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China’s Role in the Israel-Hamas War: An ‘Anti-Western Neutrality’?



Disclaimer: This article was written and reflects information available up to the publication date. Given the rapid pace of developments in Gaza, subsequent events or updates may have occurred, and new information might have emerged since the time of writing. Readers are encouraged to verify the latest information and developments on this subject matter to ensure they have the most current understanding.


Introduction

China’s influence in the Middle East has increased significantly over the last decade, mainly due to substantial economic investments in the region, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Global Development Initiative, and the Global Security Initiative, among others. Despite the proactive economic role that China holds in the region, the same cannot be said about the geopolitical intricacies. With the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, China’s role and influence in the Middle East are being tested, making it hard for Beijing to keep a neutral act, which has historically been its strategy in order to be recognised as an alternative leader to the US-led approach.


This article aims to highlight the key aspects of China’s role in the Israel-Hamas war, based on historical evaluations, as well as statements that the ‘Asian giant’ has made since the start of the 2023 Israel-Hamas war. Despite the aggravating humanitarian consequences, this article unfortunately points out that power politics and national interests remain key in the state's stance. This article will commence by outlining China’s past relations with both Israel and Palestine, which can be broadly summarised in three parts. It will address China’s current objectives and interests in the region and beyond. Additionally, it will put forward advantages that China can potentially gain from the ongoing conflict, as well as some of the disadvantages that would result from a persistent regional conflict. Finally, it will conclude by stating China’s role in the region, which mainly aligns with the “two-state solution” or “neutrality within limits” approach. 


China’s changing relations with Israel and Palestine


To characterise China’s current role in the Israel-Hamas war, an overview of its changing relations with the two parties is of the essence. Generally speaking, China’s interactions with Israel and Palestine can be separated into three periods. The first one dates back to 1949, or the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Mao Zedong, until the mid-1970s with the change of leadership to Deng Xiaoping. The second period lasted until the 1990s and was marked by a more pragmatic approach by China and a focus on making economic development and foreign policy its priority, the so-called “reform and opening-up”. Lastly, the third period can be identified with the Oslo Accords in 1993 and continues until today (Burton 2019, pp. 151-152). The following paragraph will elaborate on the changing relationship between China, Israel, and Palestine during these three periods. 


During the first period, China’s policy towards Palestine was supportive, mostly because China was interested in bolstering its ties with the Arab world (Cafeiro, 2023). During the Mao Zedong era, China considered Palestine’s land struggle to be a part of the world’s national liberation movements and supported the cause by sponsoring the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) with financial and military help (Kelter, 2023). Throughout the second period, however, Deng Xiaoping replaced Mao’s ideological approach with a more pragmatic one, meaning that China established positive relations with Israel because of its interest in economic development. On the surface, China and PLO portrayed a positive relationship; however, in reality, China was moving away from its support for the Palestinian armed struggle and aiming for a more negotiated settlement (Burton 2019, p. 152). Israel and the PRC established official diplomatic relations in 1992, and since then, China has invested billions in its economy. 


During the third period, China has established good relations with both sides. It has continuously supported the idea of a negotiated settlement and a two-state solution, despite the disparity in military capabilities, geopolitical relevance, and cultural differences between Israel and Palestine. On the one hand, China views Israel as a significant actor on the world stage and is intrigued by Israel’s high-tech sector and innovation (Efron et al., 2020, p. 1). According to AEI’s China Global Investment Tracker, the largest amount of Chinese investment between 2015 and 2018 among Middle Eastern countries has gone to Israel (American Enterprise Institute, 2015). Additionally, Israel has a geostrategic location and plays an important part in China's grand plan to link Asia, Africa, and Europe by land and water and stimulate economic development and trade along the way, also known as the BRI (Efron et al., 2020, p. 9). On the other hand, China has an interest in supporting the Palestinian cause so it can strengthen its soft power status among other Arab states and in the Middle East as a whole (Efron et al., 2019, p. 34).


China’s current national interests and influences in the region


Given the long and complicated history that China shares with both Israel and Palestine, it appears clear why the PRC has chosen to stay out of the region’s geopolitical conflicts and has tried to maintain balanced relations. It is interesting to observe this dynamic, especially in a more fragmented world order where China wishes to strike a balance between political and economic goals (Peng, 2023). The ongoing war is, however, posing challenges for Beijing to maintain that stance. As previously mentioned, despite China’s strong economic ties with Israel since the 1990s, China has consistently supported the Palestinian cause due to its history as a leader of the non-aligned movement (Lons, 2023). 


And so, how has China reacted since the outbreak of the war? After Israel’s response to the Hamas-orchestrated October 7 attack, Beijing has released a plethora of official announcements, most of which have called for peace and have urged both sides to abstain from further escalation (Scobell, 2023). What is more, next to the routine calls for adhering to a two-state solution, Beijing has been more direct in criticising Israel than it has been in the past, such as Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi declaring Israel’s actions as “beyond the scope of self-defence” (Rumley & Redlich, 2023; Lee & Woo, 2023). Additionally, Xi Jinping has refrained from criticising Hamas or naming the October attacks as a terrorist act, unlike Western countries’ stance. After the initial neutral statements, the Chinese sentiment has grown more clearly in support of Palestine.  For example, President Xi Jinping called for a humanitarian corridor to let aid enter the Gaza Strip (Aboudouh, 2023). More recently, at the China-Middle East summit, China has vowed to “restore peace in the Middle East”, which is a sign that it is stepping up its international role by leaning to the Middle East (Al Jazeera, 2023). This is of importance to Chinese authorities, as they have strong economic ties with Israel, the trust of Palestinians and a say in the international system, making it a pragmatic move. 


Despite these statements and peace wishes, however, it seems that China has no real say in the current situation, especially given its reluctance to condemn the actions of Hamas. This brings to the fore the fact that China lacks real political power in the region, also referred to as a “cold politics, hot economics” relationship (Peng, 2023). In addition, China has been risk-averse concerning the happenings in the region and does not wish to make enemies; hence, it is in its interest to not get tangled in the politics of Israel and Palestine (Scobell, 2023). 


Lastly, China might have potential gains from the war. In the grand scheme of things, the conflict can be beneficial for China and its rivalry with the United States. By taking an opposing stance to the US, whose unwavering support for Israel is portrayed by Beijing as a violent and disruptive influence in the area, China differentiates itself from the Western-led world order (Aboudouh, 2023). Furthermore, by adopting such a strategy, China aims to contain the US while positioning itself as an alternative leader on the world stage. This also conforms with the so-called “anti-Western neutrality” policy that China has adopted: “neutrality that stops short of condemning any country or force that undermines Western centrality in the global order,” or in other words, maintaining neutrality or distance from any ideologies or policies that the West undertakes (Aboudouh, 2023). China uses this policy to appeal to many Global South nations, which are overwhelmingly sympathetic to Palestine’s cause, so that it can establish itself as a leader of developing countries and gain their support on key Chinese issues (Aboudouh, 2023). Indeed, one of China’s key goals is to undermine the US's authority in the international community and the war fits right into China’s long-standing narrative of disparity between the Western order and the global south (Tang, 2023; Lons, 2023). Nevertheless, barring the long-term narrative gains from the conflict, China might endure some short-term losses, such as the disruption of international shipping routes and a decrease in petroleum supplies (Scobell, 2023). 


Conclusion


China has had a long-term relationship with both Israel and Palestine and, as such, also has strong economic engagement and diplomatic influence in the Middle East, as demonstrated by the numerous large-scale projects China has developed in the region. Additionally, the Asian giant has maintained a “neutrality within limits'' approach or “two-state solution” since the establishment of official relations with both sides. However, since the start of the war, the Chinese narrative has grown significantly more in favour of Palestine, criticising Israel’s actions, and wavering from the usual course of action. This is demonstrated by the most recent China-Middle East summit, for example. Moreover, the “anti-Western neutrality” policy has been of benefit to China, seeing as the country has gained a lot just by being opposed to the US’s stance, despite only being a “neutral” party in the conflict. Unfortunately, China’s seeming approach to the humanitarian crisis has been a mere antithesis to the Western countries’ stance and is based on rational choice rather than genuine interest in resolving the conflict. 


This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.


 

References

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Al Jazeera. (2023, November 20). China-Middle East summit told “Israel seeks to end Palestinians” presence’. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/20/israel-seeks-to-end-palestinians-presence-on-their-land-pa-minister 



American Enterprise Institute. (2015). China Global Investment Tracker | American Enterprise Institute - AEI. American Enterprise Institute - AEI. https://www.aei.org/china-global-investment-tracker/

  

Burton, G. (2019). China and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. Confluences Mediterranee 109 (2), 147-160. 

Cafeiro, G. (2023, August 28). How steady are China-Israel relations?. Arab Center Washington DC. https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/how-steady-are-china-israel-relations/ 

Efron, S., Schatz, H. J., Chan, A., Haskel, E., Morris, L. J., & Scobell, A. (2019). The evolving Israel-China relationship. RAND Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2641.html 


Efron, S., Schwindt, K., & Haskel, E. (2020). Chinese Investment in Israeli Technology and Infrastructure: Security Implications for Israel and the United States. RAND Corporation. https://www.cairn-int.info/journal-confluences-mediterranee-2019-2-page-147.htm?contenu=resume 


Kelter, F. (2023, November 6). China takes cautious approach to diplomacy over Israel-Gaza war. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/6/china-takes-cautious-approach-to-diplomacy-over-israel-gaza-war


Lee, L., & Woo, R. (2023, October 20). China’s Mideast envoy urges Palestinian guarantees, won’t name Hamas. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/china-ready-liaise-with-russia-mid-east-crisis-chinese-state-media-2023-10-20/ 


Lons, C. (2023, November 3). How the Israel-Hamas war is testing China’s diplomatic ambitions in the Middle East. ECFR. https://ecfr.eu/article/how-the-israel-hamas-war-is-testing-chinas-diplomatic-ambitions-in-the-middle-east/#:~:text=In%20the%20past%2C%20it%20consistently


Peng, B. (2023, October 24). How China-Israel Economic Ties Factor Into Beijing’s Approach to the Gaza War. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2023/10/how-china-israel-economic-ties-factor-into-beijings-approach-to-the-gaza-war/


Rumley, G., & Redlich, R. (2023, November 3). Tracking Chinese Statements on the Hamas-Israel Conflict. The Washington Institute. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/tracking-chinese-statements-hamas-israel-conflict


Scobell, A. (2023, November 1). What China Wants in the Middle East. United States Institute of Peace. https://www.usip.org/publications/2023/11/what-china-wants-middle-east


Tang, D. (2023, October 15). Israel-Hamas war upends China’s ambitions in the Middle East but may serve Beijing in the end. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/israel-hamas-war-upends-chinas-ambitions-middle-east-103993000 






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