Palestinian militant group Hamas shocked the world as it launched its largest attack in years against Israel on 7 October. Israel subsequently declared war against Hamas, and described the attack as Israel’s “9/11”.
Following the new wave of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Middle East has fallen back into turmoil, with many innocent civilians killed, kidnapped and facing violence. A major humanitarian crisis is imminent.
Middle East peacemaker
The Middle East has not been an area of focus for Beijing’s foreign policy in the past, and unlike the US, China has rarely been involved in the region’s issues. However, Beijing has stepped up its engagement with the region this year.
China played the role of mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made state visits to China in June and September respectively. In August, Middle Eastern countries Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran and the United Arab Emirates joined the China-led BRICS.
And following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, Beijing has been striving to boost its image as a global force for peace. All these factors are drawing international attention to China’s position vis-a-vis the Israel-Palestine conflict, to see what role China — who is trying to be a “peacemaker” — can play in this major international crisis.
A day after the outbreak of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Chinese foreign ministry clarified its stance in a response to a reporter’s question. In a statement of less than 200 words, China impartially called on relevant parties “to remain calm, exercise restraint and immediately end the hostilities to protect civilians and avoid further deterioration of the situation”.
The statement pointed out that the “fundamental way out of the conflict lies in implementing the two-state solution and establishing an independent State of Palestine”.
It added that the international community needs to “act with greater urgency, step up input into the Palestine question, facilitate the early resumption of peace talks between Palestine and Israel, and find a way to bring about enduring peace”.
However, the initial statement drew criticism for not explicitly condemning Hamas for inciting the conflict.
... China’s attitude appears vague. This is in line with China’s longstanding policy of not taking sides in international conflicts and advocating for conflict resolution through dialogue.
China’s impartial stance
On 8 October, Yuval Waks, a senior official at the Israeli embassy in Beijing, called on Beijing to issue a stronger condemnation of Hamas, stating directly that “when people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution”.
During his visit to China, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer directly expressed his disappointment to China’s President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister and Politburo member Wang Yi on 9 October. Schumer stated that he was “very disappointed” by the Chinese foreign ministry’s statement, which “showed no sympathy or support for Israel during these troubled times”.
During a regular press conference at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that same afternoon, spokesperson Mao Ning responded to more than a dozen questions related to the Israel-Palestine conflict, with the foreign media in attendance repeatedly probing Beijing’s stance.
Mao’s responses became stronger, adding that China “oppose[s] and condemn[s] acts that harm civilians.” However, she emphasised that China is “a friend to both Israel and Palestine”.
Compared with Western countries that generally condemn Hamas, China’s attitude appears vague. This is in line with China’s longstanding policy of not taking sides in international conflicts and advocating for conflict resolution through dialogue. This cautious approach is also linked to China’s historical interactions with both Israel and Palestine.
China has maintained friendly relations with Palestine, expressing moral sympathy and support, and speaking up for Palestine at the United Nations. When Abbas visited China in June, he received a high-level reception, and the two countries announced the establishment of a strategic partnership.
Meanwhile, China has maintained close ties with Israel through economic and trade relations. China is currently Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia, and second largest globally. According to a study published by Tel Aviv University in June this year, more than half of Israel’s exports to China are electronic components, including microchips. In the face of a potential technological “iron curtain” drawn by the US, such trade is crucial for China.
Washington will also be caught in a passive position of having to deal with the Ukraine conflict, which is at a standstill, while also having to allocate resources and attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Point of cooperation
Israel and Palestine have currently taken a hardline stance, and the Middle East has become another tricky issue for the US, and could divert the Biden administration’s efforts to reconcile Israel with Saudi Arabia. Washington will also be caught in a passive position of having to deal with the Ukraine conflict, which is at a standstill, while also having to allocate resources and attention to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
This conflict is expected to divert Washington’s attention from its issues with China, leaving some breathing room for the strained China-US relationship. The fighting in the Middle East also adds to global instability, which requires collective international efforts, creating an opportunity for China and the US to cooperate.
Indeed, working with the US on the Israel-Palestine issue aligns with China’s interests. The Middle East is a crucial region for the world in energy production and supply, and turbulence there can challenge global energy security and economic stability. China’s Belt and Road Initiative also involves Middle Eastern countries, including Israel and Palestine, and any conflict could impact the progress and investment environment of BRI projects.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is a highly complex and sensitive issue, involving territorial disputes, religious factions, historical grievances and international geopolitics — it is indeed a test of countries’ diplomatic wisdom.
For Beijing and Washington, the Middle East situation will be one more topic for negotiation and discussion between the Chinese and US leaders, who will most likely meet next month.
But compared with the Russia-Ukraine conflict and various structural issues in China-US relations, China and the US are more likely to have similar intentions of cooperating with each other to achieve a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as "以巴冲突考验中国外交".
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