The Twists and Turns of China’s Strategy

A few days after the attacks of 7 October 2023, a delegation from the Arab countries landed in Beijing at the same time as the latter’s special envoy for the Middle East began a grand tour of the region. All eyes were turned towards China which had recognised the State of Palestine since 1988. Does the Middle Kingdom really want to intervene? Is it equipped to do so?

Riyad Al-Maliki (left), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Palestinian Authority, shakes hands with Ma Xinmin (right), Director General of the Department of Treaties and Law of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during a hearing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, on the legal consequences of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, 22 February 2024.
Robin van Lonkhuijsen/ANP/AFP

Since China sponsored the spectacular reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023, commentators tend to see the hand of China everywhere. Some have even imagined it was preparing to replace the USA or, in any case, to don the mantle of a peacemaker between Israeli and Palestinians.

Today their disappointment seems as great as their wrong-headed expectations. Fifteen months on from 7 October 2023, rather is it Hugo’s ‘Waterloo, gloomy plain’ that comes to mind. Tel Aviv drops its bombs; Beijing has nothing to say. And the whole world wonders: what’s with China?

‘The West confuses agitation with action’ is the answer provided by a former Chinese diplomat with UNESCO, reminding me that the rulers of his country rarely let the trumpet’s blast before they have reached their goal. In the present case, it is necessary to achieve ‘a durable cease-fire’’ followed by an agreement on a ‘blueprint for peace’. An ambitious programme. Presumably, Beijing’s good relations with both the Arab countries and Israel will make things easier. But Tel Aviv has declared itself ‘deeply disappointed’ by the first statements made by China’s rulers.

As early as 8 October 2023, a Chinese Foreign Ministry press release stressed the gravity of the events and called upon ‘the concerned parties to cease hostilities immediately in order to protect civilians and avoid a new deterioration of the situation.’1 The next day, an official spokesperson, Mao Ning, was more specific: ‘We oppose and condemn actions which harm civilians’. Thus, China unambiguously condemned the massacres but without mentioning Hamas by name at a time when the entire world is being summoned to denounce the ‘terrorist organisation’. Above all, China places these crimes in the long-term context of the Israel-Palestine confrontation: ‘The recurrence of the conflict shows once again that the prolonged deadlock of the peace process must not be allowed to last.’2 Unforgivable.

And yet this analysis coincides with that of most countries in the region, except for India and the ‘occidentalised’ Asian countries like South Korea and Japan which have both sided with Israel – with a few reservations for Tokyo, which refused to call Hamas a ‘terrorist organisation’ and declined, ‘joining the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to publish [on 9 October] a common declaration (…) promising united support for Israel.’3 Nor does China fail to point out that its point of view is far from isolated but is shared by many countries in the global South. As is demonstrated by the votes in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, where the US and Israel are quite isolated.

Already, Mao Tse Tung…

There is nothing opportunistic about China’s stance. Its support for the Palestinians goes way back, promoted from the beginning by Mao Tse Tung, even though Israel was one of the first countries to recognise the People’s Republic in 1950 (as against 1964 for France and 1972 for the United States). According to the principles of non-alignment in which Chinese rulers have always been firm believers, the Great Helmsman conspicuously supported every liberation movement, every anti-colonial struggle, which included for example Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt. An unfailing solidarity indeed, but more political than financial or military. In 1988, Beijing recognised the State of Palestine. But at the time, China was still a political dwarf.

Since then, China’s influence in the Middle East has come a long way, even while remaining extremely cautious. With a deft mix of trade and politics, it has established relations with the Arab League’s twenty-two countries, demanding in return that they break off their diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

To begin with, China entered the Middle East bedlam by the back door of the energy trade. Its need for oil and gas led it to develop ties with the Gulf countries and then, more slowly, with Iran. By the turn of the century, these partners were supplying two thirds of its needs. However, Beijing remains cautious and is keen to diversify its sources: right now, its energy purchases in the region amount to less than 46% of the total. At the same time, Chinese companies profit from the sale of their products in the region and their investments are beginning to pay off. Trade with Israel, officially recognised in 1992, is also growing by leaps and bounds.

At that time, China was in the midst of normalisation. In a world which it knows to be under US influence – and hence untouchable – it remains faithful to what it sees as its internationalist duty: the defence of the rights of the Palestinian people. In 1997, its leaders adopted a four-point peace plan which they promoted at the UN and in their bilateral encounters, though without making it an absolute priority.4

A belated Arab policy

It was not until the 2000s that a change of Chinese diplomatic strategy in the Middle East would make its appearance, determined by several factors. The country’s all-export policy and its worldwide presence implies securing its relationships. From Beijing’s standpoint, nothing is more dangerous than instability. In 2002, China appointed a special envy for the Middle East who had the important task of touring the region’s capitals, even if his activity escaped the notice of most observers.

Two years later, Beijing created the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum which brought together the Arab League’s twenty-two countries. The Forum took on major importance with the launching of the Belt and Road Initiative (New Silk Road) with its several themes and various issues: economic (with an investment of ten billion dollars promised by 2023), political, geostrategic, and military.

Beijing is obsessed with two dangers. First, by the independence movements among the Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang, especially since the 2009 uprisings. China is counting on the solidarity of the Arab countries in this matter. Especially because in the event of a conflict, the US could block such bottlenecks as the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, or the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. This explains the rapprochement with Egypt, which President Xi Jinping has visited twice since he rose to power, as well as the Chinese investments in harbour facilities there.

Israel, an unreliable partner

The possibility of a US blockage is not fantastic. In July 2000, pressure from the United States made Israel cancel a contract for the sale of four of its Falcon F16 fighter planes to China. And there would be more such bans to follow. If, between 1990 and 2000 Israeli weapons sales to Beijing amounted to 33 billion dollars, by 2002 they had ceased altogether, according to data provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Bye-bye the third-biggest purchaser until then of Israeli military equipment. India, the hated neighbour, took China’s place. So, it is hardly surprising that Beijing sees Tel Aviv as a very unreliable strategic partner.

But since business is business, Chinese companies, both public and private have continued nonetheless developing their Israeli investments in such areas as foodstuffs, telecommunications, and research (Huawei), cybersecurity and infrastructure (tramways, harbours). But here too, the Chinese company that managed part of the new Haifa Harbour, found itself shoved aside on instructions from Washington where its presence was perceived as a threat to the base serving as a port of call for US submarines, located only a stone’s throw away.

And again, it was an Indian firm, Adani, that reaped the benefits of this Chinese setback. And Beijing’s doubts were reinforced. For while the two countries are closely connected trade-wise, China is only the third largest of Israeli partners, behind the US and the EU. Thus, it maintains the dialogue, banking on the future but entertaining no illusions. In the near term, it has no way of forcing Israel to negotiate.

Some people are critical of the fact that Beijing did not concern itself with the fate of Noa Argamani. a Sino-Israeli hostage taken by Hamas on 7 October 2023. They forget that the Chinese authorities do not recognise dual nationality and regard that woman as an Israeli citizen, a fact which the Chinese ambassador to Tel Aviv recalled when he declared he was sensitive to the fate ‘of all’ the hostages.

A strong foothold with minimal public fanfare

By cleverly managing its bilateral relationship with each national government, its interventions within specialised multilateral bodies and its trade relations, China has confirmed its presence in the Middle East. It has become number one trade partner for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, paying for its oil purchases in yuan and no longer in dollars. This alone speaks volumes about the confidence that Arab rulers have in the Chinese economy and about the petrol-monarchies distrust of the USA, liable at the drop of a hat to freeze their assets, as Washington has shown with Russia. China’s success is all the greater as, faithful to its principles of non-intervention, the Chinese leaders are careful never to stick their nose into regional quarrels (Iran vs. Saudi Arabia, Qatar vs. Emirates, Houthis vs. Yemen-Saudi Arabia).

As former Australian Premier Kevin Rudd has summed the situation up5:

This expanding strategic presence across the Middle East has been rapid and remarkable. Once again, China’s ability to execute this strategy with minimal public fanfare has been based on its formidable economic leverage in each regional capital – and its ability to minimise the risk of being caught in the complex web of intraregional tensions. By not taking sides, China has established, developed, and maintained friendships with all the region’s belligerents, carefully balancing its relationships with Iran, the Arab states, and Israel.

Indeed, China has multiplied its contacts and discussions. After having met with Israel’s ambassadress in Beijing on 17 October, its special envoy for the Middle East, Zhai Jun, undertook a series of trips, first to Qatar where the fate of some of the hostages was negotiated on 19 and 20 October, the next day to Egypt to take part in the Cairo Peace Summit, then on 24 October to the Emirates, and finally to Jordan and Turkey.

Signs of the times: on 20 November 2023, a delegation made up of the foreign ministers of some Arab League countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, State of Palestine) and countries belonging to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey), setting out on a worldwide tour in favour of peace, began its travels in Beijing rather than in Washington or Paris. The next day was convened a meeting of the BRICS+ (Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa, joined since the beginning of the year by Ethiopia, Iran, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia) entirely devoted to this war. Two days later a first temporary cease-fire was concluded along with a first exchange of hostages. Some observers saw this as proof of Chinese efficacy … which was perhaps an overhasty conclusion…

No question of falling into the US trap

Since then, no progress as been made. And Western leaders, especially those of the United States – blame the Middle Empire for failing to step in and stop the Houthis’ attacks on Israel-bound ships in the Red Sea. They accuse the Chinese of not putting pressure on Iran. Beijing for its part swears it has asked ‘for an end to these attacks’ which penalise its own exports. This is especially the case for the maritime shipping giant Cosco which has had to reroute its ships around the Cape, a costly deviation. However, China’s means of action remain limited.

Beijin is mostly blamed for not participating in the coalition led by the USA to bomb Houthi positions in Yemen, when in 2008 it had joined the Western front to fight the Somalian pirates attacking container carriers. But ‘we are not the sheriffs of the world,’ the former ambassador reminds us, ‘we obey international law’. Indeed, in 2008 there was a UN mandate, which is not the case today. And for good reason: Washington won’t get a green light unless it forces Israel to accept an immediate cease-fire.

More fundamentally, China doesn’t want to put the tip of a toe into that ‘quagmire’’, created and maintained by the United States, in Beijing’s view. A conviction which Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, translated in the following terms after a January 2022 meeting with his counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Iran, and Turkey:

The Middle East has a long history, unique cultures and abundant natural resources, but the region has long suffered from troubles and conflicts due to foreign interventions.6

And he went on to put the boot in: ‘The US plans for a Great Middle East have had disastrous consequences.’

Recalling what President Xi Jinping had said before him that’ there can be no security in the region without a just solution to the Palestine issue’, he added: ‘We believe that the peoples of the Middle East are the masters of the Middle East. They do not need a patriarch. According to Wang Yi,

Certain politicians and members of the American elite hope that [we will] repeat their mistakes and fill the ‘power vacuum’ that they have left. But China will not fall into the trap. (…) It will not seek to replace the United States.

So let the USA cope with the mess it has made! Right now, China is sitting back and counting the points of US powerlessness and letting the world become aware of the Western double standard when it comes to defending human rights. Echoing the opinion of many rulers, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Atan Sayfadi got a Biden emissary on the ropes when he snapped back: ‘If any other country in the world had done a fraction of what Israel has done it would face sanctions after sanctions from every corner of the world.’7

With his usual heavy-handedness, the Chinese ambassador in France, Lu Shaye, posted on X (ex-Twitter) a photo of the Gaza bombings and another of the crop fields in Xinjiang, as though the massacres of Hamas could justify the repression of the Uighurs.

Of course, Beijing cannot base its international authority solely on the failure of the Western camp. But today all it can do is multiply diplomatic initiatives, dialogues, and meetings, when others like Washington hold in their hands an infallible way to make Tel Aviv knuckle under: stop supplying weapons.

1“Foreign Ministry Spokesperson’s Remarks on the Escalation of Tensions Between Palestine and Israel’, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 8 October 2023.

2Press conference, Foreign Ministry, 8 October 2023, Beijing.

3Nikkei Asia, Tokyo, 11 October 2023

4This plan involves the end of colonisation, the full sovereignty of Palestine based on the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as capital and international guarantees In 2003, 2013 and 2021 the plan was refined and enriched with a fifth point dealing wth Palestine’s economic development.

5Alfredo Toro Hardy, ‘Why will China win the war in Gaza’, Unasas Foundation, New Delhi, 22 October 2023.

6Yang Sheng et Zhang Changyue, ‘China will not fill the so-called vacuum after US pullout: Mideast countries’ should control own destiny’’, Global Times, 16 January 2022.

7Claude Leblanc, « Pourquoi la Chine va devoir s’investir davantage dans la sortie de crise », L’Opinion, 22 November 2023.