May 6, 2024

IntelBrief: China Emerges as a Force in Middle East Diplomacy

AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura

Bottom Line Up Front

  • China’s attempts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah, the core faction of the Palestinian Authority (PA), represent Beijing’s intent to expand its political and diplomatic role in the region significantly.
  • By hosting the intra-Palestinian meeting, China is trying to present itself as an even-handed mediator with ties to all sides of the region’s several conflicts, contrasting Beijing favorably with Washington.
  • Expectations for the Fatah-Hamas meetings were low, but the two sides agreed to continue talking.
  • U.S. officials welcome China’s mediation as potentially helping the United States and its Arab partners finalize a ceasefire and hostage release in Gaza and calm Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

As China’s global profile has grown over the past few decades, so has its involvement in the Middle East. Until recently, the thrust of Beijing’s engagement in the region had been almost entirely economic. China’s officials repeatedly insisted the country, having observed the degree to which the United States and its partners had fallen into repeated quagmires in the region, had no interest in following suit by involving itself in the region's complex politics and security architecture. Despite its deference to the United States and its Western partners in the region on regional security issues, for decades, China has sold missiles and other military technology to buyers on both sides of the regional divide, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. China was a steady conventional arms supplier to Iran, as well as the main buyer of Iranian oil.

Yet, many experts saw China’s becoming embroiled in the region’s politics and security arrangements as inevitable, if for no other reason than to protect its economic investments and oil supplies. As the volatility of China-U.S. relations has increased in recent years, Beijing has also come to view the region as an arena to advance its campaign to undermine U.S. and Western hegemony of the global order and heighten China’s image as a superpower. China’s emergence as a key player in regional affairs was affirmed in March 2023 with Beijing’s mediation that finalized a long-awaited rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. China’s role in bringing that agreement to fruition demonstrated its ability to gain the trust of both adversaries and illustrated the drawbacks to the U.S.’s lack of consistent dialogue with Tehran. Hosting the signing of that deal not only elevated China’s regional role but also signaled that a heightened diplomatic role for Beijing could benefit U.S. interests by helping lower regional tensions.

The October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza provided China with another opportunity to contrast its approach with that of Washington. Beijing has been expressing support for the long-occupied Palestinians and criticizing Israel’s tactics that have caused massive civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. In recent months, China’s officials have ramped up advocacy for the Palestinians in international forums, called for a larger-scale Israeli-Palestinian peace conference, and insisted on a specific timetable to implement a two-state solution – positions that do not necessarily conflict with those taken by senior U.S. officials. In February, Beijing urged the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to give its opinion on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories and, subsequently, China has been pushing for a “State of Palestine” to join the United Nations, which Beijing's top diplomat Wang Yi said in late April would "rectify a prolonged historical injustice."

At the end of April, China demonstrated, again in contrast with Washington, that it could advance regional peace and security through its ability to deal directly with actors characterized by the West as terrorists and terrorism supporters. China has not labeled Hamas a terrorist group and has close relations with Iran, which Washington has labeled for two decades as “the most active state sponsor of terrorism.” During the last few days of the month, China hosted direct talks between delegations of Hamas and Fatah, the core faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA). The Fatah delegation was led by one of the group’s senior officials, Azzam Al-Ahmed, and the Hamas team was headed by Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior member of the group’s Political Bureau, which is based outside Gaza.

Since the 2007 forcible expulsion of Fatah officials from the Gaza Strip, the two factions have undertaken periodic discussions mediated by various Arab states, including Qatar and Egypt, but have been unable to agree to common positions, particularly on how to bring an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and the key principles guiding future Palestinian governance. The visit was the first time a Hamas delegation is publicly known to have gone to China since the start of the Gaza war, although at least one China Foreign Ministry official, Wang Kejian, met with Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar in March. As the delegations arrived in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters: "We support strengthening the authority of the Palestinian National Authority and support all Palestinian factions in achieving reconciliation and increasing solidarity through dialogue and consultation." The gathering followed a similar effort by Russia in March to bring Fatah, Hamas, and other Palestinian factions together in Moscow to discuss the Gaza war and post-war governance of the enclave.

The goals of the meeting supported more than a decade of work by regional countries and Arab parties to unify the two factions into a unified Palestinian political structure that could articulate a joint vision for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Yet, it was unclear how Beijing’s intervention could succeed where others had come up short. Suggesting expectations for the talks were modest, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian portrayed the meetings as exceeding forecasts, telling journalists the talks "…made encouraging progress,” including ”…agree[ment] to continue the course of talks to achieve the realization of Palestinian solidarity and unity at an early date." However tentative the results, the meetings served Beijing’s core objective of establishing China’s standing as a major diplomatic actor on high-level political and security issues facing the region.

Ministry spokesman Lin said both sides had thanked Beijing for its efforts and, in a statement at the conclusion of the talks, Hamas praised China's "supportive stance on the Palestinian cause, and its rejection of the genocide against our people.” Hamas noted that during the course of the discussions, Abu Marzouk also held separate talks with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Deng Li, who discussed the possibility of China enhancing humanitarian aid to Gaza. Perhaps contradicting Beijing’s effusive characterization of the convention, there was no immediate comment on the meetings from Fatah leaders.

Although many experts read Beijing’s foray into intra-Palestinian mediation as a challenge to Washington’s historic hegemony in regional diplomacy, U.S. officials supported the talks as an effort to stabilize a region in turmoil over the Gaza war. After the Fatah-Hamas meetings, the Director of Strategic Communications for the National Security Council, John Kirby, told reporters the United States welcomes any Chinese efforts that lead to stability and security in the region or secure a deal to free hostages taken by Hamas on October 7. Kirby added: "If that's the outcome - that China is able to help convince Hamas to accept this deal, get those hostages home - then of course that would be all to the good." However, neither China’s officials nor any Fatah or Hamas delegates to the talks indicated the issue of a Gaza ceasefire and hostage release had been discussed in Beijing. Kirby acknowledged U.S. officials had not had any U.S. communication with China about the intra-Palestinian talks.

The intra-Palestinian meetings in Beijing coincided with a visit there by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said he discussed with China’s President Xi Jinping and other officials how China can play a constructive role in global crises, including the Middle East. A de-escalation of the Gaza crisis, no matter whether such de-escalation resulted from China’s diplomacy, would benefit both China’s and U.S. interests. China’s trade with Europe has been adversely affected by the attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea by the Houthi movement of Yemen – attacks that the Houthis say are an effort to pressure the global community to bring about an end to the war in Gaza.