China Tests the Waters as Middle East Negotiator

China has stepped into the diplomatic spotlight by offering to mediate the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Israel has rebuffed Beijing’s overtures, arguing that China’s long-standing pro-Palestinian leanings undermine its claims of neutrality.

Nevertheless, analysts say Beijing sees the conflict as an opportunity to shore up its image as a leader of the so-called Global South, especially in the Middle East and wider Muslim world, and position itself as a superpower that can counter the U.S.’s diplomatic heft.


Mixed record

In testing its new role as Mideast peace negotiator, Beijing may feel it has the wind in its sails; in March, it pulled off a small diplomatic coup in facilitating the re-establishment of relations between two other regional adversaries: Iran and Saudi Arabia.

But similar efforts elsewhere have fallen flat, including in Ukraine. In that case, China’s offer to mediate between Ukraine and Russia was widely dismissed. Specifically, its claims of “neutrality” in the conflict were not seen as legitimate by the West and, more importantly, by many Ukrainian leaders, given China’s support for Moscow.


Diplomatic manoeuvring

Beijing’s deepening involvement in volatile Middle East conflicts may raise thorny questions for the Chinese government. For example, it has vigorously defended its highly controversial policies towards China’s own Muslim population — which the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights referred to in an August 2022 report as potentially constituting “crimes against humanity” — as a justifiable response to the threat of what Beijing sees as "religious extremism.”

Yet, when other major powers, including India, Japan, the U.S., and the U.K., all promptly and unequivocally condemned Hamas’s October 7 attack, which claimed the lives of more than 1,400, many of them civilians, Beijing was silent. Since then, it has remained restrained in the language it uses to describe the violence committed by Hamas.

But while China’s pro-Palestinian leanings may have made Israel more suspicious of its motives, they seem to be serving China’s interests in bolstering ties with regional powers such as Iran.