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How China Could Play a Key Role in the Israel-Hamas War—and Why It’s Not

8 minute read

When Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 people, leaders of most of the world’s major powers—including the U.S., the U.K., India, and Japan—all denounced the terrorist group and vowed their support for Israel.

China took a different approach, initially urging “relevant parties to remain calm, exercise restraint, and immediately end hostilities.” After pressure, China updated its stance to declare that it “opposes and condemns acts that harm civilians,” though it stopped short of explicitly calling out Hamas.

Since then, China has been unequivocal about its disapproval of Israel’s retaliatory air strikes on the Gaza Strip, which have so far killed at least 2,700 people and wounded 9,700 Palestinians. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi told his Saudi counterpart in a phone conversation on Saturday that “Israel’s actions have gone beyond the scope of self-defense,” Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.

China, which has been striving to make inroads in the Middle East and to present itself as an alternative power for states in the region to align themselves with, has insisted that it just wants peace. But as the Israel-Hamas war looks set to escalate into a broader regional conflict, Beijing appears reluctant to intervene in a meaningful way, despite its potential influence.

Here’s what to know about how China fits into the crisis.

What has China done so far?

After brokering a historic rapprochement between the estranged countries of Saudi Arabia and Iran in March, China offered earlier this year to mediate a similar resolution between Israel and Palestine. China has maintained that it does not take a side in the conflict and wants to maintain a friendship with both Israel and Palestine.

But since the Israel-Hamas war broke out earlier this month, experts and observers say China’s credibility as a neutral party has eroded.

“As a broker, Beijing will have to straddle between Arab and Israeli interests,” Clemens Chay, a research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute, tells TIME. “However, the refusal to denounce Hamas will have ruffled some feathers in Israel.”

In recent days, Chinese authorities have refrained from describing Hamas’ attack as terrorism—even as several Chinese nationals were revealed to have been victims (on Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed the deaths of four Chinese nationals, along with two others missing and six injured)—and have repeatedly called for a ceasefire and “two-state solution.” Meanwhile, Chinese state media has blamed the U.S. for fanning tensions in the region, and the foreign minister reaffirmed China’s support for the “just cause” of Palestinian nationalism.

Zhai Jun, China’s special envoy for the Middle East, is set to visit some countries in the region this week to “pool international consensus, urge relevant parties to stop hostilities, cool down the situation and create necessary conditions for political settlement,” a foreign ministry spokesperson told reporters on Tuesday.

“When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution,” an Israeli official at the embassy in Beijing told reporters, one day after Hamas’ attack. 

Tommy Steiner, the policy director of China-focused Israeli think tank SIGNAL, tells TIME that while he can “appreciate those who support the Palestinian cause,” China’s refusal to condemn Hamas has been “regretful.”

“I understand that [China] wants to remain impartial when it comes to regional conflicts, but there is a point when that being impartial no longer works,” says Steiner. “In the face of blatant crimes against humanity, you can’t remain impartial.”

On Monday, China was one of four countries that voted in favor of a Russian-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution urging a humanitarian ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war—which was rejected for not condemning Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel. Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy, says that, although the resolution failed, it “made it clear where China stands.”

Why is China responding in this way?

Some have explained China’s muted response so far to the current moment through its longstanding policy of non-interference; some point to its historical support for the Palestinian cause in the 1960s, including offering arms and military training for Palestinian guerillas, before it moderated its stance in the 1990s as it established full diplomatic ties with Israel.  

Others say China’s unwillingness to condemn Hamas and its calls for an end to violence on both sides may stem from a more pragmatic interest in keeping itself in the good graces of Arab states in the region, where China is eyeing an ambitious economic expansion—most notably through President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

The region, which is crucial to the BRI for its energy exports, is rapidly deepening its economic cooperation with China, which has signed economic partnerships with most countries in the Middle East. In particular, Chinese investments and construction projects in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two of the top investment destinations for the BRI, have totaled $56.28 billion and $40.81 billion, respectively. China has also been Iran’s largest trading partner for a decade and in 2021 agreed to invest $400 billion in the country over the next 25 years.

“There are serious concerns among policymakers in Beijing about this fighting in Gaza and Israel spreading to other parts of the Middle East,” Cafiero says. “China has many economic interests in the Middle East, and Beijing always viewed instability in this region as a major threat to Chinese interests.”

China only has to look to its recent support for Russia’s war in Ukraine to see how costly involvement in a protracted war can be. The crisis in Ukraine has had a ripple effect on exacerbating China’s economic crisis, disrupting imports of crucial supplies, and slowing the global economy including in debt-ridden countries along China’s BRI. With its borrowers mired in financial distress, China has already had to grapple with the losses incurred by its infrastructural projects in the region.

China’s latest posture around the crisis in Gaza, Chay says, seems like an attempt to “maintain its favorable position with Arab countries,” while being “largely contented to operate under the U.S. security umbrella.”

What’s next for China?

Amid a mounting Palestinian death toll and an expanding humanitarian crisis on the Gaza Strip, the U.S.’s unflinching support for Israel has drawn criticism from Arab states, widening the diplomatic void in the Middle East that China hopes to fill. Washington over the weekend even urged Beijing to use its growing influence—particularly its relationship with Iran, which may play a key role in whether the conflict escalates—to prevent further attacks on Israel.

But observers say it’s unclear if China is willing, or even able, to tap into its close ties with Iran to deescalate the situation. 

“I don't see anything to indicate that China has any willingness to use its leverage over Iran, to pressure Iran into cutting off its relationship with Palestinian resistance groups, such as Hamas,” says Cafiero.

In fact, some have even argued that China is a tacit supporter of Hamas. “China supports Iran, Iran supports Hamas, and Beijing has a hand in this as well,” political pundit Gordon G. Chang said in a televised interview on Monday. 

Iran, which has long backed Hamas through military training and financial aid, was reportedly involved in helping Hamas plot the Oct. 7 attack—though Iran has denied direct involvement. China has previously been directly implicated in supporting Hamas—around 10 years ago the Bank of China denied accusations of wiring money to Hamas and being used by the militant group to launder money—but there has been little evidence to show any direct connection since then, though reports have found that weapons used by Hamas militants appear to be made in Russia or China—both allies of Iran.

But even if it wanted to, China may not be able to influence Iran when it comes to conflict with Israel. Iran already appears prepared to escalate the conflict if Israel goes ahead with a ground invasion of Gaza, with its foreign minister warning on Monday that a “pre-emptive attack” could happen as soon as “the coming few hours.”

There’s also the issue of China holding significantly less sway over the other stakeholder at the table. Whereas China was able to broker a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, that was because the latter also depends heavily on China for its economic transformation goals. But China does not command the same level of authority with Israel, which remains firmly supported by the U.S.

“It would certainly mark a major victory in terms of China's diplomatic foreign policy in the Middle East,” says Cafiero of China mediating in the conflict. “But there are many moving parts in the picture.” 

“I would not bet too much on Beijing's ability to rein in Iran at this point,” he says, and “I do not believe that Beijing has sufficient leverage over Israel to pressure Tel Aviv into making the types of concessions that would be necessary in resolving this conflict in a manner that addresses Palestinian grievances and is consistent with international law.”

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