Foreign Affairs
China’s Strategic Masterstroke: Unveiling the Long Game in the Middle East

China is grappling with the aftermath of the recent West Asian crisis, adopting a neutral stance, refusing to name Hamas in its condemnation of the violence and reiterating its positions the text emphasizes the necessity for a two-state solution to address the Palestine issue. Its strategy aims to maintain traction with Arab states in the region, who are once again focused on the Palestinian issue. China has called for a ceasefire and resumption of negotiations between the two sides and dispatched a special envoy to the region.

China has emerged as a growing force in West Asia as the US’s interests have shifted to the Indo-Pacific region. The region is the source of much of the oil that China needs and is the main trading partner to most of the countries in the region. Beijing has good relations with all the principal states, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and Iran, and views the region as a key economic partner and an important geopolitical objective.

China has good trade and technology ties with Israel, but it knows that the Jewish state has a deep and unwavering relationship with the US. The US has deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Gaza region to prevent any potential third-party intervention in the ongoing conflict.

China has been fostering good ties with Israel and Palestine since the 1950s and 60s, with Xi Jinping welcoming Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Beijing for a state visit and offering to mediate on the Israel-Palestine issue. He called for a large-scale, authoritative, and influential international peace conference to resolve the issue. Xi also invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit China, but the Gaza war has upended plans.

China is trying to portray itself as a neutral power and a peacemaker in the region. China’s Special Envoy on Middle East Affairs, Zhai Zhun, has said that China would like to coordinate with Egypt to work out a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, focusing on implementing a two-state solution. Zhai Zhun is scheduled to visit the region this week to implement Chinese plans.

However, the growing conflict has compelled China to take a more forward stand in support of the Arabs. Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, told Saudi counterpart, Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, that Israel’s actions in Gaza have gone beyond self-defense and should heed the call of the international community and the Secretary General of the United Nations are being called upon to cease their collective punishment of the people of Gaza.

In a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Wang called for a ceasefire and urgent action by the UN Security Council, urging major powers to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table to prevent further humanitarian disaster. China’s involvement in the current war indicates its longer-term strategy for the region, as it played a key role in bringing Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Iran into the BRICS grouping earlier this year.

This entry followed the entry of several Middle Eastern states into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and is part of China’s effort to translate its economic clout into regional political support for its global ambitions. Beijing has accumulated considerable geopolitical clout in the region through its economic ties and various projects under the collective rubric of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Three of its West Asian partners are also military partners of the US, which is watching warily. India plays a major role in the US counter-strategy, establishing a new geopolitical grouping, the I2U2, and a geoeconomic project, the India-Europe-Middle East Economic Corridor (IMEEC).

Beijing’s current role in the West Asian crisis is unlikely to be significant immediately, but its goal is to play for the longer term. The US and China have an advantage in influencing Iran, which supports Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, reiterated the US support for Israel’s right of self-defense and called for China to help maintain stability in the region and discourage other parties from entering the conflict.

Wang Yi emphasized that reconciliation between the Arab nation and the Israeli nation is crucial for peace in the Middle East. The Gaza war has upended West Asia’s plate tectonics and threatens to do so globally. The US and Europe are struggling to maintain control over the unfolding events, while Russia and China benefit from the developments. The extent to which Beijing can exploit this situation remains to be seen.

ChinaChina Strategic MasterstrokeChina's Strategic MasterstrokeChina's Strategic Masterstroke: Unveiling the Long Game in the Middle EastChinese President Xi JinpingIsraelIsrael-PalestineIsrael-Palestine ConflictMiddle EastPalestine