China’s approach to the war in Gaza is not anti-Israel. It’s designed to contain the US

But China’s ‘anti-Western neutrality’ will have little more benefit in Israel than it has in Ukraine.

Expert comment Published 25 October 2023 Updated 10 January 2024 3 minute READ

China’s position on the war in Gaza is controversial and ambiguous to many observers. Beijing has criticized Israel’s blanket bombardment of civilians and condemned violations of international law.

President Xi Jinping waited until after the Third Belt and Road Forum to comment on the crisis, reiterating China’s long-held position that a two-state solution should be implemented and calling for a humanitarian corridor to allow aid into the besieged Gaza Strip.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi went further, describing Israel’s bombardment of civilians in Gaza as actions that ‘have gone beyond the scope of self-defence’. At the same time, Beijing avoided condemning Hamas’s atrocities against civilians.

China is positioning itself as a peace-seeking, ‘neutral’ great power

As in Ukraine, China is positioning itself as a peace-seeking, ‘neutral’ great power, in contrast to the US, whose committed support for Israel is depicted by Beijing as a destabilizing, violent influence in the region.

But China’s comments on the war, and its non-interventionist stance, mean it is unable to influence events – an uncomfortable position when its interests are directly threatened by the war.

That may be why Beijing is increasingly aligning with Russia on the Palestinian issue, an unprecedented development that aims to guarantee a place at the negotiating table at minimal cost to both – and undermine US influence in the region.

Familiar tactics

It is now clear that China is adopting the Ukraine playbook on the Israel–Hamas war, seeking to publicly chart a different course from the US and its allies and their unconditional support for Israel.

Chinese officials’ diplomatic interactions with the region are strictly adhering to Beijing’s policy of balancing between the Gulf States and Iran and between the regional main powers and Israel.

The rhetoric from Beijing is carefully designed to focus on the broader context, such as implementing the two-state solution, addressing humanitarian issues and preventing the conflict from turning into a regional one.

China has refrained from describing the Hamas incursion into Israel as a terrorist attack but has called Israel’s retaliation ‘collective punishment’ of Palestinian civilians

It has refrained from describing the Hamas incursion into Israel as a terrorist attack but has called Israel’s retaliation ‘collective punishment’ of Palestinian civilians – signalling its opposition to an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

This is not simply the behaviour of a peace-loving, mercantilist giant. Rather, it is a structured, deliberate strategy to achieve China’s objectives in the region and beyond.

‘Anti-Western neutrality’

China does not aspire to replace the US position in the Middle East, but will undoubtedly be pleased to see the US again drawn into a conflict in the region.

Chinese experts believe the more strategic non-East Asian theatres that require Washington’s attention, the more time and space China gains to assert its strategic domination in the Indo-Pacific.

China has reaffirmed its historical affinity to the Palestinian cause (its policy since the time of Mao Zedong) and its policy of what might be called ‘anti-Western neutrality’ – that is, neutrality that stops short of condemning any country or force that undermines Western centrality in the global order (rather than explicitly lending support to Hamas).

China uses ‘Anti-Western neutrality’ to appeal to a densely populated and strategically important support base

China also uses ‘Anti-Western neutrality’ to appeal to a densely populated and strategically important support base. Many Global South nations are sympathetic to Palestine, and the war is therefore an issue China can use to mobilize support for its leadership of developing countries.

This in turn helps win backing for Chinese positions on core issues like Xinjiang and Taiwan – and for Xi’s vision of global governance, enshrined in his signature initiatives: the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI).

China has also sought to consolidate regional unity, urging the Islamic World to ‘speak with one voice’ with China on Palestine, building on its initiative to mediate a diplomatic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran last March – a big win for the GSI, which is based on regional countries independently taking the lead in ‘resolving regional security issues through solidarity and coordination.’

The war encouraged Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salaman and Iran’s President Ibrahim Raisi to speak on the phone for the first time, something China was pleased to see.

By stressing its neutral stance and its role as a voice of the Global South, China wants to check the US’s moral standing and legitimize internationalization of the issue, calling for a global conference to initiate a peace process – thereby removing Washington from its decades-long position as the unchallenged arbiter in the conflict.

The ultimate objective is to degrade the US’s global standing and win the ‘discourse power’ war by capitalizing on sympathy for Palestinians worldwide

The ultimate objective is to degrade the US’s global standing and win the ‘discourse power’ war by capitalizing on sympathy for Palestinians worldwide.

A flawed policy

However, beyond the short term, China’s policy is flawed and unsustainable.

While the Biden administration has failed to speak in a balanced way on the war, instead unconditionally supporting Israel, it has mobilized US diplomatic might to influence Israel’s response – preventing the conflict from spreading outside Gaza and allowing aid to reach civilians.

Its committed response to the war, in fact, may put to bed the idea that Washington has departed from the Middle East, strengthening its traditional regional role.

Chinese ‘anti-Western neutrality’ meanwhile, has led Israel to retaliate diplomatically by joining the UK and 50 other countries at the UN to condemn China’s policies against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, saying they constitute ‘international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.’

Like the Ukraine war, the Israel–Hamas war shows that ambiguity and ‘anti-Western neutrality’ are complex acts. To be considered neutral, others must also believe it.

Neutrality also prevents China from directly influencing these dangerous events in a way that favours its interests.

China has significant economic connections to the region. It is the biggest trading partner with most MENA countries and almost half of its imported oil comes from the Gulf. China’s overall trade with the Arab world stood at more than $430 billion last year.

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These significant interests are vulnerable to regional wars and instability - but Chinese leaders can only watch events unfold from a distance.

China should now understand that transactional de-escalation between regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and Iran does not necessarily constitute peace.

One of the key lessons of the conflict is that Iranian proxies were ready to blow up the region to impede Saudi normalization with Israel. China-sponsored integration initiatives will be no more successful at preventing another similar episode.

Possessing great power capabilities is one thing. Acting like a great power is another. The US has demonstrated its continuing commitment to Israel and ability to influence Israeli policy.

China has confined itself to voicing objections and calling for peace. Alignment with Russia may amplify its voice in a peace settlement. But there is a long way to go before that becomes reality. China must understand that in these crucial days, lip service diplomacy is the last thing MENA people want.