The current fighting reveals just how difficult it will be for Beijing to maintain friendships with both sides.
Recent weeks have seen Israelis and Palestinians engage in a conflict of the largest scale since 2014. More than 3,000 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza this past week, and for a brief period, several more rained down from Lebanon and Syria.
Israel has responded with force, including airstrikes on high-ranking Hamas officers, tunnels used to smuggle heavy artillery into the strip and weapons stockpiles hidden within the civilian infrastructure.
On May 16, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as the United Nations Security Council president for the month, chaired an open debate on the escalating tensions between the two parties.
The following day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told the press that “Wang Yi put forward a four-point proposal regarding the Palestine-Israel situation, pointing out that ceasefire and cessation of violence is the top priority and all parties, especially Israel, are urged to exercise restraint and stop hostilities immediately.”
While the language used in the statement may be subtle, the message was clear: “especially Israel.” Wang elaborated that “in particular, Israel should exercise restraint, and … put an end to violence, threats, and provocations against Muslims, and maintain and respect the historical status quo of the holy sights in Jerusalem.”
This singling out of Israel, when in fact, “all parties” are guilty of violence towards one another, is perhaps not surprising. After all, last year in July, UN envoy Zhang Jun told the United Nations Security Council that “China is a sincere friend of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people can always count on China’s support for their just cause and legitimate national rights.”
China’s investments in Israel
Meanwhile, the Israel-China friendship has blossomed over the past decade – or so the story goes. Back in 1992, when the two countries first established official ties, bilateral trade stood at a mere US$50 million.
Today, that figure has reached upwards of $11 billion. It’s not only trade; China has invested billions into Israel’s much-vaunted technology sector and has also emerged as an important partner for infrastructure projects within the framework of its global mega-infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative.
Israel studies have become a feature at universities across the mainland and more than 150,000 Chinese tourists visited the Jewish State in 2019 alone.
Nevertheless, it seems this newfound friendship has failed to spill over into the political realm. China consistently votes against Israel at the UN. Israel has failed to encourage Beijing to stop supporting Iran – a country that backs the activities of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and calls for the destruction of Israel.
Moreover, China refuses to designate Hamas a terrorist organization and has even once called it the “chosen representative of the Palestinian people,” even though Hamas took control of Gaza by force rather than election.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also reaffirmed China’s longstanding conviction that “the Palestinian question has always been the core of the Middle East issue.”
This claim neglects the fact that the Arab spring of 2011 had more to do with the internal social and political issues of the respective countries that slipped into chaos than it did with the Israel-Palestine conflict.
It also fails to capture the complexity of the longstanding cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has spilled over into neighboring countries and caused a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions in Yemen.
Nevertheless, China has taken the opportunity to use the current conflict to vindicate its long-held assertion that the Israel-Palestine conflict is the root cause of the region’s woes.
Normalization of ties
China’s attitude towards Israel and the Israel-Palestine conflict has its roots in China’s modern history.
Back in 1950, Israel was the first country in the Middle East to recognize the People’s Republic of China. China, however, did not reciprocate.
At the time, then Chairman of the Communist Party Mao Zedong sought to rally partners from the Arab and Muslim world to join its “United Front” against the “Imperialist West.” Accordingly, China came to sympathize with the Palestinian cause and adopted an openly critical stance towards Israel.
The Sino-Soviet split and subsequent normalization of relations between China and the US which began in 1972 slowly paved the way for initial contact between the two countries. Israel had recently emerged victorious from a series of brutal wars with its Arab neighbors and sought to sell some of its captured Soviet-made weapons systems.
China, with its existing Soviet arsenal, was a prime customer. Wishing to balance the Soviet Union’s influence in Asia, America sanctioned these sales.
The fall of the Soviet Union fundamentally changed China-Israel relations, paving the way for the establishment of formal ties just one year later. In 1991, with the Arab countries’ Soviet sponsor gone, then US president George HW Bush initiated the Madrid Peace Conference between Israel and much of the Arab world, including the Palestine Liberation Organization.
After the Arabs sat down with Israel, there was little reason for China not to follow suit.
Although China has significantly strengthened ties with Israel economically, it remains reluctant to alter its political attitude towards Israel and the Israel-Palestine conflict. China has some compelling reasons not to change the status quo.
‘One country’s obstruction’
More than half of China’s energy originates from Muslim countries in the Middle East. Additionally, many of these Muslim countries have publically supported China’s domestic policies towards Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Against the backdrop of renewed great power rivalry between China and the US, Beijing has used the conflict to smear the US, which effectively blocked efforts by China, Norway and Tunisia to get the UN Security Council to issue an official statement on the matter.
Foreign Minister Wang stated that “due to one country’s obstruction, the Security Council has so far failed to make a unanimous voice. We call on the United States to shoulder its due responsibilities, adopt a fair stand and support the Security Council in playing its due role in easing the tensions.”
Meanwhile, the US responded that it believed such a statement would have increased tensions, hindering US efforts at back-channel diplomacy to de-escalate the situation.
More recently, a presenter on Chinese state-run CGTN touted several anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on May 18 while discussing US support for Israel.
The presenter said “powerful lobbies” of Jews in the US were responsible for influencing and shaping Washington’s position on the Middle East crisis and that “Jews dominate (US) finance, media and internet sectors.”
These dangerous tropes are frequently deployed by anti-Semitic entities to vilify Jewish people. The Israeli embassy responded in a series of tweets that Israel is “appalled to see blatant anti-Semitism expressed in an official Chinese media outlet.”
It added that “the claims expressed in the video are racist and dangerous and should be avoided by any media outlet that respects itself.”
Antisemitic comments are somewhat uncharacteristic of China. While China has had no problem throwing Israel under the bus to achieve its political agenda, it has traditionally displayed a high degree of philosemitism.
It welcomed 20,000 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during WWII and has established numerous Jewish museums and cultural centers on the mainland.
Many Chinese people idealize Jews for their business smarts, history of overcoming adversity and many scientific and technological achievements, as demonstrated by the disproportionate amount of Nobel prizes per capita awarded over the years.
The peculiarity of the antisemitic comments coming out of China only reinforces the notion that it’s likely more about smearing the US than Israel. Perhaps its function is also to appeal to the radical left to rally support for China’s position.
Nevertheless, the vile comments have placed undue stress on the Israel-China relationship.
China has called for a peaceful solution to the conflict within the framework of a two-state solution. After all, a stable Middle East is critical to the success of China’s ambitious mega-infrastructure campaign.
Notably, the region has been called the place where the Belt meets the Road. In recent years, China has even been working to portray itself as a viable mediator in the conflict. To that end, Beijing hosted a symposium for Palestinian and Israeli peace advocates in December 2017.
Some analysts point out that China’s almost non-existent military presence in the region would hinder its ability to seriously enforce the peace it proposes to establish. Others point out that it’s more about China appearing as a responsible great power than actually being one.
The situation remains tense. While China’s policy in the Middle East has long rested on the idea of being friends with everyone, the current conflict is revealing just how difficult that will be for Beijing to maintain.