Beijing aims to boost its influence in the Middle East

Israel-Hamas war risks fueling further tension between China and the United States

China will continue to support “all efforts conducive to promoting dialogue” for the two-state solution amid the escalating conflict in the Middle East.

In the regular Foreign Ministry briefing on October 23, spokesperson Mao Ning said:

As we speak, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is escalating, the situation in Gaza is very grave, and armed conflict is spreading with a growing spillover effect.

“All parties should abide by the international law and international humanitarian law, protect civilians, and do everything possible to avert an even worse humanitarian disaster,” she said.

Mao added that humanitarian needs must be met. “China will continue to support all efforts conducive to promoting dialogue and restoring peace and do its part … for a comprehensive, just, and lasting settlement of the Palestinian question,” she said.

Her remarks highlighted the difference between Washington and Beijing on the Israel-Hamas war, which analysts worry will further fuel tensions between the two superpowers.

Diplomatic ties

President Joe Biden told Americans last week in a televised live speech that the United States must increase its support for Ukraine and Israel.

“History has taught us when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror, when dictators don’t pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death,” he said. 

“They keep going. And the cost and the threat to the world keep rising,” Biden added.

The China-mediated deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia that was announced in March and restored diplomatic ties between the two countries, which had been severed since 2016, was seen as a sign of Beijing’s arrival in Middle East power politics.

China sent Zhai Jun, the special envoy on the Middle East issue, to mediate between Israel and Hamas. He met with Qatari Foreign Minister Al-Huraifi in Doha last week and attended the Cairo Peace Summit in Egypt that convened without Israel and senior US officials.

Israel has launched attacks against Hamas in Gaza City. Image: Social media

The summit ended two days later without the Arab leaders in attendance reaching an agreement on how to contain the spreading violence.

Alex Vatanka, the founding director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, told VOA Mandarin that Beijing’s position on Hamas has more to do with the Chinese competition for global influence with the US than it has to do with the Palestinian issue.

“I think China clearly sees this as an awkward moment for the United States, and China wants to come in and play a different narrative … that China is just and America’s unjust, and this is going to be the Chinese narrative,” Vatanka said.

Guy Laron, a senior lecturer with the international relations department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told VOA Mandarin he is not optimistic about China’s efforts as a peace broker. He said at an online event hosted by the Wilson Center last week: 

China has been a free rider in the Middle East, taking advantage of the fact that the United States secured the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, and it would explore opportunities to invest wherever it can.

“But I don’t think it can replace the United States as the hegemon in the Persian Gulf, and I think that’s the key thing. And I think also countries in the Persian Gulf understand that very well,” Laron added.

Special representative

Speaking after a meeting in Qatar with Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian president’s special representative for the Middle East and Africa, Zhai said in a statement released by China’s Foreign Ministry: 

The fundamental reason for the current situation of the Palestine-Israel conflict is that the Palestinian people’s lawful national rights have not been guaranteed.

Beijing recognized the state of Palestine in 1988 and established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992.

David Hale, the former US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, told VOA Mandarin

China and the United States may seem to have congruent interests in stability in the Middle East, but our sense of stability may be very different than their sense of stability. 

Hamas launched surprise attacks on Israel settlements. Image: Social media

“They want not just stability, they want control, at the end of the day, of their energy supplies, and I think that will be the direction of their future policy, and that is not, in the long run, a stable situation for the rest of us,” he said.

Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies, told VOA Mandarin that Beijing’s long-standing criticism of Israel and support for a Palestinian state reflect its efforts to develop favorable relations with Muslim countries.

This would fill what China sees as the void left by the US withdrawal from the Middle East while protecting its substantial oil interests in the region.

Andon Pavlov, an oil products analyst at research firm Kpler in Vienna, told The New York Times that half of China’s crude imports, and a little more than a third of all the oil burned in the country, comes from the Persian Gulf.

Oil imports

Beijing has long-term contracts with Iran, one of the main backers of Hamas, the armed group that attacked Israel on October 7. China’s oil imports from Iran have more than tripled in the past two years, accounting for 87% of its total exports in September.

Dalia Dassa Kaye, of UCLA’s International Institute and Burkle Center, said Washington and Beijing may cooperate in stabilizing the Middle East due to a shared concern about oil prices.

“China is not interested in instability globally in this region because that will raise oil prices. And that is something the United States most definitely does not want in the context of Ukraine,” she said.

“That’s already been very, very difficult for the United States and for Europe, for the Western alliance, for NATO fighting this war in Ukraine. So, the US and China have a common interest here in calming the region,” she added.

Lin Feng is a journalist with Voice of America. Adrianna Zhang also contributed to this report.

This article is republished courtesy of VOA. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.