December 4, 2023

IntelBrief: China Uses Middle East Crisis to Raise Its Global Profile

AP Photo/Andy Wong

Bottom Line Up Front

  • China has used the Middle East crisis to assert its growing influence in global affairs, including in the key conflict-ridden region far from East Asia.
  • Beijing sees the crisis as an opportunity to advance its efforts to undermine U.S. and European dominance of the global order.
  • The statements and diplomatic initiatives by China have not altered the policies of any key actors in the crisis, and Beijing has been unwilling or unable to rein in Iran’s attempts to expand the conflict.
  • China is reluctant to become militarily involved in stabilizing the region despite its dependence on the region’s energy resources.

Historically a marginal player on Middle East issues, China is exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to try to showcase its growing role as a major actor in global affairs, including on crises far from its traditional sphere of influence in East Asia. Beijing has argued for an immediate ceasefire and criticized Israel’s retaliation for the October 7 Hamas attack, but it has refused to directly condemn Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, sparking backlash from Israeli officials. China’s position reflects its founding ideology and foreign policy principles but also furthers Beijing’s objectives to undermine what it sees as U.S. hegemony in the region and the broader global order and to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the Arab countries with which it has long-standing ties. As have their strategic partners in Moscow, China’s officials have accused Washington of upholding a “double standard” in which U.S. officials mute their criticism of objectionable behavior by U.S. allies while highlighting the abuses of perceived adversaries such as Iran, Russia, China, and many others. Yet, China’s stances and diplomacy on the crisis have not had a measurable effect on the policies of any of the key actors in the conflict or on the course of the war.

In keeping with Beijing’s attempts to exert global diplomatic influence, shortly after the onset of the crisis, China sent its special envoy for the Middle East, Zhai Jun, to the region for talks to implement Beijing’s call for an immediate cease-fire and potential peace talks, according to state media. He held talks with senior officials in Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. However, perhaps demonstrating Beijing’s relatively limited leverage in the region, experts characterized the envoy’s trip as largely a “listening tour” to prove that China is participating in efforts to promote a cease-fire but without any expectation of achieving that result. The envoy suggested that China would defer to other multilateral and global actors to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza, saying that China will “support the United Nations in taking the lead” in providing humanitarian assistance to the enclave. Zhai’s itinerary did not include stops in several of the key actors in the crisis - Israel, Palestinian-controlled territories, or Iran. Neither he nor other senior Chinese officials have had contact with Hamas officials, some of whom are outside Gaza running representative offices in several countries throughout the region. However, Palestinian Authority (PA) Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki visited Beijing for talks after the Zhai trip, and the head of the China Foreign Ministry’s West Asian and North African Affairs department visited Iran to discuss the conflict, according to the Ministry’s We Chat social media account.

Despite the limited achievements of its early exchanges on the crisis, Beijing ramped up its diplomacy in late November. On November 20, Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the PA, and Indonesia, as well as the head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for a two-day visit to the Chinese capital, the start of the delegation’s expected tour of several world capitals. “The international community must act urgently, taking effective measures to prevent this tragedy from spreading. China firmly stands with justice and fairness in this conflict,” Wang told the visiting leaders in opening remarks ahead of talks, where he reiterated China’s call for an immediate ceasefire. His ministry cited Wang as telling the delegation during the talks that: “Israel should stop its collective punishment on the people of Gaza and open up a humanitarian corridor as soon as possible to prevent a humanitarian crisis of a larger scale from taking place.” On November 21, China’s leader Xi Jinping unveiled a six-point plan to end the crisis at a virtual summit of the BRICS nations. His plan called for a “two-state solution” to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian dispute permanently – a position that largely comports with that of Washington.

U.S. officials perceive that China has leverage over one particular party to the conflict, Iran, which has unleashed its “axis of resistance” partners in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen to attack Israeli and U.S. targets in an effort to weaken U.S. and Israeli resolve that Hamas be removed from power in the Gaza Strip. China, which in the past has sold Iran conventional weaponry as well as missile technology, has expanded its ties to Tehran in recent years, but the relationship still centers on trade and investment. China buys the overwhelming majority of the crude oil that Iran is able to export on a daily basis, purchasing as much as 1.5 million barrels per day during the summer of 2023.  As part of the U.S. effort to prevent the Israel-Hamas conflict from burgeoning into a regional conflagration, President Joseph Biden encouraged China’s leader Xi Jinping, during their November 15 meetings in San Francisco, to compel Iran to rein in its regional allies. U.S. officials assessed that China might be willing to restrain Iran in the interests of preventing global economic fallout from the Mideast crisis. Xi’s team reportedly told President Biden and his aides that China had “held discussions with the Iranians on the topic,” although without indicating China had received any Iranian commitment to de-escalate. Some experts assess that China has been unwilling to use the full extent of its leverage to compel Iran or other actors to change their policies because doing so could alienate them from Beijing and adversely affect the broader range of bilateral relations. China’s pressing Tehran to restrain its proxies, for example, could cause Iran to reduce its oil supplies to China. Suggesting that any entreaties by China had little effect, Iran has not altered policy at any time during the crisis. Its allies, particularly the Houthi movement in Yemen, have continued their attacks on Israel, on U.S. forces in the region, and on commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

As Beijing seeks to ensure steady supplies of oil from Iran, it also depends on the free flow of oil and commerce through all of the region’s potential chokepoints, including the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Yet, it is Iran and its allies that pose a threat to the free flow of commerce in the region, posing a dilemma for Beijing. In mid-November, the Iran-backed Houthis seized a commercial ship partly owned by Israeli business interests, the Galaxy Leader. On November 26, Somali militants reportedly hired by the Houthis attempted another seizure, this time of the merchant vessel Central Park. The USS Mason, deployed in the Gulf of Aden, assisted by a naval vessel of maritime security coalition partner Japan, responded to the Central Park’s distress call, thwarted the seizure, and arrested the five assailants. However, reflecting China’s hesitancy to become deeply involved in the security of the region, the three vessels from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy that were also near the Central Park when it made its distress calls, did not respond to the incident, according to Defense Department spokesman Patrick Ryder. “Supposedly, those ships are there as part of a counter-piracy mission,” Ryder said of the Chinese vessels. “But they did not respond.” A spokesperson for China’s Embassy in Washington said they could not immediately comment on why the Chinese naval vessels did not assist in preventing the seizure of the commercial ship. Ongoing instability in the Red Sea will remain a major issue, as just yesterday, the Houthis attacked commercial ships and a U.S. warship with missiles and drones, demonstrating continuing challenges related to maritime security in the region.