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Israel-Hamas war tests China’s Middle East ambitions

The crisis in the Middle East triggered by Hamas’s attack on Israel is becoming a big test of China’s ambitions to build influence in a region traditionally dominated by the US, according to diplomats and analysts.

Washington remains overwhelmingly the strongest military power in the Middle East and demonstrated its might by dispatching two carrier strike groups after the attack. It is also the main diplomatic player in the region, despite Arab concerns that it has been disengaging, and as Israel’s main ally it has leverage over the Jewish state.

But China’s economic role has grown rapidly and it now trades more than the US with most regional countries. Beijing is also on good terms with almost all of them, including Iran — the backer of Hamas and Lebanon’s Hizbollah — prompting hopes it can use this influence to prevent a regional conflagration. During a call with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi on Saturday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken discussed “stability in the region and discouraging other parties from entering the conflict”.

In recent years, Beijing has begun trying to extend its political sway in the Middle East as part of President Xi Jinping’s vision for Chinese leadership of the “Global South” of emerging and non-aligned countries.

Beijing was instrumental in bringing four Middle Eastern countries — Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — into the Brics grouping of emerging nations this year. It also brokered a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March, a diplomatic first for China. Xi followed this up in June with an offer to help Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas promote peace talks with Israel.

Now analysts question how these nascent ambitions will weather the instability brought by the Israel-Hamas conflict. When Hamas unleashed its assault, Beijing struck a neutral tone that angered many Israelis and western countries, blandly calling for both sides to “remain calm” and failing to condemn the Palestinian faction’s actions.

“It’s true that China can negotiate something between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but that’s not creating any great confidence on the Israeli side,” said a senior diplomat experienced in the Middle East.

“Israel is not going to act in a way which would undermine the American standing of the region,” the diplomat said. “And, if you have a massacre of 1,000 people, and China is not able to say clearly what that is, then it is clear they are not able to arbitrate or mediate the conflict for both sides.”

While China has been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause since the era of Mao Zedong, it has also, since the 1980s, built up friendly economic ties with Israel, according to Alessandro Arduino, affiliate lecturer at the Lau China Institute, King’s College London.

The conflict with Hamas had returned China’s pro-Palestinian leanings to the fore, analysts said, with Chinese state media articles accusing the US of fuelling the crisis. This has sparked frustration among some Israeli academics.

Israeli China expert Tuvia Gering posted on X, formerly Twitter, that he would like to “tell these [Chinese] academics and journalists how morally depraved they appear to be by exploiting our suffering for political gain”.

On Thursday, Israel’s foreign ministry told China’s envoy to the Middle East, Zhai Jun, that Beijing’s official reaction to Hamas’s attack was not appropriate and did not acknowledge the national right to self-defence.

US ambassador to China Nicholas Burns has compared Washington’s strong backing for Israel with China’s lukewarm stance. “China has taken on, I think by its own admission, a bigger role in the Middle East,” Burns said in a conversation with the National Committee on US-China Relations on Thursday. “[But] you have to be effective, you have to stand for something.”

He said the “two-state” solution advocated by China — the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — was not supported by Hamas, which “by its very creed wants to destroy the state of Israel and kill Israelis”.

But others said China’s stalwart support for the Palestinians could boost its standing in the Arab world and strengthen its position in the region.

“Arab states’ support of Palestine will increase. That is in China’s interest as it puts China and the Arab states back on the same side,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington think-tank.

China’s reliance on abstract rhetoric to talk about conflicts, especially when they involve aggression by its diplomatic allies, was also a familiar strategy that allowed Beijing to avoid taking sides, at least nominally, said other analysts. China has followed the same path in the Ukraine war, refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion and describing it instead as a “crisis”.

“This is what the Chinese always try to do,” said Moritz Rudolf, fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center in the US.

“They [China] know they will be playing a greater role in this region, they want stability, but at the same time they don’t want to be sucked into the complexities of it,” Rudolf said.

Arduino, of King’s College, said China’s ties with Iran could become an important bargaining chip in its relationship with the US.

“Especially if China wants to reach some kind of common ground with the US on Middle East policy, then being one of the few actors able to pressure Tehran in some way could be an asset in China’s diplomatic arsenal,” he said. 

No matter its dealings with the US, China faces a delicate moment for its regional ambitions, said Gedaliah Afterman, an expert on China and the Middle East at the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy and Foreign Relations in Israel.

“We’ve had a lot of rhetoric, a lot of talk about how in the region China is doing all of these new things, but when it comes to this new situation China has said nothing meaningful,” Afterman said.

“So either it takes the challenge and shows that it is a real player, or it will be pretty clear that it isn’t, or much less than people thought it was.”

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