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Will the Israel-Hamas war upend China’s Middle East ambitions?

Earlier this year, China helped broker a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to normalise relations after a seven-year diplomatic rift.

As a key economic partner of many Middle East countries and buyer of both Saudi and Iranian oil, it seemed Beijing had the economic leverage and goodwill to play a mediator in future conflicts.

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It even offered to mediate between Israel and Palestine for peace negotiations, and hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May on separate visits at the same time. Beijing appeared to be poised to offer itself as a counterpoint to the United States, whose historical baggage in the region and close ties to Israel could get in the way of its role as peacemaker. China, by contrast, has a long policy of non-interference with its diplomatic partners.

Less than six months later, Israel’s war on Gaza after the October 7 Hamas attacks on southern Israel is posing a challenge to Beijing’s ambitions as a major player in the Middle East, say analysts.

Beijing has interests on both sides of the conflict. It has long advocated for a two-state solution and even armed the Palestinian Liberation Organization in the 1960s and 1970s.  Yet today, Beijing is also Israel’s second-largest trading partner.

On Friday, China joined 119 other nations to vote in support of a non-binding United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a humanitarian truce.

Still, for the most part, Beijing has largely stayed on the sidelines of the conflict so far, avoiding the same prominent role it played in bringing about the Saudi-Iran detente.

What has China said about the Israel-Hamas war?

China has towed a neutral line since the war began and continues to call for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

On October 8, the day after Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, China’s foreign ministry called for a de-escalation in hostilities and for “relevant parties to remain calm, exercise restraint and immediately end the hostilities to protect civilians and avoid further deterioration of the situation”.

It also repeated Beijing’s position that the only long-term solution to the conflict is the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Since then, its official comments have been largely the same, with diplomat Zhai Jun calling for an “immediate ceasefire and an end to the fighting as quickly as possible” at the Cairo Peace Summit this week.

Critics have called China’s position either too “bland” or its response too late – Beijing took a day to issue a formal statement. But Benjamin Ho Tze Ern, an assistant professor at the Singapore-based S Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ China programme, said this was a pragmatic choice.

Beijing wanted to “see how other countries respond first so as to proffer it with the moral high ground of taking a more ‘neutral’ approach,”  he said. “Given the fog of war, it does not want to make any clear statements which it may have to retract in the event the information is incorrect.”

Why has China stayed neutral?

Beijing has remained neutral because such a position is in its long-term regional interest in to not take sides, said Yun Sun, Director of the China programme at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

“If China wants to appear as a different great power projecting a different future of reconciliation, it cannot pick one side against the other. That’s why you see statements like China is against all attacks against civilians, which criticise both Hamas and Israel,” she said.

The current conflict is also very different from when they negotiated a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a case where both countries wanted a resolution and Oman and Iraq had already laid the groundwork. Hamas and Israel, by contrast, are engaged in a continuing conflict that observers worry could escalate.

Beijing may also recognise that in such a protracted conflict that also draws in other powers, it’s simply out of its depth, said Trita Parsi, the co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

“One has to remember, the Chinese never had the same involvement or knowledge or rapport with different players to be able to play the role that they did play in the Saudi-Iranian equivalent,” he said. “Essentially, they don’t have the same type of luxury of trying to get to know the partners. While you’re mediating this, you need to be way ahead of the game and the Chinese simply are not.”

What is at stake for China?

China has strong economic interests in the region and those would be affected if the current war draws in other players. It imports a substantial amount of energy from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. Trade figures are also high at $259bn in 2021 for the Middle East and North Africa – three times the volume of US trade with the region. China’s trade with Israel stood at $18bn in 2021.

Also at stake is Beijing’s standing on the global stage, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute. That incentivises China to remain neutral even at risk to its relationship with Israel.

“This is about posturing to the Global South, which is largely more sympathetic to the plights of the Palestinians than to the outrage of Israelis. The object for China is to secure support from the Global South to enable it to ‘democratise’ the international order,” Tsang told Al Jazeera by email.

“China under Xi is about looking out for its own interest, not in making peace for the global common good,” he said.

How will this affect the US-China rivalry?

While SOAS’s Tsang said the current conflict provided another opportunity for China to “push forward an alternative to the US-dominated liberal international order,” Parsi saw it as a chance to show that the two rivals could work together.

China’s top diplomat Wang Yi travelled to the US on Thursday to discuss the war with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in another sign that Beijing is still interested in staying involved. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to travel to San Francisco in November for the APEC Summit, where he might meet US President Joe Biden.

“I think the Chinese see this as a potential opportunity to show the world and show the United States that if China and the United States work together on these issues, better outcomes are achieved for everyone,” Parsi said.

“That’s a way for the Chinese to dispel fears on the Western side that the rise of China means that China’s seeking to replace the West. Instead, the Chinese are trying to signal that they want to partner with the West on important and tricky issues like this.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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