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Israel-Hamas war tests China and India's diplomatic reach

October 13, 2023

Asia's two rising powers, who in the past year have tried to position themselves as geopolitical influencers, are taking different tracks in responding to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi hold hands in front of a rock
China and India have both increased international engagement in 2023Image: Indian PM's Office/AP/picture alliance

Both China and India have notched diplomatic wins in 2023, as Asia's two powerhouses work on building their own alternative avenues of global influence.

In March, China sat at the center of a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran reestablishing diplomatic ties, which was capped off by a signing ceremony in Beijing. The Saudi-Iran deal has been seen as part of China's ongoing influence-building in the Middle East.

India, which chaired the G20 this year, was widely considered to have pulled off a successful leaders' summit, with a joint communique signed by all parties despite ongoing divisions over Russia's war against Ukraine.

The terror attacks on Israel carried out by Hamas last week and Israel's declaration of "war" on the Palestinian militant group are a now a test for China and India's diplomatic ambitions.

China stays on the fence

China's response to the Hamas attacks has so far refrained from condemning the massacre of Israeli civilians, instead issuing an anodyne statement calling for "restraint" by both sides and the reestablishment of peace talks on a two-state solution.

Subsequent foreign ministry statements have vaguely condemned "any acts that harm civilians." President Xi Jinping has yet to publicly comment on the situation.

Israel urges more than 1 million Gazans to evacuate

China's state television channel CCTV has been emphasizing Israel's bombing of the Gaza Strip in its primetime evening news since October 8, with limited mention of the terrorist acts of Hamas.

The day after the attacks, Yuval Waks, a senior official at the Israeli embassy in Beijing, said Israel had expected to see a "stronger condemnation" of Hamas from China, which is one of Israel's top trading partners.

"When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state solution," Waks told reporters.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday that China was "willing to maintain communication with all parties and make unremitting efforts for peace and stability in the Middle East."

On Friday, Israel's Foreign Ministry said it expressed "deep disappointment" over China's continued lack of condemnation during a call with Zhai Jun, China's special envoy on Middle East issues.

China over the last year has tried to position itself as a broker for peace in the Middle East, including advocating a two-state solution in talks with officials from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which governs in the occupied West Bank.

 Mahmoud Abbas shakes hands with Xi Jinping
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Beijing in June 2023Image: Jade Gao//AFP/AP/picture alliance

In June, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and President Xi Jinping met in Beijing. A statement released afterward pledged China would "continue to support the correct direction of the peace talks and contribute Chinese wisdom and strength to the resolution of the Palestinian issue."

The statement echoes similar rhetoric surrounding the Saudi-Iran deal in March, when top diplomat Wang Yi said China would continue to play a constructive role in handling hotspot issues in the world and demonstrate its responsibility as a major nation.

However, Beijing's ongoing reticence towards taking a stronger stance in what is positioned to be a pivotal conflict for Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East raises doubts over Beijing's potential role as a regional peace mediator.

"It does poke a hole in the type of propaganda ... of China being this kind of massive player in the Middle East," Bill Figueroa, an expert on China-Middle East relations, told Reuters news agency.

China is also known to be risk-averse when it comes to taking sides, preferring a non-interventionist approach that favors building diplomatic ties on the back of trade and infrastructure deals

"China is very successful in a stable environment in the Middle East when it's possible to broker reconciliation agreements between Saudi Arabia and Iran," Jean-Loup Samaan, senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore, told Reuters.

"But when it comes to conflict management, that's a very different situation ... And I don't think China ever wanted to play that role," he added.

However, Yun Sun, a senior fellow and director of the China program at the Stimson Center in the US, said that the precondition for China's "brokering" the peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran was that the Saudis and Iranians were "in fact ready to settle and have peace."

"That precondition does not exist" between Israelis and Palestinians, she told DW. "I don't think it is about the limits of China’s diplomacy, but of anyone’s diplomacy. You can't pull a rabbit out of thin air," she said

Baerbock: Hamas holding Gazan people hostage

India's growing ties with Israel

While India has grown closer to Israel in recent years — via trade and defense cooperations, for example — it has long been a supporter of "Palestinian causes." In the current crisis, New Delhi seems to balance its position.

Directly after the attacks, India responded with a statement of strong support for Israel, condemning the terror attacks.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on X, formerly Twitter, that he was "deeply shocked by the news of terrorist attacks in Israel. Our thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims and their families. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this difficult hour."

On Tuesday, Modi again expressed India's solidarity with Israel in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  "India strongly and unequivocally condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations," Modi said in a statement after the call.

Modi has yet to comment on Palestinian deaths resulting from Israel's bombing of the Gaza Strip.

India's Foreign Ministry on Thursday reiterated its condemnation of the terror attacks, while at the same time backing an independent Palestinian state.

"India has always advocated the resumption of direct negotiations towards establishing a sovereign, independent and viable state of Palestine living within secure and recognized borders, side-by-side at peace with Israel," spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said in a weekly briefing.

Benjamin Netanyahu at the India-Israel Business Summit
In 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited New Delhi and spoke to a business summit Image: Rafiq Maqbool/AP/picture alliance

India recognized the state of Israel in 1950, but only established diplomatic relations with the country in 1992. However, ties grew stronger after Modi was elected in 2014, and he became the first Indian premier to visit Israel in 2017. Netanyahu would pay a visit to India a year later. 

Writing for the US Council on Foreign Relations, Manjari Chatterjee Miller, senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia, said this week that "Modi's statement shows how far the India-Israel relationship has come."

Although India still expresses support for the Palestinian cause, and New Delhi hosted Palestinian President Abbas in 2017, Miller writes that "India's geopolitical situation and domestic politics have changed."

"Not only does it have a close relationship with Israel, but India is today a close strategic partner of the United States, a staunch Israeli ally," she said.

"Stability in the Middle East is important to India because, in addition to its relations with Arab nations, large numbers of the Indian diaspora reside and work in the region."

Israel's ambassador to India Naor Gilon has said India's support for Israel is also based on India's own experiences in dealing with terrorism. And as India heads towards a national election, appearing tough on terrorism could be politically expedient.

The India Today newspaper reported that Indian military leadership is studying the attacks on Israeli targets in detail, including possible gaps in intelligence gathering that could have led to the failure of Israeli agencies in predicting the terror attack by Hamas.

With input from DW Asia's language services.

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia