China’s Middle East Strategy Faces Turbulence Amid Israel-Hamas Conflict, Yet Could Ultimately Benefit Beijing

by Michael Nguyen
China's Middle East Strategy

In June, the President of China, Xi Jinping, welcomed the Palestinian leader to Beijing and extended an invitation to the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for a formal state visit. The acceptance of the invitation by Netanyahu indicated that China was gearing up for an expanded role in the Middle East.

However, the situation was upended when Hamas launched attacks against Israel, throwing Netanyahu’s late October visit into question and challenging China’s diplomatic stance in the Middle East. China’s declared impartiality in the conflict has irritated Israel, but experts suggest that Beijing might ultimately profit by strengthening its ties with Arab nations.

“China’s policy towards the Middle East has been temporarily stalled due to the conflict,” noted Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing. “The United States, a strong ally of Israel, is either directly or indirectly involved. Who is left to listen to China?”

Despite these setbacks, China continues its diplomatic efforts. The country’s Middle East envoy, Zhai Jun, has been in communication with Palestinian and Egyptian officials, advocating for an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian aid for Palestinians. Zhai also reached out to Israeli authorities, emphasizing China’s dedication to peace, fairness, and justice.

Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, articulated stronger support for Palestinians, attributing the conflict to the injustice faced by the Palestinian people. “The real solution to the Palestinian issue is to resume genuine peace negotiations as promptly as possible and acknowledge the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” he stated.

In a recent interaction, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged China to leverage its influence in the region to prevent the conflict from escalating. Although China has well-known trade and political affiliations with Iran—which backs Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon—the nature of Wang’s response remains undisclosed.

Academics Maria Papageorgiou and Mohammad Eslami believe that China aims to act as a mediator, leveraging this crisis to bolster its influence. “U.S. support for Israel provides China an opportunity to expand arm sales to disgruntled Arab nations while protecting its economic interests in the Middle East,” they said.

However, Beijing’s stance may risk estranging Israel. Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Israel-China Policy Center, criticized China for exploiting the conflict for geopolitical gains rather than assuming the role of a responsible major power.

Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has been increasingly proactive in its foreign policy, seeking to cement relationships in the Middle East. This year, China even played a role in reestablishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, further positioning itself as an alternative peace broker to the United States.

Wang Yiwei, another professor at Renmin University, opined that China is better equipped than the U.S. to mediate conflicts due to its neutral stance. “If you alienate one side, you cannot effectively mediate,” he stated.

Nevertheless, there are those who question China’s sincerity in its efforts to act as a mediator. Dale Aluf, research director at an Israel-based think tank, contended that China’s neutrality might be more of a projection than a reality.

Since the conflict erupted, Chinese state media have been highly critical of Israel, drawing upon Iranian news sources to accuse the Israeli military of unlawful actions. They have also blamed the United States, Israel’s staunchest supporter, for intensifying regional tensions.

This media stance has contributed to a spike in antisemitic sentiment online in China, according to Yaqiu Wang of Freedom House. “China’s government consistently frames the Israel-Palestine conflict in a way that places the onus squarely on Israel, a key ally of the U.S., as part of its larger strategy to undermine the United States on the world stage,” she concluded.

Contributions to this report were made by Ken Moritsugu and researcher Wanqing Chen in Beijing, as well as AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about China’s Middle East Strategy

What is the main focus of the article?

The article focuses on how the Israel-Hamas conflict has impacted China’s diplomatic and strategic ambitions in the Middle East. It explores China’s attempts at mediation, the potential benefits and risks involved, and how other nations like the United States are responding to China’s efforts.

How has the Israel-Hamas conflict affected China’s diplomatic relations in the Middle East?

The Israel-Hamas conflict has put China’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East to the test. While China had been making strides in forging closer ties with both Israel and Palestine, the recent conflict has made its neutral stance problematic, particularly in its relationship with Israel.

What has been China’s diplomatic response to the conflict?

China’s Middle East envoy, Zhai Jun, has spoken to officials from both Palestinian and Israeli sides, calling for an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian aid for Palestinians. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also expressed stronger support for the Palestinian cause.

What is the U.S. perspective on China’s role in the Middle East?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged China to use its influence in the region to prevent the conflict from escalating further. This is the first high-level U.S. contact with China concerning the Middle East situation since the Hamas attacks on Israel began.

How could China potentially benefit from the ongoing conflict?

Experts suggest that while China’s neutrality on the Israel-Hamas conflict might strain relations with Israel, it could ultimately benefit by strengthening ties with Arab nations. Additionally, the situation could provide China with an opportunity to expand its arms sales to dissatisfied Arab countries and solidify its role as a mediator in the region.

Is there any criticism of China’s role in the conflict?

Yes, there is criticism, particularly from Israel. Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Israel-China Policy Center, argues that China’s stance is more about projecting an image of neutrality for geopolitical gains, rather than acting as a responsible major power.

How does China’s Middle East policy fit into its broader foreign policy objectives?

Under President Xi Jinping, China has pursued a more proactive and sometimes assertive foreign policy. The Middle East is crucial for China’s energy needs and serves as a nexus in its Belt and Road Initiative. The current conflict presents both challenges and opportunities for China to establish itself as a significant power in the region.

What is China’s long-term stance on the Israel-Palestine issue?

China has long advocated for a two-state solution that would allow for an independent Palestinian state. However, it has stopped short of labeling Hamas as a terrorist organization, instead viewing it as a “Palestinian resistance movement.”

How has the conflict affected public sentiment in China?

According to Yaqiu Wang of Freedom House, there has been a surge in antisemitic sentiment online in China. State media have also been critical of Israel, often sourcing information from Iranian news outlets.

Who contributed to the original report?

Contributions to the original report were made by Ken Moritsugu and researcher Wanqing Chen in Beijing, as well as AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

More about China’s Middle East Strategy

  • China’s Middle East Policy Overview
  • The Israel-Hamas Conflict: A Timeline
  • U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East
  • Belt and Road Initiative: China’s Global Infrastructure Project
  • China’s Relationship with Arab Countries
  • China and the Two-State Solution
  • Antisemitism in Chinese Social Media: A Study
  • Renmin University of China: International Relations Faculty
  • Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv
  • Freedom House: Research on China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan

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EmilyInFinance October 15, 2023 - 9:45 pm

Interesting read. i wonder how all this would impact the economic landscape. China has a lot at stake in the region, not just politically but economically too.

CryptoGeek October 15, 2023 - 10:34 pm

China playing 4D chess while others play checkers. but they need to be careful, one wrong move and things can go south real quick.

RachelCrypto October 15, 2023 - 11:45 pm

The bit about China’s arms sales to dissatisfied Arab countries caught my eye. Looks like another avenue for China to strengthen its position.

SaraEcon October 16, 2023 - 1:23 am

I agree with the experts, China might actually benefit from this in the long run. Its all geopolitics and strategic alliances.

PoliticalGuru October 16, 2023 - 11:19 am

China’s trying to be a mediator? Good luck with that. Its neutrality will upset someone eventually. can’t please everyone.

GlobalTraveler October 16, 2023 - 11:56 am

Kinda surprised to see antisemitic sentiment on the rise in Chinese internet. That’s concerning, to say the least.

HumanRightsWatch October 16, 2023 - 12:38 pm

China winning the support of Arab countries by remaining neutral? What about Uyghurs? seems hypocritical to me.

JohnSmith123 October 16, 2023 - 2:18 pm

Wow, didn’t know China was so deeply involved in the Middle East. They’re playing both sides, huh?

ForeignPolicyWonk October 16, 2023 - 2:48 pm

This goes beyond Israel and Palestine. It’s a wider game involving the U.S, Arab countries, and global politics. China’s moves will be closely watched.

AutoMan22 October 16, 2023 - 4:42 pm

Not directly related but it makes me think, what would be the role of oil and auto industry in China’s Middle east strategy?


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