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Why China is standing on the fence while Middle East is afire after Gaza war

China’s initial reaction to the conflict noted that the flare-up was evidence that “the protracted standstill of the peace process cannot go on”.

If we have to sum up the Chinese position on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, it will be hai (sea) full of ambiguity and cunning diplomacy behind the scenes. China has been pressing for peace as a two-state solution sans any direct condemnation of Hamas’ October 7 attacks and subsequent Israeli military actions. Meanwhile, it has been launching wàijiāo shǎndiànzhàn (diplomatic blitzkrieg) in the Global South against the United State’s rules-based world order that has kept Israel as a behemoth in West Asia.

China’s initial reaction to the conflict noted that the flare-up was evidence that “the protracted standstill of the peace process cannot go on”, with a foreign ministry spokesperson adding: “The fundamental way out of the conflict lies in implementing the two-state solution and establishing an independent state of Palestine.”

Throughout October and in the first week of November, Beijing has maintained this line. This is in line with China’s long-standing posture on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it’s highly unlikely to change now, for several reasons.

However, Beijing has interests on both sides of the conflict. With its unwavering stand on a two-state solution, Beijing is also Israel’s second-largest trading partner.

On November 1, China took over as the rotational presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). While it is likely that China will use the month playing  active “mediator” to help ensure an outcome of the conflict that projects itself as saviour of Arab dignity and facilitator of the economic activities in the region. The key concern behind this possible Chinese posture is Beijing’s recent heavy economic partnership with many Middle East countries and it being a major buyer of both Saudi and Iranian oil.

Besides, Beijing appears to be poised to offer itself as a counterpoint to the United States, whose historical baggage in the region and close ties to Israel could get in the way of its role as peacemaker.

Israel and the US have expressed their “disappointment” with China’s ambiguous position and failure to condemn Hamas.

Rafi Harpaz, a diplomat in Israel’s foreign ministry, also expressed “deep disappointment” with China’s position, noting that the messages coming from Beijing had “no clear and unambiguous condemnation of the terrible attack and heinous massacre committed by the terrorist organisation Hamas against innocent civilians and the abduction of dozens of them to Gaza”.

In its response, Beijing has responded via commentaries on various if its official platforms that “it differs from the West in its approach to the international order. It often criticises western alliances, considering them a destabilising factor in the global system.”

One more route that China has traversed is a track taken to tackle the Ukraine War, in support of Russia and engaging North Korea. In the case of the Middle East, China is reportedly working in tandem with Iran which in turn has resorted to open confrontation with the US-Israel axis through its proxies.

Beijing has openly criticised Washington for adding fuel to fire by weaponising Kiev in a battle that will only cause destruction and produce disappointing outcomes for the people of the region.

Similarly, China along with Russia vetoed a US-led resolution in the UNSC that was blunt in stating “Israel has a right to defend itself and demanding Iran stop exporting arms to militant groups. It did not include a call for humanitarian pauses for aid access to victims of Israeli bombardments in Gaza.”

On November 3, China led 119 largely Global South nations to vote in support of a non-binding United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a humanitarian truce.

Razan Shawamreh, a researcher on Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East at the International Relations at Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU) in North Cyprus, while dissecting the Chinese the key contours of the Chinese foreign policy said that Beijing stays away from direct participation in the conflicts and seeks international mechanism for that.

“China does not engage unilaterally or assume responsibility for resolving international conflicts. Its statements consistently emphasise supporting international efforts and encouraging a more effective role for the global community. On the Gaza war, Beijing has urged the international community ‘to act with greater urgency, step up input into the Palestinian question… and find a way to bring about enduring peace’, while also emphasising the UN’s obligation to act,” she said.


Beneath the Veneer

This “neutrality” and claim of having Plaestinians’ back has serious consequences for Palestinians.

Shawamreh in fact alleges that China has biased impartiality in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While China heralds its neutrality in the conflict, the facts on the ground suggest Chinese support for Israel.

“China has consistently deviated from international norms on the conflict’s pivotal issues, including through its support of the “Jewishness” of the state of Israel; its investments in Israeli settlements and reinforcement of economic security for settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem; and its promotion of Arab normalisation with Israel, despite the adverse impacts on the Palestinian population,” Shawamreh is her latest piece for the Middle East Eye.

So, for the most part, Beijing has largely stayed on the sidelines of the Israel-Hamas conflict so far, avoiding the same prominent role it played in bringing about the Saudi-Iran detente.

Rallying Cry for Global South

China’s message to the developing countries, where it seeks to expand its influence through investments and infrastructure development – many being part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRT), has been that unlike the Soviet Union, its communist elder brother, if not father, is not interested in exporting its ideology. “Instead, China devotes itself to building a shared future for mankind, envisaging a world where all countries and peoples live in peace and prosperity,” Zhou Xiaoming, a senior fellow at the Centre for China and Globalisation in Beijing, said.

He added that instead of military bases, China builds highways, railways, ports and schools to develop infrastructure, and nurtures trade and investment relationships. Consequently, it has become the largest trading partner for most developing countries, and the single largest foreign investor in many.

China’s Belt and Road initiative has expanded to around 150 countries, he added, indicating that the people in these countries are ready to shun the Western influence to become partners in development projects that don’t pose any danger to any of their strategic autonomy and in these countries also include those in the Middle East.

The US administration, under recent two presidents, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, has viewed China’s inroads into poor countries as a threat to its own centuries old grip.

Reflection of this approach of Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East is as discussed earlier: avoiding wading into conflict and sitting on the fence until embers are cooled on their own. Even if a major portion of the Global South that China claims to lead continues to stay on fire till then.