Israel-Hamas war highlights clashing visions for regional stability as China seeks alternative to US-led Abraham Accords

Can China’s focus on an Iran-Saudi peace plan bring lasting stability to West Asia?

Published : Jan 09, 2024 13:34 IST - 11 MINS READ

A Houthi military helicopter flies over a cargo ship in the Red Sea.

A Houthi military helicopter flies over a cargo ship in the Red Sea. | Photo Credit: Houthi Military Media/Handout via Reuters

On October 7, 2023, Hamas militants conducted an unprecedented surprise ground attack on Israel from across Gaza, killing around 1,400 Israeli civilians and taking around 240 hostages. The attack has been identified by some as the third deadliest terrorist attack in history, and the deadliest terror attack against Israel. The government of Israel retaliated by laying siege to Gaza, and conducting air strikes and ground invasions into the territory. Although some hostages have been returned, Israel’s offensive on Hamas continues and has led to the death of around 20,000 Palestinians.

The events that have transpired over the past three months have gravely disturbed the semblance of peace prevailing in West Asia for the past few years. The responses of the major powers to the crisis have certainly not contributed to the restoration of peace, and there are signs that the conflict may spill into the wider region and beyond. The US and the other Western powers have been supportive of Israel’s moves, albeit occasionally calling for restraint.

However, China, while urging a cessation of violence, has taken a stance that reflects a rethink in its decades-old neutral approach.

China’s first reaction, from its Foreign Ministry, expressed concern over the escalation of the conflict and stressed the need to tackle the root of the problem: the implementation of the two-state solution. Zhai Jun, China’s Special Envoy on the Middle East Issue, called the Israeli Foreign Ministry on October 10, three days after the attack, and a day after he made a call to the Palestinian Foreign Ministry. These initial moves demonstrated a subtle shift in China’s approach to the Israel-Palestine question, which became clearer with its subsequent statements and responses.

Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, on January 4.

Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, on January 4. | Photo Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP/PTI

China has been tight-lipped about Hamas’ role in triggering the current wave of instability. However, it has been critical of Israel’s retaliation in the aftermath of Hamas’ attack, arguing that Israel’s actions had gone “beyond the scope of self-defence” and insisting that the country should follow international norms. Xi Jinping, in his speech at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in November 2023, called Israel out without naming it, to stop the “collective punishment” of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Another feature of China’s approach to the conflict has been its attack on the US for adding fuel to the fire, accusing it of working to destabilise regional peace—presumably by supporting Israel.

Firm support for Palestine

When a delegation of Arab-Islamic Foreign Ministers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, the Palestinian Authority, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation visited China in November 2023, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed to them the country’s firm support to the Palestinian cause and said: “China will continue to stand firmly on the side of Arab and Islamic countries and on the side of international fairness and justice.”

Surprisingly, the date of their meeting, November 20, coincided with the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Palestine. Notably, Xi sent a congratulatory message to the UN special commemorative meeting in observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on November 30, pointing out that “Palestinians’ right to statehood, right to existence, and right of return must be realised at the earliest date”.

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In China’s official position paper on the conflict, released by the Foreign Ministry on November 30, Xi called for an “immediate ceasefire and ending the fighting, ensuring that the humanitarian corridors are safe and unimpeded, and preventing the expansion of the conflict”. He also emphasised that the “fundamental way out of this lies in the two-state solution, building international consensus for peace, and working toward a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement of the Palestinian question at an early date”. In this paper, China outlined a five-point proposal for the UN Security Council: implementation of a ceasefire, protection of civilian life, ensuring humanitarian assistance, enhancing diplomatic mediation, and seeking political settlement (two-state solution).

The paper stressed that “any arrangement on the future of Gaza must respect the will and independent choice of the Palestinian people, and must not be imposed upon them”. Evidently, here too China did not condemn the terror attack by Hamas on Israel. China has stretched its limits of neutrality towards the Palestinian side as far as possible, exploiting the UN’s resolutions on the Israel-Palestine issue in the process.

A position of anti-Western neutrality

Some observers have labelled China’s position as “anti-Western neutrality”. Understandably, China does not share a very deep relationship with Israel, unlike in the case of Ukraine where the relationship has strong economic and defence components. China refrained from critiquing Ukraine even while supporting Russia and accused the US and its alliance system in Europe of precipitating the conflict.

In fact, China’s policy imbalance on the Israel-Palestine issue became apparent in June 2023 when it elevated its bilateral relationship with Palestine to a “strategic partnership”, a status it has not accorded Israel. Zooming out of the time frame, it is clear that China’s position has oscillated between ideologically motivated support to the Palestinian cause and realpolitik-driven friendly relations with Israel.

China has a long history of providing support to Palestine during the Mao era, including in arms, as part of its worldwide support to socialist, anti-imperialist, and national liberation movements. As China transitioned from the Maoist to the reform era, and from a period of animosity with the US towards rapprochement and economic partnership, it started adopting a more nuanced and balanced approach to the Israel-Palestine issue. The economic prospects of engaging with Israel were key factors in this shift, especially in the post-Cold War era.

Wang Yi (centre), Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, with Ali Shamkhani (right), Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State and National Security Adviser during a meeting in Beijing, on March 10, 2023.

Wang Yi (centre), Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, with Ali Shamkhani (right), Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State and National Security Adviser during a meeting in Beijing, on March 10, 2023. | Photo Credit: China Daily via Reuters

However, the shifting geopolitical dynamics and the opinions of the Global South led to China deviating from its established course on the issue. With the revival of major power rivalry in the past few years, China has displayed a tendency to take positions opposing the US in major geopolitical developments. The Ukraine conflict clearly demonstrated this. Coinciding with this imperative are China’s ambitions of leading the Global South. Solidarity with Palestine has been one of the key ideological features of the Global South ever since the Cold War (when it was known as the Third World).

Nevertheless, many countries of the Global South have today become more pragmatic and balanced in their approaches since the end of the Cold War. As the conflict progresses and the civilian death toll in Palestine rises, there is bound to be backlash in international public opinion against Israel’s actions, and thereby disapproval, especially in the Global South, of the US’ backing of Israel.

Also Read | How Israel-Hamas war will change West Asia’s political landscape

This is perhaps what China wants to capitalise on in its diplomatic approach to the issue. West Asia’s hydrocarbon resources, its geostrategic location at the crossroads of continents and sea routes, as well as China’s need to counter international criticism on the Xinjiang issue are other important factors to consider here.

  • China has adopted a less neutral stance in the Gaza conflict, leaning towards the Palestinian side and leveraging UN resolutions on the Israel-Palestine issue.
  • In recent years, China has tended to oppose the US in major geopolitical developments, reflecting a revival of major power rivalry.
  • While the US seeks inter-religious peace through the Abraham Accords, China aims for intra-religious peace, focusing on a North-South reconciliation between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Questionable peace efforts

After the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement facilitated by China in March 2023, a narrative had risen that China had emerged as peacemaker in the troubled region. However, a closer look, especially after Hamas’ attack on Israel, shows that China’s efforts remain questionable. Its criticism of Israel, its support for Palestine, and its silence on Hamas’ terror attack make it difficult for Israel to consider the country a neutral facilitator of peace. Israel had expressed its dissatisfaction with China’s criticism of its retaliatory actions against Hamas.

On the other hand, China’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang stands in stark contradiction to its support for the oppressed people in Palestine and impacts its credibility. The US had attempted to persuade China to utilise its good offices with Iran to stabilise the situation in West Asia. However, it is debatable how much clout China has over Iran in enabling this.

Blasts in Iran
The January 3 suicide bombings in Kerman, south-eastern Iran, which claimed nearly a hundred lives, is likely to have consequences for the region. With the Islamic State claiming responsibility and Iran threatening retaliation, 2024 may well be a period of instability in West Asia.
Iraq tensions
In Iraq, the armed forces warned of a “dangerous escalation” after a US strike on January 4 killed a senior commander of an Iran-linked militia in a Baghdad security headquarters. The Iraqi government is now forming a panel to prepare to end the mission of the US-led international coalition in Iraq.
Houthis warned
More than a dozen countries warned the Iran-backed Houthi group in Yemen against continuing attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, which have disrupted global commerce and triggered a build-up of Western naval power in the area. The US and its allies are now considering military strikes.
Expanding oil storage
India is set to prioritise and accelerate efforts to expand its oil storage capacity due to escalating geopolitical risks and an anticipated surge in refining capacity, according to a parliamentary panel report and industry analysts. The move is prompted by India’s vulnerability to energy supply chain disruptions.

Moreover, even after the Houthi rebels in Yemen started attacking maritime vessels in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait under the premise of hurting Israel’s trade, China has not joined or voiced support for the multilateral effort to safeguard maritime security in the region. However, its ambitions in relation to its role in West Asia go beyond projecting itself as a peacemaker.

Ever since the deepening of the US intervention in Iraq (2014), and subsequently with the Syrian conflict, the US has witnessed an eroding of its influence in the region. The shifting sands in the wider West Asia-northern Africa region seemed to favour alternative powers like Russia and China, who rode on the back of the resistance against US unilateralism and the spread of the Arab Spring phenomenon. The US attempted to regain its influence in the region by initiating a reconciliation between Israel and the Arab monarchies through the Abraham Accords forged in 2020 by a common opposition to Iran’s growing assertiveness.

The accords were further augmented by the I2U2 (Israel, India, the United Arab Emirates, and the US) in 2022, which focusses on food and energy security, and the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) in 2023, which could have been a competitor to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. With the revival of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the very spirit of the Abraham Accords has been challenged.

Competitive peace-building efforts

In this context, it appears that China has been contending with the US for geopolitical dominance in West Asia by focussing on a peace plan to rival the Abraham Accords. While the US attempt was to create an inter-religious, inter-ethnic East-West peace, one between Jewish Israel and the Muslim Arab states, China’s attempt is to pioneer an intra-religious, inter-sectarian, North-South peace, one between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

The present situation may well be a result of this competitive peace-building effort on two axes. The Abraham Accords, I2U2, and the IMEC have visibly generated insecurity among the militant and Iran-allied groups in Palestine like Hamas and Hezbollah, as they have sought to address the Arab-Israeli mistrust in the wider region, which has undercut the traditional Arab patronage for the Palestinian cause.

Also Read | China helps narrow the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Moreover, the accords have challenged Iran’s moves in the region; it is not surprising that after Hamas attacked Israel, the former received backing from Iran. While China’s peace efforts sought to reduce Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry, its outcome effectively pointed towards fanning the embers of Arab-Israeli tensions in the region.

Investigators at an apartment building where an apparent Israeli strike killed Hamas’ number 2 political leader Saleh al-Arouri, in a Beirut suburb that is a Hezbollah stronghold, in Lebanon, on January 3.

Investigators at an apartment building where an apparent Israeli strike killed Hamas’ number 2 political leader Saleh al-Arouri, in a Beirut suburb that is a Hezbollah stronghold, in Lebanon, on January 3. | Photo Credit: Hussein Malla/AP

Nevertheless, it can be seen that initiatives like the Abraham Accords, I2U2, and IMEC have dovetailed with the long-term mutual and strategic interests of all parties. The Gulf Arab states have primarily been on a path to reorient themselves away from the hydrocarbon economy towards a green, sustainable, and technology-centric future, and a relatively more open sociopolitical system. The United Arab Emirates has already taken the lead in this regard, and Saudi Arabia is catching up fast. This vision is congruent with Israel’s technology and potential for economic and security cooperation.

An opportunity to ease tensions

Moreover, Hamas, which has been at the forefront of the offensive against Israel, represents the voice of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Islamic regional movement that is an ideological foe of most of the Gulf Arab regimes. Meanwhile, the China-brokered Iran-Saudi rapprochement seems to be more of a short-term move, at least from the perspective of the two regional rivals. For China, it was a big boost to its image in the region, while for Saudi Arabia and Iran, it was a chance to ease rising tensions.

The deal offered Saudi Arabia an immediate chance to extricate itself from the prolonged fighting against Iran-allied Houthi forces in Yemen so that it could focus more on its own long-term development vision. Saudi Arabia clearly knows that by reinventing itself it can not only retain its trajectory of prosperity, but also enhance its strength relative to Iran in the long term. Cooperation with regional countries like Israel, especially in sectors like trade, connectivity and technology becomes crucial in this milieu. Therefore, in all likelihood, the spirit of the Abraham Accords may suffer a short and temporary setback but not without an eventual rebound.

China’s Ambassador to the UN Dai Bing speaks on the day of a vote on a proposal to demand that Israel and Hamas allow aid access to the Gaza Strip, at the UN headquarters in New York, on December 22, 2023.

China’s Ambassador to the UN Dai Bing speaks on the day of a vote on a proposal to demand that Israel and Hamas allow aid access to the Gaza Strip, at the UN headquarters in New York, on December 22, 2023. | Photo Credit: David Dee Delgado/Reuters

China’s regional and global ambitions vis-à-vis the US seem to have motivated it to support moves to derail the growing convergence between Israel and the majority of the Arab states. However, China’s current regional strategy may not offer it anything more than instant gratification as it fails to resonate fully with the long-term strategies of the major regional actors. It is important to emphasise that India has deep as well as immediate stakes in the ongoing developments due to its key roles in both I2U2 and IMEC through which it can reap long-term benefits.

China’s moves in the region, as observed, can hardly run in favour of these initiatives. India’s long-term strategy at this time of flux is to work towards facilitating peace and stability in the region, and to ensure that the regional players remain favourable to India.

Anand V. is an Assistant Professor (Senior Scale) at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education’s Department of Geopolitics and International Relations. The views expressed here are personal.

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