“China has no selfish interests on the question of Palestine,” said Zhang Jun, the Chinese ambassador to the UN, amid testy exchanges with his Israeli counterpart, Gilad Erdan, last month.
“Any initiative that contributes to peace will receive China’s staunch support. Any endeavour that facilitates Palestinian-Israeli reconciliation will be pursued by China with all-out efforts,” Mr Zhang added.
In the wake of the October 7 massacres, Beijing has tried to project neutrality by emphasising, among other things, how “equal attention should be paid to the security concerns and legitimate rights of both Israel and Palestine” as well as condemning “violence and attacks against civilians”.
But with the US opposing UN resolutions calling for a humanitarian pause in Gaza, China has increasingly taken up the cudgels for the Palestinian cause. Throughout the past month, top officials have repeatedly emphasised the importance of looking at the root causes of the ongoing conflict as well as the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.
Confronting a new Cold War with the US, China is now taking the fight to the West by presenting itself as not only a potential peace broker in the Middle East, where anti-American sentiments appear to be on the rise, but also a champion for Muslim-majority countries. This subtle but significant shift in Beijing’s foreign policy reflects a more fundamental transformation in the global balance of power.
While China is emerging as a full-fledged global player, now intent on playing a more active role in several regions, a number of Muslim-majority countries are now pivotal players in the international system. The upshot is an emerging alliance between China and the Muslim world, with the Palestinian cause serving as a major rallying point.
Mao Zedong, China’s most influential leader in modern times, once famously said: “Where the enemy advances, we retreat. Where the enemy retreats, we pursue.” Mao’s dictum perfectly captures Beijing’s strategic calculus in recent years amid its competition with the US.
Only a decade ago, China largely took a defensive position when the Obama administration launched its much-vaunted “Pivot to Asia” policy to contain the rise of a new challenger in one of the world’s most dynamic regions. The Trump administration further intensified this policy by launching trade wars against Beijing.
The Biden administration has steadily expanded military co-operation with a network of regional partners and allies – including Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam – under an “integrated deterrence” strategy to constrain China. This strategic offensive was coupled with expanded sanctions on its tech sector and national champions.
As if that weren’t enough, Beijing also faced growing sanctions over its internal policies, as western nations and various human rights organisations accused it of oppressing religious minority groups.
By all indications, China is now taking the fight to the West.
First, it stepped up its charm offensive around the world by launching its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to enhance infrastructure connectivity across several continents.
It also sought to enhance its soft power by mediating major conflicts. In March, it defied all expectations by brokering a game-changing detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Given China’s heavy dependence on energy imports from the region, it has a great incentive to facilitate stability and enhance its soft power in the Mena region.
It’s no wonder, then, that the majority of newly admitted members to the Brics grouping are from the region, including Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, was also reportedly among those invited to join an expanded Brics.
Crucially, China has also waded into the most contentious conflict in the region, if not in the world. In June, President Xi Jinping hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing, where they signed a strategic partnership. Its pivot to the region couldn’t be timelier.
The US is increasingly unpopular in the Middle East. A Pew Research Centre survey in 2020 showed that Washington suffers from a 73 per cent disapproval rating in Turkey, a fellow Nato member-state, followed by Lebanon (53 per cent) and Tunisia (44 per cent).
With the US firmly standing by Israel in the latest conflict in the Middle East, anti-western sentiments are likely to intensify across the region.
This has provided a key opening for China to present itself as an ostensibly constructive player, thanks to its robust relations with all the major powers in the Middle East as well as its more historically balanced position on the Palestine-Israel conflict.
During a recent phone conversation with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made it clear that “China believes that the historical injustices against Palestine have lasted for more than half a century and cannot go on”.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s top envoy on the Middle East, Zhai Jun, promised proactive diplomacy by underscoring how China will “further strengthen co-ordination with all parties in the direction of a ceasefire, the protection of civilians, de-escalation and the promotion of peace talks”.
There appears to be genuine affinity between China and several Islamic countries, in part due to their shared experience of western colonialism.
The late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was a pivotal figure during the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement in the mid-20th century, when post-colonial nations sought to create an alternative sphere outside both the western and Soviet circles of influence.
After the end of the Cold War, the political scientist Samuel Huntington identified both the Islamic and Chinese civilisations as the ultimate bastions of resistance to western hegemony in the 21st century. That supposed “civilisational alliance” now seems to be congealing into a potent geopolitical force.
Amid the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, there seems to be popular support in China for a more sympathetic position towards Palestinians.
It’s quite telling that even Israel and the US have recognised China’s importance as a potential peacemaker, particularly as Beijing has positioned itself as a champion of the Global South – at a time when Washington is facing growing criticism for its ostensible double-standards on humanitarian crises outside the West.
Far from being contained in its backyard by the West, China is now extending its influence around the world.
It remains to be seen, however, if it can succeed where its western predecessors failed.
Beijing’s yet-to-be-proven ability to nudge the protagonists towards a desperately needed ceasefire in Gaza will serve as a crucial acid test of its emerging role in the Mena region.