London Times

London Times

State of Affairs

China is Burning all its Bridges with Israel

China is Burning all its Bridges with Israel

By Derek Grossman

Desire to be seen as champion of Global South drives policy tilt.

Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at the think tank RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, California, and an adjunct professor in the practice of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California. He formerly served as an intelligence adviser at the Pentagon.

Last June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a picture of himself receiving a gift from Chinese Ambassador Cai Run of autographed copies of President Xi Jinping’s four-volume collection, “The Governance of China.”

This was at the height of tensions between Netanyahu and U.S. President Joe Biden over a judicial reform plan that the prime minister’s right-wing coalition was pushing through parliament despite White House objections.

Netanyahu noted that Xi had extended an invitation to visit China, underscoring the message that the Jewish state had alternative sources of support and need not rely on Washington.

A strategic pivot toward Beijing would have been surprising, but was at least conceivable. Israel was the first Middle Eastern nation to diplomatically recognize China’s communist government in 1950. Over the last three decades, the two nations developed close economic, technological, security and diplomatic ties, to a degree that set off some alarm bells in Washington.

Beijing’s surprising response to Hamas’ horrific attacks against Israeli civilians on Oct. 7 and to Israel’s reprisal campaign against the Palestinian Islamist group in Gaza have completely changed this picture.

Despite its own wide-ranging official campaigns against groups and individuals it has linked to domestic Islamist terrorism, Beijing offered no condemnation of Hamas’ killings.

Ma Xinmin, a Foreign Ministry legal department official, set out Beijing’s stance at an International Court of Justice hearing in February: “In pursuit of the right to self-determination, the Palestinian people’s use of force to resist foreign oppression and to complete the establishment of an independent state is an inalienable right well founded in international law.” Last month, Beijing even hosted a Hamas delegation.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry official told the International Court of Justice in February that Palestinians have a right to use force to resist occupation. 

Through the fighting since October, Beijing has put all blame on Israel, while Chinese social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat have suddenly filled with antisemitism. Noting this, Aaron Keyak, the Biden administration’s deputy envoy on antisemitism, observed in January, “Because we know the Chinese internet is not free, that’s a conscious decision by the Chinese government to allow that kind of rhetoric to be greatly increased.”

Similarly, when Iran sent a unprecedented volley of missiles and drones toward Israel last month, Beijing referred to it as an “act of self-defense” in response to an Israeli strike on an Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus. Speaking to his Iranian counterpart after the attack on Israel, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “Iran can handle the situation well.”

China’s stance appears to reflect both a desire to position itself as a viable alternative to the U.S. and the heretofore American-led order and its economic interests as the world’s largest oil importer. China’s growing clout in the Middle East includes not only a strengthening strategic partnership with Iran, but close ties with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.

Jerusalem has quietly signaled its disgruntlement with Beijing’s approach. In late October, Israel signed on to a joint statement of concern with more than 50 other governments about alleged Chinese crimes against humanity in its predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region. Last month, an Israeli parliamentary delegation visited Taiwan and met with President Tsai Ing-wen who commented, “Bilateral interactions have recently been very close.”

Polling before the Oct. 7 attack showed Israelis evenly split on whether they viewed China favorably or unfavorably. Today, the results would likely be far less favorable. Anecdotally, some are boycotting Chinese-run shopping sites, and the Israeli business community seems to be cooling on China while prioritizing engagement with India and Gulf states.

Should Israel become further estranged from China, it might seek to revoke the concession under which state-owned Shanghai International Port Group operates a key container terminal at the country’s largest cargo port, as Washington has urged. It could also put up new obstacles to Chinese access to dual-use commercial technologies, such as sensitive cyber capabilities, satellites and electronic equipment, which could be put to military purposes.

China’s tilt toward Iran and its allies may also begin to raise concerns with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, notwithstanding Beijing’s successful initiative to broker a diplomatic rapprochement last year between Riyadh and Tehran. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates opposed Tehran’s attack on Israel and are believed to have helped Israel to repel it.

Even if calm returns to the Middle East in the near future, Beijing has shown its hand. China is fundamentally opposed to any Israeli military operations, even in self-defense, as has been made clear in its demands for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and its vocal support for the establishment and recognition of a Palestinian state.

This is mostly because Beijing seeks to raise its stature as a champion of the Global South, especially as India appears to be a formidable rising challenger. China is also strengthening its partnership with Iran, in concert with “no limits” partner Russia, in an “axis of resistance” against the U.S. and Western democracies.

As with the Ukraine war, China’s posturing as a Middle East peacemaker lacks credibility due to its one-sided stance. Beijing cannot expect its rhetoric to be taken seriously when it is so cavalier with its principles.

Zhang Jun, then China’s U.N. ambassador, joins a Security Council debate in March on calling for a cease fire in Gaza.

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