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Israel-Gaza crisis: China fears instability in Middle East

Mu Cui
May 19, 2021

China has long portrayed itself as a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause while also building closer political, economic and military links with Israel.

The region plays an important role in China's economy, covering about half of the nation's oil and gas needs
The region plays an important role in China's economy, covering about half of the nation's oil and gas needsImage: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

"You ask me about China's national interest in the Middle East conflict? I say no unrest, no escalation in the region!" said Li Guofu, a Middle East expert at the pro-government Beijing-based think tank China Institute of International Studies (CIIS).  

He told DW China absolutely needs a peaceful and stable world to be able to continue on its development path: "The unrest in the Middle East not only affects the normal life of the people there, it also has a very negative impact on the stability of the whole world, thus harming China's rise."

To put an end to the latest flare-up in the region, Beijing has been calling for an immediate cease-fire.

The People's Republic of China, which holds the presidency of the UN Security Council this month, has tried several times in recent days — together with other nations — to have a resolution passed to this effect.

However, the effort has failed due to opposition from the United States.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, meanwhile, reiterated the need for dialogue within theframework of a two-state solution.

China's economic interests in the Middle East

The Middle East plays an important role in China's economy and energy security, covering about half of the nation's oil and gas needs. Container ships transporting goods worth billions of euros between China and Europe have to pass through the Suez Canal.

"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core problem of the region," said political analyst Li Guofu. "As long as there isn't any just and long-lasting solution to this conflict, the unrest will not stop. That has negative implications for economic cooperation between China and many states in the region."

Israel, meanwhile, is a key player in Beijing's global economic strategy. Since establishing formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992, Beijing has nurtured close economic, technological and military ties, including the purchase of early-model Israeli drones.

The two nations also cooperate closely in research and technology.

Furthermore, Israel plays a significant role in China's Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese investors are taking part in port expansion projects, as well as in a planned railway line between Eilat on the Red Sea and Ashdod, located to the south of Tel Aviv. The railway construction project, however, is currently on hold.

According to China's Ministry of Commerce, China-Israel trade increased by nearly 19% in 2020 to about $17.5 billion (€14.3 billion), while commerce with Palestinian territories amounted to a paltry $100 million.

Verbal support for Palestinians?

Bao Hsiu-Ping, a Middle East expert at Taiwan's National Chi Nan University, says that officially China has always been on the side of the Palestinians, but Beijing's support is merely limited to paying lip service.

"Due to the Israeli government's active campaign in Chinese media and universities, at least part of the Chinese population is now on Israel's side," he told DW.

At a recent press briefing at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, an Al-Jazeera journalist asked why Beijing had not unequivocally condemned Israel's military action in Gaza. Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian replied, "Very few people think China does not clearly criticize Israel."

China condemns violence against civilians, he said, adding: "Israel, in particular, should restrain itself and stop using violence, intimidation and provocation."

Political analyst Bao does not expect the Chinese to play a more active role in resolving the Middle East conflict.

"China's interests there are focused on economic relations. Above all, oil supplies and shipping routes should not be disrupted. With regard to other issues, China will officially stick to its principle of non-interference," he said.

China's attempt to cultivate a positive image

Beijing stresses that its position on the Middle East conflict is based on values, in contrast to that of the United States. In China's view, the US stands ready to fuel the tension, rather than taking proactive measures to forestall the conflict between Palestinians and Israel.

The Foreign Ministry has also castigated the US for blocking a statement in the United Nations Security Council condemning the violence.

"The US has been isolated at the Security Council unprecedentedly and is standing on the opposite side of mankind's conscience and morality," spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, according to the official English translation on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website.

"China upholds international fairness and justice, while the US only cares about its own interests. The US position is dictated by its closeness with relevant sides," the statement added.

Analyst Li Guofu believes that Washington's position in the current conflict could jeopardize its goal of regaining an international leadership position. He said that it is also leading to a divide between the US and the European Union.

Li noted that this growing gap would be advantageous for China. "As long as Beijing continues to stand up for the basic rights of Palestinians at the international level, it will enhance China's image, while America's will be damaged."

Additional reporting by Tzung-Han Tsou.

This article has been translated from German.