During the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip, the position of most international actors is relatively straightforward. The US supports Israel but rejects an escalation of the war. In practice, this means that Washington appeals to Israel to moderate its operations in Gaza but vetoes resolutions in the UN Security Council that call for a ceasefire. Iran, for its part, supports Hamas militarily and diplomatically in order to weaken its ideological enemy, Israel. Turkey is pragmatically using the crisis to expand its influence in the Middle East by rhetorically supporting Palestine, but without risking military intervention. However, the People’s Republic of China’s position can appear contradictory and incomprehensible in places. On the face of it, Beijing is trying to act as a neutral peacemaker between Israel and Palestine while supporting Palestine with diplomatic attacks on Israel at the UN. What are China’s interests in the Middle East, and what is China’s actual policy towards this conflict?
The People’s Republic of China has long supported the countries of the Global South. This is a policy that Beijing advocates, especially if it can thereby weaken US power. This was exemplified, for example, in the conflicts in Vietnam and Cambodia, where China supported movements that subsequently overthrew pro-American states and regimes. In relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Beijing has supported the Palestine Liberation Organisation since its inception in 1967. It only established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, even then only in the context of the emerging peace agreement between Palestine and Israel. China is doing so because it is in its interest to mobilise the countries of the Global South against Israel, which is perceived in Beijing as an American colony. The importance of Israel as an ally in Washington’s eyes is also demonstrated by recent American efforts to broker the normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In light of the current fighting in Gaza, China, therefore, sees an opportunity to win over countries in the Arab world that are dissatisfied with the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to its side and to bring them closer to its side at Washington’s expense. Chinese support for Palestine has so far been limited to rhetoric, attempts to push through pro-Palestinian resolutions in the UN Security Council and humanitarian aid. China does not yet intend to risk more substantial support for any side in this conflict.
But Beijing has other priorities. China is still dependent on fossil fuels, which it imports primarily from the Middle East. For this reason, China has become increasingly involved in the region in recent years. China is trying to play the role of a neutral mediator in the Middle East and has recently used its position to broker a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This approach enhances Beijing’s prestige and allows it to gain access to lucrative mineral resources without having to intervene militarily in the region itself. A month before the surprise Hamas attack on Israel in October, China was actively trying to bring the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to the negotiating table. The goal of their mediation efforts was to restore the path to an independent Palestinian state. However, these negotiations automatically collapsed after the outbreak of fighting. China is, therefore, currently attempting to broker a ceasefire so that Israeli-Palestinian dialogue can resume. If these Beijing-led efforts make significant progress towards an independent Palestinian state, they could potentially change the balance of power in the Middle East. Such a diplomatic victory, which Washington has not been able to win to date, would put China on a par with Washington in the eyes of the Arab states. The reward would be even greater access to the region without Beijing spilling a single drop of Chinese blood.
China is, therefore, likely to continue to try to broker a lasting agreement between Israel and Palestine. But the problem remains that China, unlike the US, does not have sufficient influence in the region to force both sides to compromise. Moreover, Israel, which has a large settlement on Palestinian Authority territory that it does not want to give up, can always count on Washington’s support. The fighting in Gaza has exacerbated this diplomatic and military dependence of Israel on the US, further limiting the chances that Tel Aviv will be willing to negotiate with China as its ally’s main geopolitical rival in the near future. Without commitment and compromise on Israel’s part, it is unlikely that China will be able to make a lasting peace plan a reality. Therefore, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to remain unresolved in the future, and China will, therefore, increasingly support Palestine.
However, a significant obstacle to overt Chinese support for Palestine is the fact that Israel is a major economic partner for China… The volume of mutual trade exceeds $20 billion. Of particular importance to Beijing is Israel’s ability to mass produce and export advanced breakthrough technologies in a situation where most Western countries, including the US, are reluctant to allow the private sector to export such technologies to China. The current Chinese policy thus has the potential to seriously undermine Israeli-Chinese relations and cause the termination or significant reduction of cooperation between China and the highly developed Israeli technology industry. If this were to happen, the Chinese economy would have limited options to restart innovation in its own country due to the Western embargo, the low technological sophistication of traditional Chinese allies such as Russia and Iran, and the lack of strength of China’s domestic technological infrastructure. China could thus lose a lucrative trading and technological partner and limit its ability to catch up with its main geopolitical rival, the US, in the technological race.