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Re-evaluating China's Role in the Israel-Hamas Conflict: Objectives and Limitations

08 Dec 2023
By Cheuk Yui (Thomas) Kwong
Mahmoud Abbas, the President of Palestine, came to Beijing. Source: N509FZ /

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) strategically positions itself to garner favour with the Muslim World, and among those who perceive China as a burgeoning global power capable of fostering peace and justice. However, despite this narrative, Beijing’s actions in addressing the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East have fallen short of delivering substantive contributions and meaningful changes. 

Since 1949, Beijing has espoused a vision of global order grounded in its core doctrine, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (和平共处五项原则). These principles encompass mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, equality, cooperation for mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. The CCP’s aspirations aim to present itself and its envisioned order—where China occupies a pivotal position in global politics—as an alternative to the prevailing US-led international order. Simultaneously, Beijing has been mindful of its global image, particularly among developing nations, which might bolster China’s quest for renewed global influence within modern Chinese diplomatic narratives, including the Three Worlds Theory (三个世界战略思想). In practice, Chinese policymakers have historically shown restraint and reluctance to engage in international and Middle Eastern affairs.

Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has shifted Chinese attitudes towards regional and global affairs, exhibiting increasingly assertive behaviours toward its neighbours and Western countries. President Xi, much like Mao Zedong, aims to showcase his foreign policy ambitions on the global stage, particularly in challenging the status quo established by the US.

Now, the Israel-Hamas conflict is providing Beijing with an opportunity to showcase its global vision and stance to the world and its citizens. Amid its broader objectives of advocating for an alternative global order and establishing its influence, China also aims for a stable Middle East that aligns with its economic and geopolitical interests. In particular, Beijing seeks minimal direct involvement from the US and its allies in the region’s affairs, intending to redirect the international focus from its periphery to the Middle East.

To some extent, China has successfully achieved some of its objectives. Its statements and calls for peace have garnered support within China and resonated across the Global South, deflecting frustrations away from China’s economic development and geopolitical tensions in East Asia. Chinese netizens within the Great Firewall have supported Beijing’s stance on the war, expressing solidarity with Palestinians while criticising Israel and Western “civilisation” for perceived double standards and warmongering. The support from its people feeds Beijing’s political legitimacy, alleviating concerns over social disorder caused by the existing economic challenges, geopolitical tensions, and debt crises.

Nonetheless, Beijing’s endeavours to address the ongoing unrest in the Middle East have been notably insufficient, primarily attributed to its restricted military capacities and domestic and external challenges. These limitations have restrained Beijing’s ability to respond effectively, resulting in a greater reluctance to facilitate substantial contributions, such as brokering cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hamas.

In contrast to the United States, equipped with a robust military presence, seasoned naval and air capabilities, and strategically situated bases in the area, China’s impact is impeded by its absence of similar infrastructure. China’s singular military base in Djibouti, primarily dedicated to counter-piracy missions in specific regions like the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden, highlights their restricted involvement and narrow scope of operations. This limited military footprint severely hinders Beijing’s ability to engage comprehensively with the broader complexities of the Middle East conflicts. Without more expansive and strategically positioned military infrastructure, Beijing’s actions in the Middle East will continue to remain confined, rendering their endeavours insufficient to delivering substantive changes or addressing the region’s multifaceted challenges, like the current Israel-Hamas War.

With these limitations, China declares a “neutral stance” in this conflict. As with others, China seeks to assert a position of moral authority throughout the conflict, portraying itself as a “responsible stakeholder” in global politics. China has consistently issued statements urging a cease-fire, promoting calmness on both sides, and urging all relevant parties to exercise maximum restraint. Simultaneously, it has reaffirmed its support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue. In belying the so-called “neutral stance,” however, Beijing has sent an envoy, Zhai Jun, to stabilise bilateral relations with specific countries and to understand the stances Arab countries have taken in the conflict. China also hosted representatives from Arab Middle Eastern countries in Beijing and participated in the virtual BRICS summit to discuss the Israel-Hamas war without presenting concrete and meaningful proposals to restore peace. Such a stance seeks to bolster Beijing’s relations with Arab nations and the Global South, strengthening ties with developing countries while safeguarding economic interests, notably among the Belt and Road Initiative. Concurrently, China aims to sustain a relationship with Israel to counter the isolation imposed by the US, maintaining ongoing military collaboration and technology exchanges. Thus, it presents that China wants to avoid enmity with any party while aiming to emerge as the primary beneficiary.

However, such a stance puts China in a more awkward position. While Chinese decisionmakers have been outspoken in public and have officially declared neutrality, Beijing has refused to extensively engage with stakeholders (particularly Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas), nor have they offered achievable proposals to the international community. Israeli officers have also shared their concerns over Chinese statements and Beijing’s reluctance to condemn Hamas and support Israel. Recently, Amir Lati, the Israeli Consul-General in Hong Kong, has penned articles and given interviews in popular media expressing his concerns with the rise of anti-Israeli sentiments in China.

Similarly, Muslim-majority countries are quietly questioning Beijing’s commitment to acting as a “responsible stakeholder.” Countries like Turkiye have shown reservations toward China due to political distrust, China’s close affiliations with Israel, alleged support to Iran and other militias, and apprehensions regarding the treatment of Muslim minorities within China.

Without clearly clarifying China’s stance, these concerns might impede Chinese economic interests and tarnish its global reputation. Consequently, these actions erode trust from all sides, diminishing the likelihood of China becoming the primary beneficiary in this conflict without incurring any costs. Such developments would also undermine Beijing’s longstanding endeavours to secure its political and economic interests in the Middle East.

In a course correction, China could embrace pragmatism to address both sides and help de-escalate the conflict. Such introspection will enable Beijing to craft more effective responses without undue concern about displeasing any particular side. Additionally, in pursuing peace and stability in the Levant, China, in conjunction with other political actors and states, could explore alternative proposals beyond the two-state solution, such as federalism.

Cheuk Yui (Thomas) Kwong is an international affairs specialist who previously served as a research assistant at the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He holds an advanced master’s degree in Middle East and Central Asian Studies from the Australian National University. For more information, you can connect with him at   

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.