Some would say that China’s moral compass already broke in February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine and China did not condemn the war while maintaining its pro-Kremlin neutrality. But is neutrality the best Beijing can do now in the face of unequivocal evidence of inhumane barbarity by Palestinian terrorists against Israelis in violation of all humanitarian and international law? At this time, as Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Diane & Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Centre at the Institute for National Security Studies (INNS), says “there is no such thing as a neutral position.”
China’s lukewarm response
China was among the last of the major powers to respond to the large-scale surprise attack by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, on October 7th, triggering an all-out war with Israel.
On October 8th, the United Nations Security Council held urgent consultations on the situation between Palestine and Israel. China’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Zhang Jun, told reporters, “What’s really important is to prevent the further escalation of the situation, and the casualties of civilians. And what’s also important is really to come back to the two-state solution and the peace process.” China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated the same stance, saying that “the fundamental way out of the conflict lies in implementing the two-state solution and establishing an independent State of Palestine.”
What is noteworthy, however, is that even though China’s response through Zhang Jun and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “concern” about the violence, it did not condemn Hamas for its initial attack on Israel and did not offer its backing to Israel. Instead, the Chinese government re-stated its longstanding position about the need to comprehensively implement the two-State solution to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Israelis dismay towards China’s response
China’s statements were promptly derided by the Israeli embassy in Beijing as being wholly inadequate as Israel expected to see a stronger condemnation of Hamas from China. “When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, this is not the time to call for a two-state-solution. We believe that China as a superpower in this world, which many countries are looking to see the reaction of China, should have taken a stronger stand,” Yuval Walks, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Israeli embassy in Beijing, said on Sunday. The Israeli Embassy also posted on X, “We are grateful to all the countries that stand with Israel…we also hope that China can provide solidarity and support to Israel at this difficult moment.”
Chinese media: it’s all the fault of the US, anyway
The foreign news on Xinwen Lianbo on Monday evening in China opened with a first-hand report from inside Gaza by a Palestinian journalist specially contracted to work for Chinese Central TV (CCTV). The segment was focused on terror of Israeli bombing and Israel’s declaration of war, even though from the Chinese side “situation” or “conflict” was used to describe both attack and retaliation. Notably, there was zero coverage of casualties in Israel, only emphasis on killed and injured on both sides, and no condemnation of Hamas attack. The segment was further followed by shots of US Navy and Air Force and its meddling military might as the root cause of conflict. Blaming the US of meddling again, the scenes of China’s UN statements for peace were shown, as if putting the olive branch of peace in China’s hands.
Mirroring the TV news, CCP mouthpiece Global Times has similarly used Israeli suffering to drive a political point against the US. In an interview, Tian Wenlin, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said “Israel already outweighs Palestine in term of military might; if the US wants peace, it should take actions to calm down the situation, instead of giving one-sided support to Israel.” He added, that “at this juncture, mediation is needed more than ever, and US’ fuelling of the conflict will result in more humanitarian crisis. It may also result in a spill over of the conflict to a wider range.” As in the TV news, the Chinese state media outlet was quick to portray China in opposition to the US as the lighthouse of clarity, compassion, and peace.
China’s nascent Mideast diplomacy at risk
The conflict, however, is an unfortunate development for Chinese diplomacy in the Mideast. Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer in the Taiwan Studies Program at Australia National University and a fellow at the Atlantic Council, has argued that “while China has been widely critiqued for inaction over Ukraine-Russia peace talks (if not low-key enabling Russia), Beijing had tried to offset that pressure by making progress in the Middle East.” Indeed, in February 2023, China welcomed Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, the first Iranian leader to visit China in 30 years and, a month later, China helped negotiate a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Such developments were heralded as “China’s Diplomatic Coup in the Middle East.” However, the current escalation upends all that and as Moritz Rudolph, a researcher scholar at Yale University’s Paul Tsai China Center, said, it is “a reality check for China’s diplomatic ambitions and new role in the region.”
In sum, the most likely scenario, at least for now, that China with its moral bankruptcy, which is similar to its reaction to Russian invasion of Ukraine, will adopt a steer-clear approach to the war. The fact that China is already facing conflicts on numerous fronts close to home, including ongoing tensions with the Philippines over the contested Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, as well as the worsening China and India relationship, the expectations for China playing a constructive role moving forward on the issue are low.