Where Does China Stand on the Israel-Hamas War?
The crisis may expose the limits of Beijing’s reach in the Middle East.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China releases an ambiguous statement as the Israel-Hamas war escalates, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wraps up a trip to Beijing, and Chinese President Xi Jinping gears up for a trip to Vietnam.
China Walks Tightrope on Israel-Hamas War
Three days after Hamas militants launched an assault against Israel, Beijing finds itself in a tricky position. China has consistently supported the Palestinian cause, due to its alignment with Maoism and liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s. In those years, Beijing armed and trained the PLO and other Palestinian militant groups.
This support shifted in the 1980s, as a less radical China drew closer to Israel, but the two countries did not establish full diplomatic relations until 1992. Since then, China has supported a two-state solution and offered itself as a mediator, doubling down on this effort since it brokered normalization between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March. At the same time, China’s economic and technological ties with Israel have deepened.
In the wake of the cross-border attacks on Saturday, China initially put out a bland statement, calling on “relevant parties to remain calm, exercise restraint and immediately end the hostilities to protect civilians and avoid further deterioration of the situation.” After a meeting with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in Beijing on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping strengthened the statement to condemn “all violence and attacks on civilians,” although it still did not specifically name Hamas.
China’s operations against the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, which it describes as counterterrorism, have affected its ties with Israel, too. In the aftermath of violence in Xinjiang in 2014, China actively sought out Israeli counterterrorism experts. Muslim leaders worldwide have done little to support the Uyghur cause, in contrast to their position on the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently supported closeness with Beijing—in part to demonstrate his pique toward the Biden administration in the United States. But Israeli intelligence is wary of the relationship with China, concerned about technological theft and China’s close ties with Iran.
In China, the public is somewhat divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the early 2000s, there was strong support within China for people in Muslim countries and the Arab world, seen as the victims of U.S. imperialism. But Islamophobia has grown among the Chinese public—with state encouragement—since major unrest in Xinjiang in 2013 and a terrorist attack the following year and as the state has adopted genocidal policies in Xinjiang. That has led to a wave of support for Israel in China.
Comments on the Weibo page for the Israeli Embassy in China were split between messages of support and attacks on Israeli policy, with some antisemitic posts mixed in. (Antisemitism has grown online in China, noticeably since 2009, when a book based on a conspiracy theory blaming Jews for the global financial crisis became a bestseller.) Almost missing from the conversation were two Chinese workers reportedly killed in the Hamas attacks.
Chinese state media resorted to its usual approach for uncertain political issues: blame the United States. News reports in China have consistently leaned toward highlighting Israel’s bombing of Gaza rather than the Hamas attacks, but they have mentioned both. State media has placed the biggest emphasis, however, on Washington’s so-called malevolent meddling in the Middle East. But the story leading the news in China this week has nothing to do with the violence at all; as usual, it has been what Xi is doing.
As the Israel-Hamas war continues, China’s attitude is unlikely to change, but Israeli attitudes toward China might. The optimistic neutrality illustrated by Beijing’s mediation efforts carries a lot less weight after the weekend attacks. China has also quietly supported normalization efforts between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have been upended by the Israel-Hamas war. As former U.S. National Security Council China director Ryan Hass noted, the crisis exposes the limits of China’s reach.
Anything other than full-throated condemnation of Hamas won’t be enough for Israel, but China taking a strong stance risks irritating its Arab and Iranian partners.
What We’re Following
Schumer meeting. The meeting between Xi and Schumer, leading a delegation of senators to Beijing, produced mostly amiable readouts from both sides and seems to bode well for the prospects of Xi attending the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco. That would mean a face-to-face meeting between Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden, who seemed to get on well when they last met in person at the G-20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, last year.
Chinese language toward the United States has slightly softened in recent months—at least from the top; aggressively anti-American rhetoric still permeates most levels of officialdom and state media. There is now debate among China analysts as to whether Beijing’s ongoing economic crisis will ultimately result in friendlier attitudes toward the West or whether the security-driven paranoia that has become the norm under Xi will continue.
Meanwhile, the United States seems determined to stick to semiconductor restrictions and other containment measures despite considerable business lobbying ahead of Xi’s potential APEC visit. The Biden team seems consistent in seeking to find a floor for the relationship—but not returning to the belief that engagement will fundamentally change China’s view of the United States as a strategic foe.
Xi’s Vietnam visit. Next month, Xi is likely to travel to Vietnam in an attempt to strengthen bilateral relations following Biden’s successful trip last month. The Sino-Vietnamese relationship is messy; although the two countries share a similar system of government, Vietnam has often been the target of Chinese imperialism and today looks to hedge its bets by courting multiple powers.
One outstanding issue between the countries is a population of refugees who fled Vietnam after a wave of pogroms following China’s failed invasion of the country in 1979. China resettled many of these refugees along the southern border but refused to give them full citizenship, preferring to keep them as a political weapon. That policy continues today, seemingly out of bureaucratic inertia, and China still hosts more than 300,000 refugees from Vietnam and their children, now mostly well-integrated into Chinese society.
Until 2005, members of this refugee population were unable to obtain hukou, the residence permit critical to life in China. Some local governments have allowed the group and their children to obtain Chinese passports, but most remain nominally stateless. Fully naturalizing the refugees from Vietnam as Chinese citizens seems like an easy win for Beijing and would send a positive signal to Hanoi at little cost to itself.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- What You Need to Know About the Israel-Hamas War by Daniel Byman and Alexander Palmer
- Israel Could Win This Gaza Battle and Lose the War by Stephen M. Walt
- Russia’s Crimean Red Line Has Been Erased by Casey Michel
Tech and Business
No Golden Week relief. China’s Golden Week holiday, which ended last Friday, saw disappointing economic results after hopes that consumer spending would get a much-needed boost. Domestic travel has risen slightly above 2019 levels but hasn’t seen the post-pandemic rise the government was hoping for; home sales remained down. China remains, in the words of Adam Posen, stricken with “economic long COVID.”
The crisis of economic confidence may have been a long time coming, but years of mistrust and uncertainty amid lockdowns certainly sped it up.
Country Garden’s troubles deepen. Property giant Country Garden, which has become the second face of the Chinese real estate crisis after the equally troubled China Evergrande Group, announced on Tuesday that it will miss upcoming overseas debt payments. That may herald a default on the company’s $187 billion in liabilities after six straight months of property presales continuing to drop.
China’s property sector seems to be going through a classic pattern of collapse: slow and then very fast. Evergrande’s recent abandonment of a debt-restructuring plan has led creditors to warn of a total implosion of the firm. The government is attempting to push credit to the manufacturing sector to stave off a bigger financial slowdown.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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