China sees Israel-Hamas war as chance to gain ground on U.S.

As the Israel-Hamas war has unleashed a growing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and roiled global politics, one superpower has claimed neutrality: China has called on both sides to exercise restraint and for the international community to expedite a two-state solution — distant goals in this fraught moment.

But other actions leave little doubt where China stands.

Its foreign minister has criticized Israel for the massive bombardment of Gaza that he said went “beyond the scope of self-defense.” China has never publicly condemned the brutal Oct. 7 attack by the militant group Hamas that started the latest war.

People in dark clothing carry a woman on a stretcher past a building

Palestinians evacuate a wounded woman after an Israeli airstrike in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, on Nov. 13, 2023.

(Mohammed Dahman / Associated Press)

And China’s strict internet censors have allowed a flood of Chinese-generated antisemitism, including tropes of Jews controlling finance and media, praise for Adolf Hitler and comparisons of Israeli soldiers to Nazis.

Experts said China’s aim is clear: It views the Israel-Hamas war as an opportunity to gain ground against the United States in the battle for influence in the Arab world.

“At the end of the day, it’s nothing to do with the Palestinians or even the Israelis,” said Mor Sobol, assistant professor of diplomacy and international relations at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “There’s a bigger game being played here. They are framing the whole conflict through the lens of a great power rivalry.”

That rivalry is sure to be on display Wednesday when President Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco. The Israel-Hamas war is expected to be high on the agenda.

The United States has long held sway in the Middle East, a principal power broker and often the only mediator Israel would trust, while maintaining some respect in parts of the Arab world. In the Middle East, the United States has long held sway as a principal power broker and often the only mediator Israel would trust, while maintaining some respect in parts of the Arab world. But in recent years both China and Russia have made inroads into the region, striking alliances with players anathema to U.S. interests, including Iran and Syria.

With the current conflict, what many in Arab countries see as the Biden administration’s lopsided embrace of Israel has given China a new opening. It has played to public opinion in Arab and Muslim nations with harsh criticism of its American foe.

A recent editorial by the state-run newspaper China Daily accused the U.S. of “adding fuel to the fire by blindly backing Israel.” Chinese officials have castigated the U.S. for voting against a resolution in the United Nations Security Council — which China is chairing this month — that called for a pause in fighting. The resolution would have also condemned the Hamas attack, but the United States and Israel say a sustained break in bombing would give Hamas a chance to regroup.

“It’s a very cost-effective strategy, trying to portray the U.S. as a biased actor,” Sobol said. “It’s just statements, but those statements score points with the Arab or Muslim world.”

In a show of its growing clout in the region, China helped broker a deal in March reestablishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, longtime bitter foes. Embracing the image of a global peacemaker, China had also aspired to mediate between the Palestinians and Israel, meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in June and inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Beijing for a state visit in October.

But since war broke out, China has adhered to a playbook that it has used in other global conflicts.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Beijing adopted what some analysts referred to as a “pro-Russian neutrality,” in which it claimed the middle ground while using state and social media to spread stories and commentary in favor of Russia.

Similarly, China has been guided by a philosophy of “anti-Western neutrality” when it comes to the Israel-Hamas war, said Ahmed Aboudouh, a Middle East and North Africa specialist at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. He added that China and Russia have been working together on Middle East policy, another sign of their growing collaboration opposing the West.

A deep distrust of Western powers has long shaped China’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Viewing itself as a defender against imperialism and colonialism, China was one of the first countries to support the Palestine Liberation Organization and in 1988 became one of the first to recognize Palestine as a state. In contrast to the United States and much of Europe, China does not designate Hamas as a terrorist group.

Its expressions of support for the Palestinian cause have been tempered somewhat by growing trade and investment with Israel, including in its high-tech industries.

“They have been keeping a very light touch,” said Aboudouh, suggesting that other Middle Eastern nations want China to take a stronger stance. “What we have been seeing from China is just statements and rhetoric, which is not enough, from the perspective of the Arabs.”

As for the antisemitism proliferating on Chinese websites, it is difficult to determine how much is officially sanctioned. Experts said that anti-Jewish conspiracy theories have flared up during previous military clashes in the Middle East and that they fit into the broader narrative adopted by the Chinese government.

“This is the national political correctness, and that entails being very critical of Israel,” Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, said on a recent episode of the China Global podcast.

Asked about antisemitism online in a recent briefing with journalists, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China’s laws prohibit the dissemination of extremism, ethnic hatred, discrimination and violence on the internet.

A man in dark gray suit and tie, sitting behind a placard that says China, is flanked by other seated people

Zhang Jun, center, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, gives an explanation of his nation’s vote on a draft resolution about the Israel-Hamas war in October 2023.

(Xie E / Xinhua )

China has defended its stance on the Israel-Hamas war as one of peace and in line with much of the international community, which is alarmed by the growing death toll in Gaza. The Hamas-run Health Ministry says the number of deaths now exceeds 11,000. Militants killed at least 1,200 in the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel and took roughly 240 people hostage.

At the same time, China is looking for ways to use the conflict to position itself as a global leader.

Upon assuming the presidency of the U.N. Security Council for the month of November, Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun named the war in Gaza — and a push for a cease-fire — as the panel’s top focus.

Gedaliah Afterman, head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy in Herzliya, Israel, said China could gain a stronger foothold in regional diplomacy by assisting in negotiations to free hostages or help bring more humanitarian aid to Gaza.

“China has the ability to talk to all the different players,” Afterman said. “If the Chinese push at the right moment, it will have an impact.”

And despite their differences, both China and the U.S. have a vested interest in preventing the war from triggering a wider regional conflict.

China imports more than half its crude oil from the Middle East, and a bigger war would threaten energy security for the country at a time when its economy is struggling. Such a conflict would also increase security concerns for China.

“At the end of the day, regardless of what narratives we see from China, it does seem to me that China’s broader interest in the Middle East is aligned with that of the United States,” said Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

That common ground could be the key to achieving a detente when the two leaders meet Wednesday.

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.