Israel-Hamas war upends China's ambitions in the Middle East but may serve Beijing in the end

WASHINGTON (AP) — In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted the Palestinian president in Beijing and invited the Israeli prime minister for an official state visit. Benjamin Netanyahu accepted, and China was on track for a bigger role in the region.

Then came the Hamas attack against Israel, which has made Netanyahu’s late October trip uncertain and put Beijing's Middle East approach to the test. China’s stated neutrality on the war has upset Israel, but Beijing may gain in the long run by forging closer ties with Arab countries, experts said.

“For a while at least, Beijing’s Middle East policy is paralyzed by the war,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Beijing-based Renmin University of China. “The U.S., which strongly supports Israel, is directly or indirectly involved. Who is there to listen to China?”

That hasn't stopped China from trying to be heard.

Its Middle East envoy, Zhai Jun, talked to Palestinian and Egyptian officials by phone this past week, calling for an immediate cease-fire and humanitarian support for the Palestinian people.

Zhai also called Israeli officials to say China “has no selfish interests on the Palestinian issue but has always stood on the side of peace, on the side of fairness and justice.” He said that “China is willing to work with the international community to promote peace and encourage talks.”

Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, came out more strongly for the Palestinians, saying “the crux of the matter is that justice has not been done to the Palestinian people.”

“This conflict once again proved in an extremely tragic manner that the way to solve the Palestinian issue lies in resuming genuine peace talks as soon as possible and realizing the legitimate rights of the Palestinian nation,” Wang said during a call with an adviser to the Brazilian president.

China has long advocated for a two-state solution that allows for an independent Palestinian state.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, while traveling in the Mideast over the weekend, called Wang to ask China to use whatever influence it has in the region to keep other countries and groups from entering the conflict and broadening it, according to the State Department, which declined to characterize Wang’s response. China is known to have close trade and political ties with Iran, which in turn supports Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

The conversation was the first high-level U.S. contact with China over the Mideast situation since the Hamas attack.

Beijing, by trying to maintain a delicate balance, wants to position itself as a mediator and exert its influence in the region, said Maria Papageorgiou, a lecturer in politics and international relations at University of Exeter, and Mohammad Eslami, a researcher at University Minho, in joint email.

The U.S. support for Israel will give China an opportunity to expand its arms sales to dissatisfied Arab countries, but China also wants to resolve the crisis to protect its economic interests in the region, they said.

“China’s engagement in the Middle East is set to increase during this conflict. Beijing will play an enhanced role in efforts to end the war and secure its economic interests and wants to capitalize on the Arab states’ frustration with U.S. to establish itself as a great power in the region,” the researchers wrote.

Beijing's approach, though, risks alienating Israel.

Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, described Beijing's position as “pro-Palestine neutrality,” much like its position on Russia's invasion of Ukraine has signaled support for the Kremlin.

“You cannot be neutral in something like this. Silence is acquiescence,” Gering said. “The problem, I think, the biggest one we have, is that China, instead of being the responsible major power that it claims to be, it is exploiting this conflict for geopolitical benefits.”

He said China was looking to win the support of Arab countries on contentious issues such as Beijing’s treatment of the Muslim ethnic Uyghurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Under Xi, Beijing has pursued a proactive, sometimes assertive, foreign policy. It has sought closer ties in the Middle East, the source of much of the oil China needs and a nexus in the Belt and Road network, Xi’s massive infrastructure-building project to connect markets around the world through railways, roads, seaports and airports and to extend Beijing's influence.

This year, Beijing helped restore diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran, building its credentials as an alternative to the United States in brokering peace deals.

Wang Yiwei, another international relations professor at Renmin University, said China is better positioned than the U.S. to help resolve conflicts, whether between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Russia and Ukraine or Israel and the Palestinians.

“If you’re just on one side, and make another side hate you, you cannot be a broker,” he said. “So that's the reason China did not join the West to sanction or contain Russia in the Ukraine war. Because we need to be the bridge.”

But China's proposals to end the war have been seen as benefiting Russia.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “China’s stance might be more about projecting an image of a neutral and responsible global player rather than acting like one,” said Dale Aluf, research director at Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership, an Israel-based think tank.

China's continued insistence on a two-state solution is “disconnected from reality," Aluf said. China also has displeased Israel by refusing to join the U.S. and other countries in designating Hamas a terrorist organization, seeing it instead as a “Palestinian resistance movement.”

Since the war began, Chinese state media have come down hard on Israel. They have cited Iranian news outlets in reporting the illegal use of white phosphorous bombs by the Israeli military. And they have blamed the U.S., Israel’s strongest supporter, for fanning the tensions in the region.

Bombarded with hostile messages, the Israeli mission in Beijing now filters the comments on its Chinese social media account.

There has been a surge of antisemitic sentiment in the Chinese internet, said Yaqiu Wang, research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House.

“On the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Chinese government has always propagated a narrative that places the blame squarely on Israel, a key U.S. ally, because this aligns with a key objective of (the ruling Communist Party’s) propaganda: to undermine the U.S. in the international community. This time, it is no exception,” she said.

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Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu and researcher Wanqing Chen in Beijing and AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.