China recently hosted a delegation of leaders from Arab and Islamic countries in Beijing, where its top diplomat Wang Yi called on the international community to act urgently and take effective measures to stop the devastating Israel-Hamas war amid a worsening humanitarian crisis.
In his remarks two days before a four-day truce between Israel and Hamas, Wang reiterated China's calls for an urgent ceasefire and said that Israelis must stop the 'collective punishment' of the people of Gaza and open a humanitarian corridor to prevent an expansion of the conflict. He was joined by his counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian National Authority, Indonesia and the head of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
The latest remarks raise an interesting point in China's changing stance on the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine as well as set the stage for Chinese ambitions in the Middle East, most of whom are also pressurising Israel to stop its attack on Gaza.
For years, China has maintained its support for a 'two-state solution' to the Palestinian problem, engaging diplomatically with both Israeli and Palestinian sides as a 'mediator'. However, China has once again attempted to line its views with the changing views of the Arab world, some of whom had established ties with Israel.
What has China said after the Israel-Hamas War?
Since the war broke out when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, China criticised Israel's retaliation, with Wang saying that it had gone 'beyond the scope of self-defence' and called on it to end the collective punishment of Gazans.
After being reprimanded by some Western countries, including the United States, for failing to condemn Hamas for their brutal surprise attack, China attempted to moderate its rhetoric by telling Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen that while it indeed has the right to self-defence, it should abide by international law.
It has offered to mediate the peace talks between Israel and Hamas and maintained that the 'two-state solution' was the only possible conclusion. It seeks the restoration of borders before the Six-Day War in 1967, after which Israel occupied a major chunk of Palestinian territory. This solution has also been proposed by numerous other countries, including India, the US, Pakistan and more.
It also reported that China was working with its ally Russia to realise the two-state solution. Both countries vetoed a US-led resolution in the United Nations that asserted Israel's right to self-defence and demanded Iran to stop exporting arms to militant groups, saying it does not include a call for a ceasefire.
What does China want?
It is not the first time that China's position has fluctuated in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Throughout history, China's relations with Israel have gone from recognising it as an independent Jewish state to supporting an independent Palestinian state.
The geopolitical tightrope comes from the fact that China has deep historic ties with Palestine and has backed a "sovereign and independent" Palestinian state since the 1950s. It has also extended support to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) as well as smaller militant groups.
It is largely believed that China, a key rival of the United States, wants to place itself as a mediator in hopes of expanding its position in the Middle East and countering American influence in the region, as more and more Arab countries have opposed Israel's action in the ongoing war.
Another reason for China's shift away from Israel is the steadfast support provided by the US to the Jewish country. China has previously accused the US for "adding fuel to the fire" by backing Israel and causing the deaths of thousands.
China seeks to protect its deep economic interests, such as the oil market and its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with Arab and Muslim-majority countries since the period of flourishing ties between the two sides. China's current criticism also stems from a rising international opposition to Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip, which have killed tens and thousands of Palestinians.
Although relations between Israel and China started well since the former's establishment in 1948, Beijing became increasingly pro-Arab in its support for an independent Palestinian state. In the Bandung conference in 1955, China openly supported the rights of Palestinians and even hosted a PLO delegation in 1965.
Hence, relations between Beijing and Israel remained weak till the late 1970s. After 1979, China began to conditionally support both Israel and Palestine to resolve the conflict via political negotiations. After Egypt and Israel established diplomatic relations, China supported Egypt's foreign policy and finally established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992.
Since then, China has attempted to maintain a delicate balance on the Israel-Palestine conflict by participating in the Middle East peace talks. It has developed robust trade and military relations with the Jewish country. However, China has also been at odds with Israel, such as the latter's military operations in the Gaza Strip that resulted in a large number of Palestinian casualties, although it adopted a more mellow tone of condemnation.
After Xi Jinping became the Chinese President in 2013, he invited both Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu for peace talks. China maintained its support for the “two-state solution” based on the pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.
China's stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict has changed over time, but it remained largely neutral, especially in 2008, 2014 and 2021, condemning violence rather than the perpetrators. On one hand, it supports the Palestinian cause and on the other, it cannot damage its relations with Israel.
China's suppression of Uyghur Muslims
China's stance in the conflict is also reflective of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' support of Beijing's treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Ironically, while China calls on Israel to end 'collective punishment', it has itself been accused of 'genocide' of Muslim communities at home through extrajudicial internment camps.
A recent Human Rights Watch report revealed that China's action on closing mosques and further suppressing Muslims have reached beyond Xinjiang to the northern Ningxia region and Gansu province, housing large populations of Hui Muslims - a process claimed by Chinese officials as 'consolidation'.
The United Nations labeled China's actions in Xinjiang as potential "crimes against humanity" - to exert control over religion and minimise potential challenges. However, Abbas said that China is actually countering extremism and terrorism through its policies, and spoke against interference in Beijing's internal affairs.
On the other hand, Israel has signed a UN Human Rights declaration that raised grave concerns about the situation of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, although it did not claim it as a genocide. Nevertheless, the small show of support for allegations of ethnic cleansing may have riled up China.