China Criticizes Israel’s War in Gaza from the Sidelines, to U.S. Annoyance

The Chinese government spoke out this week against increasing Israeli military action in the southern Gazan city of Rafah. Its criticism, after a period of relative silence on the issue, has brought renewed attention to China’s position on Israel’s war in Gaza and the regional conflict that has ensued. Many American officials and analysts have expressed frustration over what they perceive as China’s lack of real commitment to pursuing peace in the region. However, other experts have highlighted that China’s position is motivated partly by a lack of leverage over regional actors, insecurity over its own human rights record, and most importantly, its satisfaction with letting the U.S. continue to undermine its own global standing by supporting Israel’s widely unpopular war.

What prompted China’s criticism on Monday was an Israeli military operation in Rafah that killed over 100 Palestinians and freed two Israeli hostages held by Hamas. That same day, Amnesty International released a report on four previous “unlawful” attacks on Rafah by the Israeli military that killed at least 95 civilians, including 42 children. In response to these attacks, the Chinese government called on Israel “to stop military operations as soon as possible, do everything possible to avoid casualties among innocent civilians and prevent a more devastating humanitarian disaster in Rafah.”

Many analysts in the U.S. policy space have been critical of China’s response. Léonie Allard at the Atlantic Council wrote, “Beijing is freeriding on US and European security guarantees to enhance its own presence and influence in the Gulf and the northwestern Indian Ocean. It is reaping benefits and advancing its own goals, while others carry the engagement and reputational costs of securing sea lanes.” In Foreign Policy, Christina Lu relayed other comments from American think-tank figures who have criticized China for sitting on the sidelines:

China is “mostly hanging back and letting the United States collect abuse,” said Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The only interest China’s pursuing in the Middle East is watching while a larger division opens between the U.S. and large parts of the global south,” he added. 

[…] China has “clearly eschewed any substantive role in the ongoing conflict,” Patricia Kim, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Foreign Policy in an email. While Beijing wants to portray itself as a regional power broker, she said, “it has zero interest in serving as a security provider or directly intervening in challenging situations that might jeopardize its relationships in the region.” [Source]

Stakes for both the U.S. and China rose in late November when, in proclaimed solidarity with Palestine, Houthi rebels in Yemen began attacking commercial ships passing through the Red Sea. The Houthis have targeted ships with links to Israel and the U.S. (although other ships with no connection to Israel were also attacked), and said that they would not attack ships associated with China, as long as those ships have no links to Israel. Nevertheless, Chinese state-owned COSCO and Hong Kong-based conglomerate CK Hutchison Holdings, two major shipping enterprises, suspended their services to Israel in early January. 

The disruption of global shipping in the region has had negative effects on China’s economy, although China has stopped short of taking military action to resolve the crisis. In late January, Reuters reported that Beijing pressed officials in Iran—which has historically provided support for the Houthis—to help rein in Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea or risk harming business relations with China. Around the same time, The Financial Times reported that several Chinese shipping lines had redeployed their vessels to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, exploiting China’s perceived immunity from Houthi attacks. 

In an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon, Dawn Murphy, an associate professor of national security strategy at the U.S. National War College, suggested that the U.S. pursue peace by pressuring China to leverage its positive relationship with Iran:

From a U.S. perspective, China could encourage Iran [to change its behavior], and I specify encourage because I think there’s an unrealistic expectation that China would be able to coerce Iran into changing its behavior. But China does have positive relations both with Iran as well as the other countries in the region, as well as non-state actors. So I think that would be constructive. 

[…] I think a lot of it will occur more through back channels. And part of why I say this is that this is a very delicate balancing act right now for China, not wanting to pick sides in the Israel-Hamas conflict, also not wanting to pick sides between the Saudis and the Iranians and the Israelis, right? So it’s not wanting to deviate from that. It also doesn’t want to be seen as taking the U.S. side too much because of the broader dynamic of competition. [Source]

Indeed, Iran and China maintain close ties. Sara Bazoobandi, a fellow at the Institute for Middle East Studies at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, published an article in Middle East Policy this week underscoring the close ties between Iran and China. She noted that Iran’s understanding of the changing China-U.S. relationship has prompted Iran to deepen its ties with China, and to “[revise] its policies in the hope that it can help contribute and be a part of what Tehran perceives as China’s new realm of influence in the Gulf region.” But Iran only has so much influence over the Houthis and other rebel groups in Iraq and Syria that have conducted over 168 attacks on U.S. personnel since the start of the latest Israel-Hamas war last October. Moreover, as Jonathan Fulton wrote for the Atlantic Council, there is a limit to China’s leverage over Iran:

[D]espite China’s interests in the region being threatened, Beijing has apparently been able to exert little influence over Iran.

[…T]he partnership with China has not delivered in economic terms to the degree the Iranians expected. Since finalizing the comprehensive strategic partnership deal in 2021, Iran has been the recipient of a flimsy $185 million in Chinese investment, which pales in comparison to the excess of $5 billion Saudi Arabia has provided over the same period. Iran’s deputy economy minister Ali Fekri complained last year that he “is not happy with the volume of Chinese investment in Iran, as they have much greater capacity.” This frustration seems to have boiled over in January, when Iran decided that the days of cheap oil for China were done; Iran began withholding crude shipments to Beijing and demanded higher prices after long offering significantly discounted crude. The perception of Chinese leverage in Tehran—much like the perception of Chinese power and influence in the Middle East and North Africa—took a hit. [Source]

Referencing another factor, Reid Standish from RFE/RL wrote: “Beijing is also unlikely to want to bring an end to something that’s hurting America’s interests arguably more than its own at the moment.” Echoing this point, Mordechai Chaziza, a senior lecturer at Israel’s Ashkelon Academic College, told CNN: “China has no interest in joining a Western coalition led by the U.S.; such an action would strengthen the position of the U.S. as a regional hegemon and weaken the Chinese position in the region.” In an op-ed for the South China Morning Post, Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, argued that China’s “easiest and most politically convenient response to the current Middle East turmoil lies not in joining the US but blaming it”:

Chinese policy in the Middle East is shaped by two factors: China’s threat perceptions and its strategic calculus regarding its great-power competition with the United States. And when it comes to dealing with the US, China’s approach comes down to three “noes”: no cooperation, no support and no confrontation. This credo underlies China’s decision not to push back against the Iran-backed Houthis as they carry out drone and missile attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes.

[…China] relish[es] the decline of US credibility and leadership. The longer the US stands by Israel, the more opportunity China will have to consolidate its ties with other Middle Eastern countries and the more credible China’s alternative approach to regional security will appear.

[…F]or China, the easiest and most politically convenient response to the current Middle East crisis […] is to blame the turmoil since Hamas’ October 7 attacks on Israel – the event that triggered the current conflict – on the failure of the US and Israel to achieve a two-state solution with the Palestinians and to treat such a deal as the precondition for any practical resolution to the ongoing crisis. [Source]

In a recent virtual roundtable on China’s approach to the Middle East hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., Yun Sun implied that China’s lack of bold action can also be explained by its tacit recognition of U.S. geopolitical primacy in the region, which she argued is a determining variable in all of China’s interactions with regional countries. Given that China is not a primary security provider in the region, its mediation attempts and proposals are inevitably more theoretical than practical, she argued. Thus, given U.S. regional primacy, some experts argue that it is the U.S., and not China, that has greater responsibility for applying leverage to regional actors in order to bring an end to hostilities.

Mark Leonard described the result of this dynamic last month in Foreign Affairs, explaining how perceptions of U.S. hypocrisy on potential war crimes helps China’s efforts to win over the Global South:

Since the start of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, which the Biden administration has largely endorsed, distrust of the United States has deepened across the Arab world. Opinion polls show that Arab publics now favor China over the United States. This is part of a long-term trend, but one that is being exacerbated by the war in Gaza. Polling conducted in the fall of 2023 in eight major non-Western countries—Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa—by the European Council on Foreign Relations (which I direct) found that China, in contrast to Western powers, is much more closely aligned with public opinion in the global South. Whether it is believing in the likelihood of Russia winning its war with Ukraine, the likelihood that the EU might fall apart, or the fragile state of American democracy, China’s official positions take great care to reflect the sentiments of the average Brazilian or Turk.

China’s attempt to mirror global public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part of a much broader strategy aimed at winning over the global South. First and foremost, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza underpin China’s argument that the world is becoming ever more disorderly. In Beijing’s view, the United States’ support for Israel’s campaign in Gaza demonstrates that its much-vaunted rules-based order was always a self-serving sham. Whereas the United States was quick to condemn Russian war crimes in Ukraine and China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, it has remained silent when confronted with what the rest of the world views as identical behavior by Israel. [Source]

In the Made in China Journal, Darren Byler and Karissa Ketter underlined another aspect of China’s position, relating to Chinese camera systems deployed in Israel’s predictive-policing infrastructure. Using the lens of the global war on terror (GWOT), they describe how the parallels between Israel-Palestine and China-Xinjiang constrain China’s response to the atrocities in Gaza:

The history of the GWOT and the Chinese use of such technologies to target Muslims domestically also informs China’s mixed response to Israel’s invasion of Gaza. On the one hand, the Chinese authorities seem to support Palestinian struggles for autonomy (Çalışkan 2023). But, like China’s support of the Assad regime in Syria, it appears that doing so is strategic—a means of fostering international support for the mass internment of Uyghurs in exchange for promises of economic aid (Global Times 2021; AP 2023). This stance is ultimately about opposing US imperialism, which is what they see as a driving force of Israel’s approaches towards Palestinians and other Chinese allies in the Middle East. At the same time, Chinese investment in Israeli infrastructure projects and, perhaps more importantly, colonial policing means that the Chinese Government cannot be too vocal in its support for Palestinians (Wakabayashi et al. 2023). And the obvious resonances between the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and Chinese colonisation of Uyghur lands are often present in Chinese policing theory and ethnic policy (Byler 2023b; Lu and Cao 2014). [Source]

Human rights violations in Xinjiang also played a notable role in China’s muted, carefully worded response to the ruling of the International Court of Justice, which ordered Israel to desist from killing Palestinians in Gaza and to prevent genocidal acts. Kate Bartlett from VOA described China’s discomfort with the prospect of successful U.N. prosecutions against those accused of genocide:

“They are privately very worried about precedent,” [Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies,] wrote to VOA. “It is very possible for a state that is not directly affected by the goings on in Xinjiang to bring a case at the ICJ.”

[…] “I don’t think this sits easily with the Chinese side,” Nantulya said, given that China is an ICJ member.

Therefore, he said, Beijing is unlikely to chide Israel, and by association the U.S., over any noncompliance. “Softly, softly will be their approach.” [Source]

Domestic political considerations will also play a role in China’s level of involvement in the Middle East. Last week, the China-MENA podcast released an episode titled “Domestic Drivers of China’s Foreign Policy in MENA” that explored the Chinese Communist Party’s internal dynamics and links between Party-state stability and China’s international interests. At Brookings, Patricia M. Kim, Kevin Dong, and Mallie Prytherch analyzed Chinese narratives on the Israel-Hamas war to show there is little support among the Chinese public for their government taking a stronger position in the Middle East region:

Although four Chinese nationals have been killed, six have been injured, and two have been reported missing since the outbreak of the current conflict, the tragic news has received relatively little attention among netizens. While censorship likely contributes to the muted response on Chinese social media, the lack of a major societal reaction and demands for the government to take action suggests a relative detachment by the broader Chinese public from the ongoing crisis.

[…] A public opinion poll conducted by Tsinghua University’s Center for International Security and Strategy in November 2022 showed only 3.3% of Chinese believe peace in the Middle East should be China’s top international priority. In fact, it was the lowest-ranked issue in the poll, trailing far behind other topics such as pandemics, territorial disputes, and U.S.-China relations. While this poll predates the current crisis, it is highly likely that if it were conducted again today, the Middle East would rank far behind other key issues. [Source]


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