The war in Gaza, triggered by the atrocities committed by Hamas on Israel’s side of the border, has significant geopolitical ramifications for the rest of the world.
In times of crisis, Israel has an opportunity to see who its friends are. Many governments in the world, not necessarily Israel’s closest partners, responded to Hamas’ atrocities along the Gaza border by condemning the organization. China refrained from doing so, underscoring the fact that it is not a friend of Israel in the international arena.
Moreover, it has led international calls for a humanitarian pause or a ceasefire, hindering the Israeli military attempt to vanquish Hamas and free kidnapped Israeli hostages.
The Chinese President Xi Jinping called on Saturday for an immediate ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. Facilitating the attainment of Hamas’ immediate aim of preventing Israeli military advances is not a friendly act. China supported the UN Security Council resolution on October 18 calling for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow aid into Gaza. Luckily for Israel, the United States vetoed it.
Beijing is trying to promote three key diplomatic aims: Bolstering its status as a champion of developing countries, the Palestinians being an example; enhancing its influence in the Middle East, and at the same time positioning itself as a superpower to rival the United States in a multipolar world, with some notable support.
Absurdly, China accused Israel of committing war crimes. Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen, in a phone call that Israel needs to abide by international law and protect the safety of civilians (implying that Israel has not been). Wang denounced Israel for “going beyond self-defense” and called for an end to “collective punishment of the Gazan people.”
Chinese governmental statements mentioned that Israel’s retaliatory strikes went beyond what was acceptable under international humanitarian law, ignoring the great efforts by the Israeli army to spare civilians that were used by Hamas as a human shield in violation of international law. Hypocritically, China refrained in official statements from using the word “terror” when reporting or describing Hamas’ attacks, despite its long-standing formal opposition to terrorism.
Moreover, the Communist Party of China is encouraging anti-Semitic rhetoric in its state-controlled media. Chinese social media have seen a substantial increase in anti-Semitic pronouncements.
China is no longer free of prejudice against Jews. There seems to be evidence that citizens can even find themselves in trouble with the authorities for too vocally expressing support for Israel. Without any explanation, Israel’s name no longer appears on major online digital maps.
China’s insistence that the Israel-Hamas war be stopped as soon as possible is averse to Israel’s interest in having sufficient time to eradicate the terrorist organization Hamas in Gaza.
Beijing’s real motives
China pushes for a ceasefire because it does not want to see a wider, regional conflict.
President Xi was quoted by the state media as saying that a ceasefire was imperative as soon as possible to prevent the conflict from spiraling out of control. Such an expansion of hostilities could disrupt the global oil and gas supply chain, already strained by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It also could derail the March 2023 Saudi-Iran reconciliation deal that China helped broker – a development China framed as indicative of a shifting global order.
Yet Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states would like to see Hamas – an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood – defeated by Israel, while Iran supports Hamas.
Chinese support for Hamas is also related to the US efforts to coax a diplomatic normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which have been disrupted by the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas. Formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia would belittle the diplomatic success of the Chinese mediation between Tehran and Riyadh.
Given the Chinese perception of a decreased US role in the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Gaza crisis is probably seen as an opportunity for China to expand its influence and emerge as a mediator. There are signs that the Chinese may want to get involved in brokering a peace deal between Hamas and Israel to help build their clout in the region.
China probably realizes that the war in Gaza posits the American-led free world against Hamas, a proxy of Iran that is getting closer to Russia and China, rivals of the US. Moscow and Beijing have made a point of diverging from the Western-led support for Israel after the barbaric Hamas attack. China rightly perceives Israel as a democratic ally of the West, following in many ways the American preferences.
As much as China may appreciate access to Israeli technology, or see the economic opportunities in investing in Israel, Beijing’s heart and mind are with the adversaries of Israel and the US.
China also called for the convening of “a more authoritative, wide-ranging and effective” international peace summit as soon as possible to resume peace talks and formulate a timetable and roadmap to the establishment of a Palestinian state. The proposal, aired after a call between Wang and his counterpart from the Palestinian Authority, Riyad al-Maliki, is aimed at buttressing China’s international prestige.
Israel has always preferred bilateral negotiations and has been suspicious of multilateral fora. Moreover, Israel has rebuffed China’s efforts to present itself as an impartial broker. “When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution,” was the response of a senior official at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing.
It is high time for Israel to rethink its China policy, based on the clear-headed evaluation that China is increasingly adopting anti-Israeli positions.
Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the head of the program on Strategy, Diplomacy, and Security at Shalem College.