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China’s Middle East policy – doing the diplomatic dance

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While all eyes are on what the United States (US) says and does in the Middle East, another great power is flexing its diplomatic muscles in the region: China. In its new posturing about the Israel-Hamas war, this mega-power is showing that it’s using this conflict in its broader rivalry with the West. By doing this, it’s proving this battle to be a fight between East and West rather than a small battle between Israel and Hamas.

This was made evident at this year’s biennial China-Arab States Cooperation Forum held in Beijing in May. The event was first held in Cairo in 2004. China has made it clear it wants to broaden and deepen its relationships with the Arab world and weigh in on the Israel-Hamas war on the side of the Palestinians, all while balancing its ties with Israel.

If it can annoy and challenge the US’s global position, that’s an added bonus.

“Twenty years since the first China-Arab countries’ ministerial meeting, the breadth and depth of co-operation today is almost too much to fathom,” said Lauren Johnston, associate professor of Chinese studies at The University of Sydney. “From brown and green energy fields to artificial intelligence and tech, digital currencies and finance, and collaboration along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – China’s global mega-infrastructure development plan. Agreements for industrial co-operation in Egypt, and discussion of how to promote a better circumstance in the Israel-Palestinian conflict are likely to evolve over coming months.”

“China has become more prominent in the region over the past few years due to increased oil buying and strengthened diplomatic outreach,” said Dr Cobus van Staden, the managing editor of the China-Global South Project. “Brokering the Iran-Saudi reopening in 2023 was its biggest success so far. It also staged a meeting between Hamas and Fatah in Beijing in April. In that sense, it’s becoming more of a factor.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the tenth forum in Beijing on 30 May, “The Middle East is a land bestowed with broad prospects for development, but the war is raging on in it. Since last October, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has escalated drastically, throwing the people into tremendous suffering. War shouldn’t continue indefinitely. Justice shouldn’t be absent forever. Commitment to the two-state solution shouldn’t be wavered at will.”

At the meeting, Xi said China supported a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. China “supports Palestine’s full membership at the UN [United Nations], and a more broad-based, authoritative, and effective international peace conference,” Xi said. He pledged almost $70 million (R1.3 billion) for emergency humanitarian assistance in Gaza, plus $3 million (R55.9 million) to the UN Works and Relief Agency.

In rare criticism of the Yemen-based Houthi militants, the Chinese called for the end of attacks on civilian vessels in the Red Sea.

The meeting adopted a hard-hitting statement, condemning Israel’s “aggression against the Palestinian people”, and decried Israel’s systematic destruction of Gaza. It called for the “end of the occupation of the territory of the state of Palestine” and condemned the US for vetoing a resolution that would have recommended granting this proto-state full UN membership.

Among the leaders of 22 Arab countries represented in Beijing were the presidents of Egypt, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. Bahrain’s king was there too. The foreign ministers of Algeria, Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Syria also attended the forum.

China has been in the corner of Israel’s arch enemy, Iran, buying its oil and providing diplomatic cover, loudly defending Iran’s drone and missile attack on Israel, and shielding Tehran at the UN.

But China is also pragmatic, and hasn’t let the Palestinian question get in the way of doing thriving business in and with Israel.

Said Van Staden, “The China-Israel commercial relationship is shifting, but more specifically because of the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act related to pushing China out of tech supply chains. More broadly, the two are happy to keep trading. Meanwhile, I think they both ignore China’s long-term support for Palestine, which is part of its wider Global South connections.”

Events like this forum help China to undermine US legitimacy and influence in the region, which is on the wane after it withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and Iraq. China’s new assertiveness coincides with the narrative from Beijing that Washington is a self-appointed bully that unfairly dominates the international system.

But, experts say, expecting China to resolve history’s most intractable conflict is both naïve and misplaced. “I don’t think the Chinese particularly plan to replace the US’s regional position or its role as a security provider,” Van Staden said. “Rather, the crisis has allowed China to strengthen relationships in the Middle East and present itself as a responsible actor in multilateral forums to a Global South audience. It’s difficult to say how that ranks as a priority compared to actually solving Mideast crises – the latter is complicated by a general commitment to non-intervention, which is interpreted differently at different times.”

  • Steven Gruzd is a political analyst in Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.

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