Joe Biden saying that “there’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on October 6” does not only insinuate impending regional instability, but also unlatches doors for wider and diverse diplomatic efforts from other powers to hammer out a solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict. In a lauded diplomatic coup, Beijing brokered an agreement between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran in March 2023, which has elevated, along with the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI), the stakes and reputation of China in Middle East. Hence, the role of Chinese diplomacy in the current breakdown of status quo resulting from Hamas’ infiltration is a subject of great debate. This could be another opportunity for China to deepen its footprints in the region and mediate a durable peace in region.
After the Russia-Ukraine war, the Israel-Hamas war straightens out the rift between western and global South narratives of power and accountability. The overwhelming protests over the Israel-Hamas war across the globe, especially in Europe and the US, and the outright support of the West’s governments for Israel unravelled the fragility and hypocrisy of western democracies, with little respect for public opinion as well as the naked division between narratives of the West and the Global South.
Concomitantly, Israel’s inordinate reaction that inflicted irredeemable pain, misery and death upon Palestinians further worsened the situation where it is impossible for its staunch ally to revert to the October 6 status quo. Netanyahu’s war cabinet needs to uncloud itself by exercising restrain and introspection. It is timely for the Arab countries and the powers of global South, especially China, to steer region through these turbulent times. Therefore, the regional states’ efforts to meet all the UNSC permanent members in resolving the Israel-Hamas war are commendable; however, their stopover at Beijing raises both hopes and frowns.
China has always supported the Palestinian cause by condemning Israeli violations of international law, maintaining that a two-state solution is the way forward, yet never officially designating Hamas as a terrorist organization. Simultaneously, Beijing has built, over decades, strong technological and economic relations with Israel that will be tested in these bitter times. With the eruption of ongoing escalation, Beijing took days to issue a statement; whereas, American and Europeans leaders and officials made visits and extended their support demonstrating “geopolitical dominance of the US” in Middle East. This is could be West’s recklessness to endorse their tottering in the aftermath of Hamas’ surprise. Even Washington requested China to defuse tensions and contain conflict. The Middle East is falling into the Chinese lap.
This is the time for Xi to rise above US-Sino differences and play China's role in defusing tensions that, in turn, would solidify Chinese diplomatic pathways in the broader Middle East.
Nonetheless, for China to heed the US request, the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict needs to hit Beijing’s interests in the region hard. In the past, China has put forth several, with little to no success, peace proposals, facilitation offers and mediation initiatives to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict; revealing the limitations of Chinese interest and influence in this conflict as well as rhetoric in Beijing’s support of Palestinians. But the ongoing barbaric fight could be a new ballgame for Chinese diplomacy and mediation, and if successful, could be another revisionist Sino feat.
But at the same time, for Chinese neutral mediation to be activated, its relations with Israel are still fundamental. Beijing’s economic and technological ties with Israel have never restricted it to rhetorically support Palestine. However, eyeing China to mediate here based on its successful mediatory efforts to strike a Saudi-Iran deal is perfunctory. Israel-Palestine differs from the Saudi-Iran situation. The Saudi-Iran context is new for China, and Beijing enjoys significant influence over both countries through its investment and trade. A direct relation with Iran provides Beijing an edge over traditional mediator in the region. Moreover, Saudis wanted to work with China because both share the idea of non-interference. For instance, the US criticized Mohammed bin Salman for human rights abuses; whereas, China does not want an interference into its treatment with Muslims of Xinjiang. In this way, Beijing established itself as powerful as well as trusted mediator for Riyadh and Tehran. But in case of Israel-Palestine conflict, Israel seeks to build diplomatic and economic relations with rising China to diversify its foreign relations and Beijing sees this relationship key for its BRI. On the other hand, the (rhetoric) support to Palestine helps Beijing to distract criticism “from the human rights abuses against its own Muslim minorities.” However, in response to recent China’s “pro-Palestinian neutrality,” Israel sided with other states at the UN forum condemning China’s policy towards Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
The Israel-Hamas war, nonetheless, would be a testing ground for Chinese diplomacy based on balance, mediation and economic staking. China has not recognized Israel’s brutal retaliation as an act of self-defence, rather called it “collective punishment” for the people of Gaza. Therefore, Beijing is focused upon an immediate ceasefire and the prevention of the conflict from engulfing the whole region, urgently addressing the humanitarian issue, and reiterating the importance of implementing a two-state solution. While extending its support to the Palestinian issue, China is aligning itself close to the Global South, which itself is increasingly leaning anti-West. Yet, this is the time for Xi to rise above US-Sino differences and play its role in defusing tensions that, in turn, would solidify Chinese diplomatic pathways in the broader Middle East.
The Israel-Palestine conflict, nonetheless, presents an opportune time for China to flex its muscles and influence in an area that has remained the bedrock of American clout in the region.
It is clear that the Gaza war is going to cost US influence heavy on several fronts. The war has effectively derailed the US’ efforts in normalizing Saudi-Israel relations; it has also put Washington’s “long-delayed pivot” to the Indo-Pacific at risk. Israel’s relentless bombing of the Gaza Strip is also creating space for powers other than the US, especially for China, to tread on regional affairs; and it is going to aggravate regional grievances against the western efforts of integration and normalization. Hence, if undermining American influence by competing in region is the objective Beijing is eyeing, then one option for China is not to engage aggressively into the Israel-Palestine issue and let the Americans hold their ground. To the contrary, the pathway of Chinese constructive engagement in an attempt to stabilize the region could be a moment that could bring Beijing and Europe closer. Moreover, the relations and ties Beijing has developed across the region would facilitate broader accountability of regional issues.
The Israel-Palestine conflict, nonetheless, presents an opportune time for China to flex its muscles and influence in an area that has remained the bedrock of American clout in the region; however, this mediation could boomerang on Beijing’s policy of non-interference that helps it to adroitly steer through western (and Israeli) criticism on its treatment of its Muslim minorities.
In whatever way, sitting back cannot be an option considering the elevated Chinese reputation in the region. Another important dimension of the ongoing escalation is that it is likely to intensify geopolitical fragmentation, which would further complicate the whole situation. Certainly, if it chooses to mediate, China has to pass through chinook and chill winds in balancing its growing economic and connectivity goals against tangled political interests.
Nevertheless, the US request to defuse tensions, the possibility of closer cooperation with Europe and the potential of broader accountability of regional affairs could motivate Beijing to take another diplomatic leap into the Middle East but, surely, not at the cost of undermining its relations with Israel and its principled stance on Palestinian cause.