China has long sought to brand itself as a “neutral” player and force for peace in the Middle East and elsewhere, willing and able to talk to “all sides.” Beijing’s nascent ambition to play the role of peacemaker and its potential to shape regional events was on display when it succeeded last March in brokering the détente between Riyadh and Tehran. The Israel-Hamas war offers no such low-hanging fruit. On the contrary, it poses a major test of China’s Middle East peace diplomacy — and an opportunity to examine some of our own, perhaps faulty assumptions.

The diplomatic intervention in the Saudi-Iranian case revealed China’s desire to assume a more political role and an ability to leverage its relations with both sides in a regional conflict, all the while exposing the limits of the United States’ dominant power in the region given the latter’s toxic relationship with Iran. It also appeared to augur a marked shift by Beijing away from being a primarily economic partner to one that could help solve security problems — a shift that was welcomed and likely raised regional expectations but that was widely interpreted in Washington policy circles as a challenge to U.S. supremacy in the Middle East. 

First impressions of China’s initial reactions to the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war run the risk of being spun into ready-made grand narratives and judgments that invite skepticism and seem, at best, premature. Has China “picked a side” in the Israel-Hamas conflict? Is the war “tilting the global power balance in favor of Russia and China?” Or, at least at this early stage of the conflict, has China reverted to its standard playbook — with its shift to the Palestinian side less sharply pronounced, its determination and ability to exploit the war to “tilt” the global power balance against the West weaker than some might assume?

“Cloak of neutrality”

Following last Friday’s meeting in Beijing with the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that the reason for the conflict between Israel and Hamas is “historical injustice” against the Palestinians, emphasizing “the root of the problem lies in the long delay in achieving Palestine’s aspirations to establish an independent state, and that the historical injustice to which the Palestinian people have been subjected has not yet been corrected.” This diagnosis, which scrupulously avoids assigning blame to either side while expressing sympathy and support for the Palestinian cause, is not only consistent with statements by other senior Chinese officials over the years concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but echoes those of many of their Western counterparts. Donning the “cloak of neutrality” has been China’s standard practice — and is not in this instance a sharp deviation from it. 

Beijing has gone so far as to say that it is “deeply saddened by the civilian casualties” and that it “condemns acts that harm civilians” while calling on Palestine and Israel to embrace a two-state solution “at an early date.” China’s special envoy for Middle East affairs, Zhai Jun, has held calls with his PalestinianIsraeli, and Egyptian counterparts, which largely reiterated Beijing’s official position. That China refrained from unequivocally condemning the attacks against Israel or denouncing Hamas as a terrorist outfit — though morally objectionable — is no more surprising than “Israel’s deep disappointment” that Beijing failed to do so. For Chinese officials to call for an “immediate cease-fire” rings familiar, as does their pledge to “make unremitting efforts for peace and stability in the Middle East.”

Leading diplomatically from behind

In an Oct. 15 CCTV interview, Zhai said the United Nations has “an irreplaceable and important role to play” on the question of the Palestinians; but China’s special envoy added that Beijing will “support the United Nations in taking the lead.” The next day’s readout of an exchange of views on the conflict between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, quotes China’s top diplomat as saying, “It is necessary for the U.N. Security Council to take action and for big countries to play an active part. The pressing task is to cease fire and end the war, bring the two sides back to negotiation, and establish corridors for emergency humanitarian assistance to prevent more serious humanitarian disasters. The fundamental resolution is to activate the two-state solution as soon as possible so as to reach broader consensus and develop the timetable and roadmap for restoring the legitimate rights of the Palestinian nation.”

The very same day, China cast a vote in favor of a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution drafted by Moscow. The text of the resolution, which failed passage, would have called for a humanitarian cease-fire in Gaza while omitting any mention of Hamas. Reminiscent of its actions during the Syrian civil war, China aligned its position with that of Russia but did not take the diplomatic lead. Meanwhile, visiting Beijing on the occasion of the Third Belt and Road Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the U.S. for increasing tensions in the Middle East by sending warships to the region. Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, refrained from offering similar public remarks. In recent years, the Chinese leadership has routinely seized every opportunity to portray the United States as a biased, hegemonic power whose policies have sowed chaos in the Middle East. But not this time.

Complementary US and Chinese interests — for now

Washington and Beijing are engaged in an intense rivalry over trade, technology, and the status of Taiwan. And while there is growing evidence that U.S.-China competition has migrated to the Middle East, the two countries have a mutual interest in regional stability — and at the present time, heading off a wider regional war is a pressing common objective. While in Saudi Arabia, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a one-hour phone call with Foreign Minister Wang, during which he reportedly called upon China to use its influence to discourage “other parties” from entering the conflict.  

China sources half of its oil imports from the Middle East. Oil markets are on edge. Tensions have pushed oil prices to over $90 per barrel. Israel’s anticipated ground invasion will likely drive them higher — and a widening of the conflict would force them higher still. The reported large additions China made to its crude oil stockpile several months ago might cushion it against some level of supply and price risk, though not for very long. China’s deepening engagement with the Middle East might have expanded its influence in the region but has not substantially reduced its energy security vulnerabilities. Beyond oil, as China’s equities in the Middle East have increased, so too has its exposure to risk from regional conflict.  

The limits to Beijing’s diplomatic ambitions

In June, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and President Xi met in Beijing. A statement released afterward pledged China would “continue to support the correct direction of the peace talks and contribute Chinese wisdom and strength to the resolution of the Palestinian issue.” Then-Foreign Minister Qin Gang offered to contribute “Chinese wisdom.” But peace talks were stalled — and seem even more elusive now. Moreover, the times require far more than mere wisdom. Secretary Blinken’s nonstop shuttle diplomacy and President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel are clear evidence of Washington’s determination to meet the moment — demonstrating steadfast support for Israel while urging restraint, facilitating the flow of humanitarian assistance into Gaza to avert a human catastrophe, and preventing a wider war — though their diplomatic intervention may fail. 

At the signing ceremony marking the Chinese-brokered restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran back in March, Wang asserted, “China will continue to play a constructive role in handling hotspot issues in the world and demonstrate its responsibility as a major nation.” Yet it remains to be seen whether Beijing will take concrete steps to facilitate a potential cease-fire, use its leverage to dissuade “other parties” from entering the conflict, help ensure humanitarian access and provide relief, and eventually join with other major players, including the U.N., in rebuilding and administering post-war Gaza. The Israel-Hamas war might prove to be a hotspot too hot for Beijing to handle.


Dr. John Calabrese teaches U.S. foreign policy at American University in Washington, D.C. He is a senior fellow at MEI, the book review editor of The Middle East Journal, and previously served as the director of MEI's Middle East-Asia Project (MAP).

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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