastern mediator have had some success.
This year has already seen the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, facilitated in part by China. Iran in particular is a key financial and military sponsor of Hamas, but both countries continue to be enemies despite their shared history of supporting Palestinian rights.
The United States had been mediating talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel in an effort to establish diplomatic ties between the two countries. In addition to the UAE, Israel has developed diplomatic ties with Bahrain and Morocco in recent years, reflecting shifting power dynamics in the area.
Former senior State Department official dealing with the Middle East David Satterfield said that China’s rhetoric about the conflict that erupted this weekend demonstrates the weakening of China’s regional position.
According to Satterfield, “the Chinese have wanted to present themselves as equal to the big boys” (the United States, the United Nations, the United Kingdom, and the European Union) for over a decade. But they’re playing second, third, or even fifth fiddle. It’s not that China is being excluded; it’s just that their voice doesn’t carry much in these discussions.