What China wants from the Israel-Hamas war

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas intensifies, an unlikely development has emerged - China is playing the role of peace broker

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As the conflict between Israel and Hamas intensifies, an unlikely development has occurred – China is playing the role of peace broker. But there are limits to what it can achieve.

China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, discussed the conflict with officials in Washington over the weekend, amid fears of a larger regional war. The US has pledged to work with China to find a solution.

Mr. Wang also spoke with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts after China's Middle East special envoy Zhai Jun flew to the region to meet Arab leaders. He has also been one of the most ardent supporters of the ceasefire at the UN meetings.

There are hopes that China could use its close relationship with Iran, which backs Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, to de-escalate the situation. US officials apparently pressured Mr Wang to "encourage calm" with the Iranians, the Financial Times reported.

China is Iran's largest trading partner and earlier this year Beijing brokered a rare truce between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tehran says it is "ready to strengthen communication with China" to resolve the situation in Gaza.

Because the Chinese government has had a relatively balanced relationship with all actors in the conflict, they could be seen as an honest mediator, said Dawn Murphy, an associate professor who studies Chinese foreign policy at the US Department of Defense's National War College.

In particular, China has positive relations with the Palestinians, the Arabs, Turkey and Iran, he said. "Together with the US having good relations with Israel, they could bring all the players to the table."

But other observers point out that China remains a minor player in Middle East politics.

"China is not a serious player in this matter. Talking to people across the region, no one expects China to contribute to the solution," said Jonathan Fulton, an Atlantic Council senior fellow specializing in China's Middle East relations.

China's first statement on the conflict angered Israel, which expressed "deep disappointment" that China did not condemn Hamas or mention Israel's right to defend itself.

After outrage over his first statement, Mr Wang later told Israel that "all countries have a right to self-defence" – but he also said elsewhere that Israel's actions had gone beyond the scope of self-defence.

Trying to balance

China faces a difficult balancing act because it has long openly sympathized with the Palestinian cause.

It traces back to Chinese Communist Party founder Mao Zedong, who sent weapons to the Palestinians to support so-called "national liberation" movements around the world. Mao even compared Israel to Taiwan – both supported by the US – as bases of Western imperialism.

In the following decades China promoted economic and normalized relations with Israel, with which it now has a multi-billion dollar trade relationship.

But China has made it clear that it continues to support the Palestinians. In their remarks on the latest conflict, Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, have emphasized the need for an independent Palestinian state.

A side effect is the rise of anti-Semitism on the Internet, fueled by nationalist bloggers. Some on Chinese social media have equated Israel's actions with Nazism, accusing them of committing genocide against Palestinians, prompting a rebuke from the German embassy in Beijing.

The stabbing of a family member of an Israeli embassy employee in Beijing has also raised concern.

Why is China involved?

One reason is its economic interests in the Middle East, which would be at risk if the conflict widens.

Beijing is now heavily dependent on foreign oil imports, and analysts estimate that about half of that comes from the Gulf. Middle Eastern countries are becoming increasingly important players in China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a cornerstone of its foreign and economic policy.

But another reason is that the conflict presents a golden opportunity for Beijing to showcase its reputation.

China believes that "defending the Palestinians resonates with Arab countries, Muslim-majority countries and large parts of the global South," Dr Murphy pointed out.

Chinese media propaganda  

The war has erupted at a time when China is presenting itself as a better suitor for the world than the US. Since the start of the year, he has promoted a vision of a Chinese-led world order while criticizing what he sees as the failings of US "hegemony".

Officially, China refrained from attacking the US for its support of Israel. But at the same time the state media is "triggering the nationalist response ... linking what's happening in the Middle East to US support for Israel," Dr Murphy noted.

China's military newspaper PLA Daily accused the US of "adding fuel to the fire" – the same rhetoric used by Beijing to criticize Washington for aiding Kiev in the Ukraine war. The state-run, English-language newspaper The Global Times published a cartoon of Uncle Sam with bloodied hands.

One view among observers is that Beijing is contrasting its position vis-à-vis the US so that it can reduce the global standing of its Western rival. But by not explicitly condemning Hamas, China also risks undermining its own position.

Challenges for China

There are, however, challenges facing China in its long-term ambitions.

One is how she can square her diplomatic position with her own record. While expressing solidarity with Muslim-majority nations and opposing Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, Beijing remains accused of rights abuses and genocide of the Uyghur Muslim minority, as well as forced assimilation into Tibet.

Observers say, however, that this is not an issue for the Arab world, given the strong relations China has built with them.

The bigger problem is that Beijing risks being seen as superficial in its commitment, or worse, capitalizing on the Israel-Hamas conflict to advance its own interests.

China assumes that "by saying you support Palestine, you're going to score points with the Arab countries, and that's a cookie-cutter approach," Dr. Fulton said, noting that "there is no unified voice" among Arab states on the extremely divisive issue.

Mr. Wang claimed that China only seeks peace for the Middle East and has "no vested interests in the Palestinian issue."

The challenge will be to convince people that this is true.

Source: BBC