Can China serve as a mediator in the Gaza war?
On 8 December, the US stood alone by vetoing a UAE-initiated UNSC resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
As it supported the ceasefire resolution, China greeted the US’ decision with a stinging rebuke.
China’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Zhang Jun declared, “It’s extremely disappointing and regrettable that a UN Security Council draft resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza was vetoed”.
Zhang Jun’s comments reflect China’s increasingly pronounced support for a diplomatic resolution to Israel’s war against Hamas. On 20 November, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and Indonesia to Beijing for discussions on ending the Gaza war.
"China is one of the few major international actors that has constructive relations with Israel and Hamas"
At the 22 November BRICS extraordinary virtual summit on the Gaza war, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for an immediate ceasefire, unimpeded humanitarian corridors and Palestinian statehood.
Despite these statements, China lacks a clear-cut mediation strategy, and it is unclear whether it can convert positive relations with all parties into meaningful negotiations.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, China could leverage its pro-Palestinian stance to strengthen its partnerships in the Arab world and dissuade Iran from instigating a regional conflict with Israel.
China's diplomatic role in the Gaza war
Although China’s diplomatic involvement in the Middle East is historically limited, Xi Jinping has paid greater attention than his predecessors to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
China’s January 2016 Arab Policy Paper enshrined China’s support for the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. During the May 2021 Gaza war between Israel and Islamic Jihad, China released a four-point peace plan.
Its planks were a ceasefire, humanitarian assistance, UNSC action and a two-state solution, and it featured criticisms of US obstructionism that resemble Zhang Jun’s recent comments.
In February 2023, China unveiled its Global Security Initiative (GSI), which included a call for the peaceful resolution of conflicts through dialogue. One month later, China brokered the Saudi Arabia-Iran normalisation agreement and began advertising itself as a prospective mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In April 2023, then-Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang spoke with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, Eli Cohen and Riyad al-Maliki respectively, about resuming peace talks.
Despite China’s lofty ambitions and high-minded rhetoric, its public policy proposals on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are devoid of tangible prescriptions. This lack of empirical depth has fuelled scepticism about China’s ability to serve as a mediator.
Jonathan Fulton, an Associate Professor at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University, aptly summed up China’s mediation capacity as follows: “China is not a serious actor on this issue. Talking to people around the region, nobody expects China to contribute to the solution”.
Nevertheless, China is one of the few major international actors that has constructive relations with Israel and Hamas. China is Israel’s second-largest trade partner after the US and has invested heavily in infrastructure projects, such as Tel Aviv’s Metro Red Line, as well as high-tech start-ups.
"While China's standing as a great power in the Middle East continues to expand, its ability to convert its newfound status into diplomatic leverage is unclear"
This economic partnership has rapidly expanded since the early 2000s, even as China has frequently rebuked Israel’s conduct during conflicts in the Gaza Strip. Prior to Hamas’s 7 October attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was planning a state visit to China.
After Hamas’s 2006 election victory in the Gaza Strip, China swiftly recognised its legitimacy. China welcomed Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar to the May 2006 Sino-Arab Forum and mulled aid provisions to the Hamas-led government in the Gaza Strip. Low-level engagement between China and Hamas persisted in the years that followed and has continued since 7 October.
Ali Baraka, who oversees Hamas’s external relations, claimed last month that China has sent envoys to Hamas’ political headquarters in Doha, Qatar and that Hamas would soon send a delegation to Beijing. If it so chooses, China could position itself to be a messenger at the very least between the conflicting parties.
China strengthens its partnerships in the Arab world
Over the past two months, China has engaged with Arab countries at a bilateral level on the Gaza war. China has used these engagements to showcase its solidarity with their criticisms of Israeli conduct.
On 15 October, Wang Yi told Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan that Israel’s actions extended beyond self-defence. In late October, China’s Middle East Envoy Zhai Jun embarked on a regional tour and promoted a potential ceasefire.
China’s active engagement with Arab countries on a ceasefire reflects its belief that US influence in the region is on the wane and that its pro-Israel stance is accelerating this process.
A May 2023 article in China’s state-run People’s Daily warned: “Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries are accelerating their pursuit of strategic independence, and the Middle East is ushering in a Tide of Reconciliation.”
Ibrahim Fraihat, an expert at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, recently argued that China could profit from declining US credibility as a third-party intervener.
The accelerating progress of multipolarity in the Middle East has strengthened China’s economic footprint in the Arab world. As Saudi Arabia postpones a normalisation agreement with Israel, which would have entitled it to US security guarantees, it has strengthened its economic partnership with Beijing. In mid-November, China signed a $7 billion local currency swap agreement with Saudi Arabia.
Building on Chinese Vice-Premier He Lifeng’s recent calls for stronger relations between Hong Kong and the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative chose Hong Kong as its first Asia gathering on 7 December. Three days later, Saudi Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih visited Beijing to discuss collaboration between Vision 2030 and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Although the UAE’s largest artificial intelligence group G42 recently agreed to phase out Chinese hardware and retain US-made AI chips, China’s economic ties with the UAE have experienced similar growth.
China recently renewed its $4.9 billion currency swap agreement with Abu Dhabi for five years. Ahead of the Cop28 Summit, the UAE completed the Al Dhafra Solar Project, which was constructed by Chinese companies. Iraq has announced plans to expand its crude oil exports from 100,000 to 150,000 barrels per day and pledged to substantively strengthen the December 2021 Iraq-China Framework Agreement.
"China's active engagement with Arab countries on a ceasefire reflects its belief that US influence in the region is on the wane and that its pro-Israel stance is accelerating this process"
China's efforts to thwart a regional war
If frictions between Israel and Iran-aligned militias escalate into a broader regional war, China’s economic interests could suffer. The World Bank warned on 30 October that oil prices could be pushed into “uncharted waters” if the conflict extends beyond the Gaza Strip.
China’s vision of integrating Syria into the BRI, which was reflected in President Bashar al-Assad’s 22 September visit to Beijing, would also be harmed by a major escalation between Israel and Damascus.
Due to China’s vested interest in preventing a regional war, the US has reportedly urged Beijing to serve as a moderating influence on Iran. While it is unclear whether China has complied with US requests, it has offered economic incentives to Iran and emphasised Tehran’s potentially constructive role in diplomatic outreaches.
During the first ten months of 2023, China purchased 1.05 million barrels per day of Iranian oil and Iran’s oil exports to China are currently 60% above peak levels obtained in 2017. As hostilities escalated between Israel and Hezbollah, Wang Yi called his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and vowed to coordinate with Tehran.
China’s ability to engage with Iran-aligned proxy militias is more limited. Although China recognises Hezbollah as a legitimate political force in Lebanon, its influence over the group is limited. As China consistently supported Saudi Arabia’s March 2015 military intervention against the Houthis in Yemen, it has few diplomatic channels to dissuade the Houthis from attacking commercial vessels.
China’s main means of containing the Houthi threat is through deterrence exercises, such as the joint naval special operations drills with Saudi Arabia that commenced on 10 October.
While China’s standing as a great power in the Middle East continues to expand, its ability to convert its newfound status into diplomatic leverage is unclear.
Even if Beijing’s Global Security Initiative does not extend to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rising discontent with the US’ pro-Israel policy could reap China major economic rewards.
Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he received a doctorate in 2021. His research focuses on Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East
Follow him on Twitter: @SamRamani2