China angles for Gaza mediation role to expand influence in Middle East

China angles for Gaza mediation role to expand influence in Middle East

Xi Jinping, sensing a diplomatic opening, is stepping up China’s intervention in the Middle East crisis, issuing a joint statement with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to urge Israel not to go ahead with an offensive in Rafah.

The rare moment of Sino-European synergy is the latest effort by China to make its diplomatic mark in a region in which it has deep economic interests, but more shallow diplomatic moorings.

Beijing’s primary initiative is to try to effect a reconciliation between the two main Palestinian factions, the secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas and it hosted talks between the two groups last week. Palestinian unity is seen by China, as it has by Gulf states too, as a precondition to a coherent plan for the administration of Gaza and the West Bank, on whatever terms the war ends.

The head of the Hamas international relations office, Musa Abu Marzouk, said in an interview on Sunday that he expected Fatah and Hamas to return to Beijing for a second round of talks shortly.

He also disclosed that Hamas had wanted China, Russia and Turkey to act as co-guarantors of any peace deal between Hamas and Israel, a signal of Hamas’s distrust of the US’s inability, or unwillingness, to ensure that its ally Israel abide by any ceasefire.

Although some have seen the relatively rare Chinese intervention as an attempt to usurp the role played by the US in securing peace between Israel and Palestine, China sees its actions as a natural extension of the role it played last year in ending the nine-year diplomatic stand off between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Many others, including Russia, Turkey and Qatar, have tried to negotiate a Hamas-Fatah deal since Palestinian elections in 2006 led to Hamas throwing Fatah out of Gaza.

China’s good fortune may be its timing. Fatah was left to administer the West Bank in a technocratic government supported by the west that has become woefully unpopular. Hamas may need to be a different entity after the war.

Senior Palestinians attended last week’s talks. Apart from Marzouk, the Hamas team was led by Khalil al-Hayya and Hossam Badran, while two members of Fatah’s central committee, Azzam al-Ahmad and Samir al-Rifai, represented the Palestinian Authority’s ageing president, Mahmoud Abbas. No member of the new PA government, led by prime minister Muhammad Mustafa, attended, showing true political power remains with the old guard.

But there are many hurdles, and China will not invest energy if both sides continue to denigrate one another. Just before the talks Hamas attacked the new PA government, saying it was not consulted about its composition. Fatah hit back saying it had not been consulted on the Hamas attack on Israel.

Chinese official channels have criticised those that question its credentials in the Middle East, pointing out that in five days of secret talks in March 2023 it played the final broker role in the surprise reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The agreement turned the traditional binary idea in the Gulf – that the “US does security and China does the economy” – on its head, according to Jonathan Fulton, a non-resident senior fellow at Atlantic Council.

Just as the US could have an Asian pivot, so China argued it was legitimate to have a Middle East pivot.

That is reflected in the number of Middle East conferences being held in Beijing. But Fulton questions whether China has yet developed a sufficiently deep pool of expertise to become a major player. “Its area studies programmes in universities and thinktanks are not nearly as developed as their US counterparts,” he said.

Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University, speaking to Global Times, was typical in arguing the region needed a change from the negative role played by the US. He said: “Instead of solving the problem, the US usually creates the problem, then formulates a policy based on its own interests and needs, taking the lives and wellbeing of the people in the Middle East as the tool to solidify its hegemony. All parties in the Middle East know the US’s intentions very well, but they didn’t have other choices before. Now, with China’s mediation, they naturally will choose the proposal for peace.”

The Gaza conflict has also led to a hardening of China’s pro-Palestinian approach to the Middle East, partly because of the impact of the conflict on the Chinese economy. Within a week of the Hamas attack on 7 October the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, described Israel’s bombardment of civilians in Gaza as actions that “have gone beyond the scope of self-defence” in a call with the Saudi foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud.

Xi himself waited until after the Third Belt and Road Forum in late October to comment on the crisis, reiterating China’s long-held position that a two-state solution should be implemented and calling for a humanitarian corridor to allow aid into the Gaza Strip.

In February, Beijing urged the international court of justice (ICJ) to give its opinion on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, which it said was illegal.

It has also rejected US requests to put pressure on the Houthis in Yemen to cease attacking shipping in the Red Sea, even though much of Chinese trade with the Middle East goes through such lanes. Instead, the Chinese container shipping line Cosco and Hong Kong-based OOCL have suspended trade with Israel.

While calling for restraint, Beijing broadly took Iran’s side over the Israeli attack on its Damascus consulate. One of its greatest concerns was that the Saudi-Iran pact would collapse if Riyadh felt obliged to counter Iranian attacks on Israel.

The recent Chinese diplomatic drift away from Israel is not only driven by politics. It may reflect a longer term slowdown in trade with Israel, US demands that Israel impose controls on Chinese inbound investment in the tech and security sector and the Israeli public’s disenchantment with China.

Specialists that follow China in the Middle East said a lively debate was now under way among scholars as to whether it should become a major site for great power competition, or if China should stick to its role of fostering strong economic links with Gulf states.

Giving evidence last month to Congress, Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said China was set to stay in the Middle East. It has been a net importer of oil since 1993 and about half has come from the Middle East, he said, meaning China had become reliant on a region the US continues to dominate.

“Several years ago, the Indian minister of external affairs S Jaishankar said, ‘For the last 20 years, the US has been fighting but not winning in the Middle East, and China has been winning but not fighting in the Middle East’,” he told Congress. “That seems accurate to me. To a remarkable degree, there is great regional enthusiasm for stronger relationship.”

He added: “The great success of China in the Middle East has been the Belt and Road Initiative … it persuaded state after state in the Middle East that it could play a central role in the geostrategic calculations of the world’s greatest rising power, with each imagining the growing power it would accrue as a result.”

Niu Xinchun, director of the China-Arab Research Institute at Ningxia University, claims the Middle East itself now sees the advantage of having an alternative to a hegemonic Washington. Gulf states are now heavily investing in China “driven by their desire to free themselves from oil dependence, wean themselves off their over-dependence on the US, and embrace emerging countries, emerging industries and emerging markets”, he said.

The US is resisting this trend, for instance challenging Middle Eastern countries not to invest in Huawei. One of the factors driving Washington’s desire to strike normalisation deals with Saudi Arabia is the belief that it can help to marginalise Chinese influence in sensitive security and energy sectors. “The Saudis are determined to resist that price and keep themselves free to make their own choices,” one observer said.

All in all, it is a long way from 2017, when Benjamin Netanyahu went to Beijing to hail “a marriage made in heaven”.