November 9, 2023

IntelBrief: What is China’s Position on the Israel-Hamas War?

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to tread carefully in navigating the conflict between Israel and Hamas, stopping short of explicitly taking sides while calling for a ceasefire and a two-state solution — this follows a historical pattern of Chinese foreign policy related to the Arab Israeli conflict, that can best be described as a pro-Palestinian neutrality stance.
  • Beijing has prided itself on being friendly with all parties in the Middle East, and China’s interests in the region are both financial and political.
  • The war in Gaza significantly complicates China’s balancing act in the Middle East, and the current conflict will test Beijing’s political influence beyond economic ties and times of peace.
  • While China has generated criticism from Israel and Western countries for its stance on the conflict in Gaza, Xi and his government are attempting to juxtapose themselves with the West by portraying the government in Beijing as a responsible global player seeking peace and stability.

A month following the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to tread carefully in navigating the conflict. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, including President Xi Jinping, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and the PRC Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun have called for a ceasefire and reiterated the need for a two-state solution, but have stopped short of explicitly taking sides — a stark contrast to some Western countries that have publicly supported Israel’s right to defend itself and have faced criticism for being insufficiently vocal over the mounting civilian casualties in Gaza. Behind the scenes, however, the PRC has squarely picked sides, utilizing its historic “pro-Palestine” neutrality stance, which is complicating Beijing’s careful balancing act and increased influence over the past decade in the broader region. China’s pro-Palestinian leanings date back to the era of Mao Zedong and are deeply entrenched in Chinese foreign policy. The war in Gaza brings with it broader geopolitical implications not only for the region but also related to U.S.-PRC strategic competition. In many ways, China’s stance on the conflict is likely to win over audiences in the Global South and position Beijing in a favorable way to many countries worldwide that see the issue in a similar way, evidenced by recent votes at the United Nations General Assembly.

The PRC’s official position on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war started out cautiously but has subsequently become more pro-Palestinian over the last several weeks. In the immediate aftermath of the October 7 attacks and Israel’s armed response, the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued statements neither condoning nor supporting either side, calling for restraint and urging the protection of civilians. It took PRC leader Xi Jinping two weeks following the initial attack to issue an official statement on the conflict. Xi did not condemn Hamas’ actions (the PRC has not designated Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization, unlike the United States and several Western countries) and instead focused on possible political solutions to the conflict, positioning China as a potential peacemaker. A week prior, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a more hardened stance against Israel in a phone call with his Saudi counterpart, saying, “Israel’s actions have gone beyond the scope of self-defense.” Neither Xi nor Wang Yi has visited the region since the recent escalation in the conflict — a stark contrast to Western leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and French President Emanuel Macron, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s efforts at shuttle diplomacy. Wang Yi has primarily held phone calls with counterparts, including those in Iran, Türkiye, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Saudi Arabia, while China's special envoy on Middle East affairs Zhai Jun has made several short trips to the region over the past two weeks. Foreign Minister Wang has also met with his U.S. and Russian counterparts. The PRC has utilized the United Nations to call for an immediate ceasefire and to criticize the United States’ actions and voting record on the Israel-Palestinian issue. Both the PRC and Russia vetoed an October 25 U.S.-proposed resolution on the conflict in the UN Security Council. PRC Ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, criticized the resolution for not reflecting “the world's strongest calls for a ceasefire, an end to the fighting" and saying "it does not help resolve the issue.” This follows a historic pattern of CCP foreign policy related to Israel and Palestine, which can best be described as neutral yet leaning more toward the Palestinians than Israel.

Simultaneously, anti-Israeli posts and comments have proliferated on Chinese social media platforms — which are notoriously monitored and censored by the CCP. As a result, the official account of the Israeli Embassy in China had to close the comment section on its Weibo account. Some have even gone so far as to pose anti-Semitic comments praising Adolf Hitler. State-backed media have seized on the conflict to cast blame on the United States for the war and also further anti-Israeli tropes and conspiracy theories. PRC official accounts on X (formerly Twitter) have shared AI-generated images from the conflict purporting to be the reality in Gaza. There are similarities between Beijing’s actions and online commentary in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, where the CCP refrained from officially condemning Russia’s actions while the Chinese internet was inundated with anti-Ukraine sentiments, including Kremlin-seeded conspiracy theories. Similar to the war in Ukraine, the CCP has seized on the conflict in Gaza to denigrate the United States on the world stage and promote itself as a peace mediator.

The war in Gaza has, however, significantly complicated the PRC’s balancing act in the Middle East. Beijing has prided itself on being friendly with all parties in a geopolitically fraught region, including Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. The PRC’s interests in the region are both financial and political. Since 1992, when China and Israel normalized relations, trade and technological innovation have characterized the relationship. The CCP frequently hailed China’s role during World War II (although the CCP was not in power then), when China welcomed over 20 thousand Jewish refugees, as evidence of “a long history of friendship” between the two countries. In 2022, bilateral trade between Israel and the PRC reportedly amounted to over $24 billion. This is, however, overshadowed by the strong economic ties between Beijing and Riyadh, which reached $106 billion in bilateral trade last year. Moreover, China is the primary buyer of Saudi oil — a key component of PRC energy security. Concurrently, Beijing has long-standing ties with the regime in Tehran — the key supporter and financier of Hamas — including extending lines of credit in exchange for oil barrels to alleviate the pressure of Western-led sanctions on Iran. The CCP hailed the Beijing-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023 as an indicator that China was a peacemaker in the region and still very much views its role in the region as that of an interlocutor and a mediator. Through various international fora, Chinese government officials meet with a range of non-state actors from the region, keeping linkages and connections to a number of players. The current conflict will test the CCP’s political influence beyond economic ties and times of peace.

While the United States has staunchly supported Israel, including through military aid, the PRC’s more “neutral” stance is likely designed to shore up support both in the region and beyond. While the CCP has generated criticism from the government of Israel and Western countries for its stance on the conflict in Gaza, Xi and his government are attempting to juxtapose themselves with the West by portraying the government in Beijing as a responsible global player seeking peace and stability. As the humanitarian disaster in Gaza continues to deteriorate, the CCP will likely utilize the horrific images to further smear the United States’ role in the region. At the same time, while the PRC generally prefers stability, as it allows for economic opportunities, the CCP likely also sees the war in the Middle East as a welcomed distraction from the security situation in the Indo-Pacific. In the past weeks, tensions between the PRC and the Philippines have increased related to several marine time incidents around disputed shoals in the South China Sea — including collisions between Chinese and Philippine ships. Last week, during the Tenth Xiangshan Forum — Beijing’s premier military diplomacy forum — the Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission and People’s Liberation Army general, Zhang Youxia, said: “No matter who wants to separate Taiwan from China in any form, the Chinese military will never agree and will show no mercy.” Concurrently with the military forum, the PRC conducted yet another pressure campaign against Taiwan, sending 43 military aircraft and seven ships close to the island. Beijing’s rhetoric, diplomacy, and actions should also be considered within the broader framework of the strategic competition between the United States and the PRC. There are growing fears that, with the U.S. bandwidth occupied by conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, it could open the door for some of its primary competitors, especially China, to make moves that would be difficult for Washington to respond to in a timely manner, with most eyes looking at the South China Sea and elsewhere throughout the Indo-Pacific region.