Weekend Essay: What is China's real position on the Israel-Gaza war?

It is wrong to define Beijing's stance solely in terms of its relationship with Washington's

Nic Donaldson/ Reuters
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A consistent theme that runs across much of the coverage surrounding China’s stance towards the Hamas attacks and the Israeli military campaign in Gaza is that it is read with the US, and broader great-power competition, in mind.

Over the past few months, one has been repeatedly bombarded by western opinion pieces and analyses claiming that China has supposedly “exploited” American alignment with Israel to enhance its reputation in the Arab world. Less-generous treatments go so far as to claim that China’s foreign policy stance is not only operating in ways diametrically opposed to US objectives and leadership in the Middle East, but also contributing to further de-stabilisation and turmoil.

As scholars who have long worked on China’s engagement with the Middle East, we have found that such narratives are often projections that discount not only the complex realities on the ground, but also Chinese and Middle Eastern perspectives. We do not dispute that Sino-American rivalry is an operative factor in this case and others, but we find that interpretations that solely focus on this dynamic tend to underplay two critical points.

The first is that part of whatever reputational success China may have garnered arises from Washington’s self-inflicted strategic blunders and incoherent policies on issues from Palestine to Yemen. The recent news about US President Joe Biden’s frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s actions show that even American policymakers are aware of that. The Gaza crisis is illustrative of this problem, as it is difficult to say that Chinese actions have been particularly different from the past. Indeed, China’s official response shows many continuities with its longstanding foreign policy position on the Palestine-Israel conflict, held at least since the Oslo Accords process took off in the 1990s, and re-packaged over the past decade in adjusted iterations of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Four Point Plan.

Beijing has also been operating mostly within the parameters of its typical approach to crises far from its immediate peripheries. It has dispatched high-ranking diplomats – ranging from Middle East Special Envoy Zhai Jun and Communist Party International Department head Liu Jianchao, to Foreign Minister Wang Yi – on tours of the region, with all of them reiterating the above-mentioned official stance to their Middle Eastern counterparts

Notwithstanding much talk of a growing Chinese military presence in the Horn of Africa, Beijing has done little to actually deploy its coercive instruments in protecting Chinese maritime shipping along the Red Sea – despite the appeals of US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan for them to join the anti-Houthi coalition. Its humanitarian aid has been minimal, as is true to form, and its stance on South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice has been positive yet restrained in light of its own concerns about state sovereignty in relation to such institutions.

If Beijing appears to score so many important diplomatic points in this moment, it is because, regardless of its motivations, it is taking a stance that is not uniquely Chinese

This brings us to the second point: the lack of acknowledgment of the agency of countries other than the US or China. If Beijing appears to score so many important diplomatic points in this moment, it is because, regardless of its motivations, it is taking a stance that is not uniquely Chinese.

Chinese diplomats and policymakers have condemned violence against civilians, called for an immediate ceasefire plus the provision of humanitarian aid, as well as a revitalisation of a timetabled peace process based on a land-for-peace formula. Much of this is spelt out in a position paper issued by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in November called Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. This is a set of positions that is largely in accord with the global consensus or, at least, with those of a very large number of countries that simply do not agree with Israeli military actions and American support for them. In other words, China is not an extremist outlier.

At the same time, it is important to emphasise the role of countries in the Middle East, with their own goals and plans to achieve them. More or less substantial alignment with Beijing can be a means for countries to obtain things like technologies or investments that Washington cannot provide, or to communicate signals and put pressure on the US into offering more. The choice of Beijing as the first stop in a globe-spanning tour by the high-ranking delegation empowered by the extraordinary summit of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation in Riyadh on November 11 could certainly be interpreted from that angle.

In other words, while China is not a passive bystander and has an interest in blunting American influence, the rise of its profile in the region is largely a product of broader regional and global trends. This is especially so in the Global South, as shown by the diplomatic row between Namibia and Germany in January over the latter’s support for Israel at the International Court of Justice.

The corollary of this is that what is happening in the region is not an ongoing power transition from a pax Americana (if indeed it could be called that) to a Chinese one. We do not claim to know what Middle Eastern and Chinese policymakers definitively want, but our own research does not suggest that China considers taking on the traditionally American role of regional hegemon as its preferred scenario. Nor does it indicate, for that matter, that this is what local actors necessarily want. Rather, we are witnessing a change in the structure of the regional order towards a more open and fluid one that will create challenges for all the parties involved, including China and the US, as they will navigate new and uncertain waters.

Published: February 16, 2024, 6:00 PM
Updated: February 21, 2024, 9:36 AM