China Dismisses Western Wishes That It Can Resolve Tensions Between Iran, Israel

Throughout Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza, China has sidestepped the conflict, criticized it from the sidelines, accused Western countries of hypocrisy on Gaza and Xinjiang, and benefited from increasingly sympathetic attitudes in the Global South as a result of this dynamic. The latest spike in regional tensions due to Israel and Iran trading missile strikes has not changed China’s overall position. Nonetheless, U.S. media and government actors continue to accuse China of withholding leverage that could ostensibly halt the violence, while their Chinese counterparts aim similar claims at the U.S.

Chinese talking points situate Iran’s aerial attack against Israel on April 14 as a retaliation for Israel’s suspected missile strike against Iran on April 1. The strike destroyed an Iranian consulate building in Syria that housed the residence of the Iranian ambassador, killing seven Iranians and six Syrians. (U.N. experts called both strikes illegal under international law.) Before Iran’s retaliation, the U.S., U.K., and France opposed a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) statement that would have condemned Israel’s attack on Iran’s consulate building. The Iranian foreign minister and mission to the U.N. stated that the UNSC’s failure to condemn Israel’s attack, which they called a violation of international law, necessitated an Iranian response. 

Following Iran’s retaliatory strike, a Chinese government spokesperson said China was “deeply concerned” about escalating tensions. Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with his Iranian and Saudi counterparts. Wang framed the situation as a “spillover of the Gaza conflict,” stated that Iran’s action was “an act of self defense in response to the attack against the Iranian consulate in Syria,” and called for a ceasefire and two-state solution. Dai Bing, China’s ambassador to the U.N., called on the international community, “especially countries with influence” (a thinly veiled reference to the U.S.), to strive for regional peace. In Lianhe Zaobao’s ThinkChina magazine, Fan Hongda, professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, argued that Iran’s retaliation was a necessary response to Israel’s attack and the UNSC’s failure to condemn it:

Early in the morning of 11 April, Iran’s mission to the United Nations stated on social media that if the Security Council had previously condemned Israel’s attack on the Iranian consulate, Iran could have considered not taking retaliatory actions against Israel. The implication is that because the US, the UK and France blocked the Security Council’s statement condemning the Israeli attack, Iran has to consider retaliatory actions against Israel.

As a regional power, Iran needs to safeguard its dignity and strategic position in the region. In the absence of a peaceful resolution to the dispute, it has no choice but to retaliate militarily against Israel. In this way, Iran launched a military attack on Israel on 14 April.

Even so, Tehran informed the US on the day of the attack that Iran’s retaliation would be limited and low intensity. Tehran said it would end the attack soon if Israel did not react violently. Therefore, following Iran’s attack, the response of the party responsible for triggering and escalating the conflict would become the core factor affecting the development of the situation. [Source]

The U.S. government disagreed with Iran and Fan’s arguments. U.S. State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said, “I think that’s a pretty flimsy excuse from the Iranian [g]overnment.” More than two weeks after Israel’s suspected strike against Iran, Miller continued to refuse to state the U.S. position on the strike by claiming that the U.S. is still assessing whether the facility attacked was a consulate. By contrast, U.S. government officials were quick to criticize other violations of countries’ diplomatic facilities during that same time period.

Some Chinese journalists, media pundits, and academics took to Twitter to critique these and other examples of what they described as Western double standards, targeting David Cameron, Joe Biden, and The New York Times for downplaying or ignoring Israel’s initial strike and inflating Iran’s reaction. A Global Times op-ed on Tuesday decried these responses and criticized “US propaganda machines’ […] efforts to shift the blame for escalating the situation in the Middle East onto China”:

[I]n the recent confrontation between Iran and Israel, Western countries, including the US, have once again demonstrated double standards. They displayed an ambiguous attitude when Israel’s bombing resulted in Iranian casualties and property damage, while “unequivocally condemning in the strongest terms” Iran’s retaliation against Israel, stating that “Iran has further stepped toward the destabilization of the region.”

[…] The main key to easing tensions in the Middle East lies in the US restraining Israel, not China “reining in” Iran. The US repeatedly demands that China influence Iran and attributes one of the causes of the tense situation in the Middle East to China’s failure to influence Iran as desired by the West. However, the fact is: The root cause of the tension in the Middle East lies in the Israel-Palestine issue, and the way out of this fundamental problem is through a two-state solution, for which the only obstacle is to get Israel to agree, and the one who can truly exert influence is none other than the US. [Source]

As Nectar Gan and Simone McCarthy reported for CNN, experts said that China is unlikely to pressure Iran partly due to its shared experience as the victim of a deadly consular strike, and partly due to disdain over perceived Western double standards:

“I think the Chinese are particularly sympathetic to Iran given their own experience of the US bombing of [the] Chinese embassy in Belgrade. That’s why China does not condemn Iran,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank.

During a NATO air raid on the former Yugoslavia in 1999, pilots attacked the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade killing three Chinese journalists.

[…] “It’s unlikely, therefore, for China to apply pressure on Iran,” Sun said. “For China, had US applied enough pressure on Israel, neither the Israeli attack nor the Iranian retaliation would have taken place. To apply pressure on Iran, which is seen as the victim at the first place, is illogical.” [Source]

However, U.S. government and media outlets have insisted that China, via Iran, is guilty of prolonging regional tensions. Mainstream American media described China as having “considerable diplomatic sway with [Iran]” and yet “refusing to condemn Iran’s strike on Israel — […] part of a Middle East power play” that “undermined some of China’s diplomatic credibility.” Over the weekend, White House National Security Spokesperson John Kirby claimed that China must “do more” to rein in Iran. On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to sanction China’s purchases of Iranian oil. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen stated, “I fully expect we will take additional sanctions actions against Iran.” In Tuesday’s China-Global South Project newsletter, Eric Olander argued that U.S. hopes of effective Chinese pressure on Iran are futile:

Over and over again, one after another, senior [U.S.] officials from the president to the secretary of state to the national security advisor and even the senate majority leader have all made personal appeals to the Chinese to ask their friends in Tehran to cool it.

And each time, without fail, nothing happens.

[…W]hat’s disconcerting here is that these U.S. officials are not listening to what top experts in the field have been saying for years now, namely that Chinese economic influence with Iran does not translate to political leverage.

Beijing doesn’t have the kind of sway with Tehran that Washington thinks they do. [Source]

Bill Figueroa wrote a thread on X (formerly Twitter) challenging perceptions of Chinese influence in Iran and contextualizing China’s response to the recent attacks:

Figueroa provided more details on China-Iran relations in his profile of Iran for The People’s Map of Global China. Another resource analyzing China-Iran relations and highlighting the limits of China’s influence on Iran is ChinaMed Project’s annual report, published this week. Here is a summary of the chapter on Iran:

In last year’s ChinaMed Report, we emphasized the emergence of China as a wedge issue within the Iranian media landscape. 2023 was no different as Tehran’s increasing reliance on Beijing in economic and diplomatic affairs fueled intense debates in the Iranian press regarding China’s role with respect to both Iran and the entire Middle East. Events like the Riyadh Summits, the reestablishment of relations with Saudi Arabia, the Hamas-led attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza have further inflamed discussions among Iranian analysts and journalists on Chinese regional engagement’s implications for Iran.

[…] The media debate in the Islamic Republic reflects a nuanced understanding of international relations. Commentators viewed Beijing’s engagements with Saudi Arabia and the GCC through a prism of opportunity and challenges. Some argued that China’s expanding relations in the Middle East could indirectly benefit Tehran by weakening US hegemony. Others expressed concern over the potential sidelining of Iran in the face of Beijing’s broader regional ambitions, cautioning against excessive reliance on China. 

In conclusion, the Iranian press, despite its limited autonomy, has articulated a complex portrait of China’s activities in the region, balancing strategic optimism with a critical eye toward the realities of international politics. The overarching narrative suggests a desire for a more balanced, diversified foreign policy approach that safeguards Iran’s strategic interests while navigating the ever-shifting sands of Middle Eastern geopolitics. [Source]

In China, Iran’s retaliatory strike against Israel received ample attention on CCTV, as well as 140 million clicks and over 23,000 comments on Weibo in the hours after the news broke. In Israel, many, such as Yuval Waks, the deputy chief of the Israeli mission in China, were “unhappy” with the Chinese government’s response. “We were hoping for stronger condemnation and clear acknowledgment of Israel’s right to defend itself,” he stated. Last week, the Economist discussed whether China’s ties with Israel will survive the Gaza war:

Israelis, though, are increasingly voicing their own concerns about China. Since the start of the war, local media have featured discussions of whether Chinese investment is a security risk. Analysts and officials describe a nosedive in China’s favourability rating among the Israeli public, not least because antisemitism is surging on Chinese social media. Some Israelis, unhappy with China’s support for the Palestinians, are boycotting Chinese shopping sites. “The public in Israel has shifted its way of looking at China, from ‘China has a lot of money’ to ‘China is an enemy’,” says Galia Lavi of the Institute for National Security Studies, a think-tank in Israel. [Source]

Many actors in the U.S. government increasingly view Iran and China along with Russia and North Korea as part of a new “axis of evil” that threatens the U.S. and its global order. This week alone will see a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee meeting titled, “The Despotic Duo: Russo-Iranian Cooperation and Threats to U.S. Interests,” and a Senate hearing on “China and the Middle East” with a panel titled, “China’s Diplomatic Engagement with the Middle East Bolsters Efforts to Shape a New World Order.” In an article for Foreign Affairs last month, Hal Brands depicted the “New Autocratic Alliances” and their threat to the U.S.:

These relationships [among U.S. antagonists] may be ambiguous and ambivalent. They may lack formal defense guarantees. But they still augment the military power revisionist states can muster and reduce the strategic isolation those countries might otherwise face. They intensify pressure on an imperiled international system by helping their members contest U.S. power on many fronts at once. And were U.S. antagonists to expand their cooperation in the future—by sharing more advanced defense technology or collaborating more extensively in crisis or conflict—they could upset the global equilibrium in even more disturbing ways.

[…] These combinations [between revisionist powers] are numerous and deepening. An ever-expanding Chinese-Russian partnership unites Eurasia’s two largest, most ambitious states. In Russia’s long-standing relationships with Pyongyang and Tehran, aid and influence now flow both ways. China is drawing closer to Iran, to complement its decades-old alliance with North Korea. For years, Pyongyang and Tehran have collaborated to make missiles and mischief. This isn’t a single revisionist coalition. It is a more complex web of ties among autocratic powers that aim to reorder their regions and, thereby, reorder the world.

[…] Iran has sold Russia missiles and drones for use in Ukraine, even helping it build facilities that can produce the latter at the scale modern war demands. Russia, in exchange, has reportedly committed to delivering advanced air defenses, fighter aircraft, and other capabilities to Iran that could change the balance in the ever-contested Middle East. As in the Rapallo era, revisionist states are helping each other build up the military power they need to tear down the status quo. [Source]


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