Alienating Israel, however, could come at high cost for China. It has lucrative tech-sector trade with the country, often importing more than $1 billion worth of semiconductors a year from Israel. And Beijing’s efforts to position itself as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians may now be damaged.
China is “clearly afraid of offending the Arab side. And they sort of bow their hat lightly in the direction of the Israelis but being very careful while they do so,” said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria now with the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. “The Israelis will tend to look at that and say this is not a neutral arbitrator.”
In its first statement following the strikes, China urged both sides to “exercise restraint” and embrace a “two-state solution.”
In response, Yuval Waks, a senior official at the Israeli embassy in Beijing, expressed disappointment because he said Israel saw China as a friend, according to a Reuters report.
“When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution,” Waks told reporters Sunday.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who was leading a congressional delegation to China starting over the weekend, lectured Chinese leader Xi Jinping for going too soft on Hamas.
Beijing does seem to be trying to balance its message to avoid the worst blowback. Not long after Schumer expressed his frustration to Xi, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement more explicitly condemning harm to civilians.
Still, the Chinese approach overall has been far more neutral than the stance the United States and some European nations have taken, which has largely focused on sympathy and support for Israel. That aligns with Beijing’s long-standing policy of “non-interference” in other countries’ internal affairs.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington declined to comment on this story.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, meanwhile, released initial statements essentially blaming Israeli policies for the Hamas attack — a reflection of the strong pro-Palestinian feelings among their populations.
Beijing, though, is likely thinking years ahead and far beyond the Middle East.
Countries in Africa, Latin America and beyond often see Palestinians’ struggle against occupation — or what a U.N. expert has declared is an Israeli “apartheid” policy — as akin to fighting colonization.
South Africa, for instance, issued a statement declaring that “the new conflagration has arisen from the continued illegal occupation of Palestine land, continued settlement expansion, desecration of the Al Aqsa Mosque and Christian holy sites, and ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people.”
Beijing’s rhetoric could pull it close to nations like these that have already benefited from Chinese infrastructure investment, from highways to massive new ports.
In the days since the Hamas strikes, Chinese state media also has painted the United States as a regional villain plotting “behind the scenes” of Middle East conflicts and hinted at a Beijing-led role in ending them.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict “requires a more powerful collective effort from the international community to change it,” the state-backed Global Times tabloid said Sunday.
In some ways, it fits into the opportunistic way China is approaching world crises in its push for superpower status. Xi in particular is seeking more support for his Global Security Initiative, an alternative vision to the U.S.-led international order.
“Increasingly [in] all of these sorts of issues, when there is a conflict somewhere in the world, China sees it as an opportunity to try to undermine the United States — to try to take, essentially, a shot at the United States,” said Michael Singh, a former George W. Bush administration official with Middle East expertise.
Asked about the reaction from the People’s Republic of China, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday: “We were not entirely surprised by the PRC’s response based on their history of commentary on these kinds of issues.”
China has long been a supporter of the Palestinian cause. It was among the first countries to recognize a “state of Palestine,” and, in June, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas visited China, where he struck a strategic partnership deal with the Chinese leader. Xi used the occasion to unveil his own three-point roadmap to Israeli-Palestinian peace. (The Palestinian Authority governs in the West Bank.)
The Hamas attack may derail any serious Israeli-Palestinian peace talks for years. Still, China has had some success in other efforts to play Middle East negotiator.
Earlier this year, China helped usher through a restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Those two countries remain rivals, but both have historically supported Palestinian rights, and Iran in particular is a major financier and military backer of Hamas.
All of this comes as Saudi Arabia and Israel, guided by the U.S., had been discussing establishing formal diplomatic relations. Israel also has in recent years established such relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, a sign of the region’s evolving politics.
Ultimately, China’s messaging over the fighting that erupted this weekend reveals the weakness of its regional stature, said David Satterfield, a former senior State Department official dealing with the Middle East.
“The Chinese have for over a decade wished to present themselves as equal to the big boys — the U.S., the U.N., the U.K. and the EU,” Satterfield said. “But man, they’re playing third, fourth and fifth fiddle. Not because of being shut out — China just doesn’t bring weight to these issues.”