Where China stands on the Israel-Gaza war and what it stands to gain

Chinese leader Xi Jinping last week called for an immediate cease-fire in the Israel-Gaza war. Making his first remarks since the conflict began, Xi said during a meeting in Beijing with Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly that the establishment of “an independent state of Palestine” through a two-state solution was the “fundamental way out of” the conflict.

A few hours later, China expressed its “deep disappointment” with the United States for vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a humanitarian pause in the fighting.

It was a neat encapsulation of how Beijing is trying to promote two key diplomatic aims: Bolstering its status as a champion of developing countries at the same time it is positioning itself as a superpower to rival the United States in a multipolar world, with some notable support.

The previous day, Xi hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing. Both have made a point of diverging from the Western-led support for Israel after the attacks.

Since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, China has been unusually ready to offer itself up as peacemaker.

With Russia’s war in Ukraine, Beijing stood back for a year before releasing a proposal for a political settlement. Now, it has launched a diplomatic blitz within days of the attacks, describing itself as a “friend to both Israel and Palestine.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi swiftly called for an “international peace conference” to reach a solution to the Israel-Hamas conflict, and Beijing last week dispatched a senior diplomat to the Middle East. Zhai Jun, China’s special representative to the Middle East, promised to “conduct impartial conciliation and mediation.”

Despite Beijing’s own long-standing concerns about terrorism, China has refrained in official statements from using that terminology when describing Hamas’s attacks. In another contrast with the United States and its allies, China has said that Israeli retaliatory strikes on Gaza went beyond what was acceptable under international humanitarian law.

What is the history of China’s relations with Israel and the Palestinians?

After a brief effort to establish relations with Israel in the early years after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China openly sided with Palestinians and Arab nations in the mid-1960s , when Mao Zedong’s government provided weapons and promises of unwavering support to Palestinian fighters.

After Mao’s death in 1976, China began opening up to the world and softened its position, It normalized relations with Israel in 1992, beginning a period of trying to keep good relations with both sides of the conflict. Chinese diplomats would draw up proposals and call for talks but they rarely got stuck in negotiations, in line with Beijing’s claimed principle of “noninterference” in other countries’ affairs.

Under Xi, who rose to lead China in 2012, that policy has gradually given way to efforts to court Arab nations and offers to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians as China’s economic footprint in the Middle East has grown.

The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, signed a strategic partnership with Xi in June. In exchange for Chinese aid, Abbas declared that China’s security crackdown on mostly Muslim Uyghurs has “nothing to do with human rights” and is about “excising extremism.”

What has China said in response to the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel?

Chinese officials have yet to directly condemn Hamas for the rampage, in which the militants massacred at least 1,400 people and abducted nearly 200, according to Israeli authorities. In fact, they have avoided even mentioning the militant group that runs Gaza and instead have said that they oppose harm to civilians in what they term the “Israel-Palestine conflict.”

Their criticism of Israel, however, has been far more direct. Wang denounced Israel for “going beyond self-defense” and called for an end to “collective punishment of the Gazan people.”

China’s top diplomat has also intensified rhetoric around Beijing’s preferred outcome of a two-state solution. “The Jewish nation is no longer homeless in the world, but when will the Palestinian nation return to its home?” he said last week. “The injustice to Palestine has dragged on for over half a century. The sufferings that plagued generations must not continue.”

What is China’s interest in the Israel-Gaza war?

For decades, China stayed well away from the intractable conflicts of the Middle East, but that has changed in recent years. Beijing has tried to match its economic influence with growing political clout. That shift is partially to protect Chinese business interests but also to secure support from Arab nations for China’s efforts to reshape the world order in its favor.

“The fact that Palestine is such an emotional and hot button political issue for the Middle East means that when China offers rhetorical support to Palestine, they’re going to speak not just to the Palestinians, but also to those other Arab countries that want to see a great power support them on this issue,” said Jonathan Fulton, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank.

China has promised to send food, medicines and other humanitarian aid to Gaza through the United Nations, without giving a breakdown of what it has provided.

How have Israel and the Palestinians responded to Beijing’s overtures?

Beijing may have far greater economic interest in maintaining good relations with Israel — China is its largest trading partner after Saudi Arabia — but it has long sided with the Palestinians, part of a broader stance of support for those in formerly colonized lands against perceived Western oppression.

Israel has largely rebuffed China’s efforts to present itself as an impartial broker. “When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution,” Yuval Waks, a senior official at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing, told reporters on Oct. 8, the day after the Hamas attacks.

While Israel remains skeptical, the Palestinians have been receptive to Chinese involvement. “Palestine trusts China” and welcomes its constructive involvement in talks, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Amal Jadou told China’s special representative, Zhai, in a phone call earlier this month.

Can Beijing do anything to stop the fighting?

Beijing’s readiness to speak out and actively push for a resolution to the conflict reflects new confidence in its ability to resolve regional disputes.

Beijing helped put the finishing touches on an agreement under which Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations. The foreign minister at the time, Qin Gang, then offered to host a new round of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Beyond the Iran-Saudi deal, however, Beijing’s rising interest in playing global peacemaker has had limited success. Its proposal for a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine war has gained little traction, not least because Ukraine doesn’t see it as impartial. The sudden disappearance of Qin and his subsequent removal from his position as foreign minister hasn’t helped spread Beijing’s intended message of stability.

China’s Foreign Ministry has declined to comment on whether it will use its influence over Iran to try to restrain Hamas, and it has little experience working directly with the militant group.

How does this play into China’s broader geopolitical aims?

For China, the crisis is a chance to establish itself as a dealmaker in the Middle East, win ground from the United States in an area in which Beijing lacks experience, and strengthen partnerships with Russia and across the Arab world.

China’s calculation might change if the fighting spreads, analysts said, but for now it appears to consider the currentflare-up of violence an opportunity to strengthen its influence in the region relative to the United States.

“The way that this is playing out is not necessarily a bad thing for Beijing,” Fulton said. “If it remains a Hamas-Israel conflict, China can offer rhetorical support for the Palestinians, criticize Israel, score points on the U.S. while they do so, and it’s not going to affect their greater strategic interests in the region.”

What informs China’s views of Israel and Hamas?

To explain China’s position toward Hamas militants, Zhu Weilie, a veteran Chinese scholar of the Middle East, reaches back to the 2006 Palestinian legislative election, when the militant organization won a majority.

“Hamas has its radical side, but it’s a legitimate organization in Palestine and is recognized by Arab countries,” said Zhu, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University. “It’s not up to foreigners or other countries to define it as a terrorist group.”

Adam Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.

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