A new pattern is emerging in Chinese foreign policy that bodes poorly for global stability: Chinese leader Xi Jinping pretends to favor peaceful resolutions to international conflicts while actually encouraging the world’s most destabilizing forces.
In the Middle East, Beijing has vociferously called for an end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas and claims to take an evenhanded approach to the belligerents. But the Chinese government is, in effect, backing Hamas—and therefore terrorism. Xi’s position on Gaza is identical to his stance on the world’s other major conflict, the war in Ukraine. There, too, Beijing has asserted principled neutrality and even launched a peace mission, while at the same time deepening ties to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
Beijing seeks to exploit both of these crises in order to undermine the United States and promote its own global leadership. To this end, Xi backs the aggressor, blames the United States for the resulting disorder, and then portrays himself as the more responsible peacemaker with better solutions to the world’s problems. China and Russia are in this game together: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had the chutzpah to call for a cease-fire in Gaza in discussions with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, while the Russian army was grinding up civilians in Ukraine.
Officially, China’s leaders have tried to appear impartial on the Gaza conflict. They have repeatedly made generic statements—for instance, that they “oppose and condemn all violence and attacks against civilians.” But Beijing has pointedly avoided condemning Hamas for the atrocities it committed against Israeli citizens on October 7, which touched off the current crisis. Denouncing that attack would be “illogical,” according to the Global Times, a news outlet run by the Chinese Communist Party, because the broader conflict was “partly caused by Western colonization and exacerbated by US biased Middle East policies.” Beijing won’t even mention Hamas in its official comments, asserting instead that the conflict is between Israel and Palestine.
China’s position has hardened against Israel as the fighting has intensified. On October 14, just a week after Hamas’s attack, Wang Yi stated that Israel’s response had already “gone beyond self-defense.” China’s ambassador to the United Nations justified vetoing a Security Council resolution, sponsored by the United States and calling for pauses in the fighting for humanitarian efforts, on the grounds that the draft was “seriously out of balance” because it didn’t address the issue of Palestinian statehood, among other reasons. The Chinese ambassador then called for Israel to lift its Gaza siege—without mentioning Hamas or demanding that the group release Israeli hostages.
Beijing seems to have little compunction about calling out Western hypocrisy while indulging in doublespeak of its own. Commentary in the state-owned China Daily blasted the “double standard exhibited by many Western leaders” who, for example, deplore Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine but supposedly fail to hold Israel similarly accountable for the suffering caused by its siege of Gaza. And yet China, the erstwhile defender of the rights of Palestinians, is engaged in widespread human-rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, where Chinese leaders claim to be prosecuting an anti-terror campaign, and Beijing has flatly denied the national aspirations of people, such as the Tibetans, who live in territories that the Communist Party considers integral to China.
The United States is, as usual, China’s real target: Beijing wants to pin responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Washington, to point to as evidence that the United States has lost its purchase as a world leader. The Global Times opined that the major driver behind the conflict was “the marginalization of the Palestinian issue by the United States and European powers,” a deficit that shows that “the United States and Europe have significantly weakened their capacity to uphold the existing world order.”
China’s leaders evidently hope that showing sympathy for Palestinians will endear them to the Arab world and bolster their effort to build support in the global South. But the complexities of the Middle East, which have bedeviled Washington for decades, are likely to also plague Chinese diplomats, who are relative newcomers to the region. Although support for the Palestinian cause is widespread, many Arab leaders also consider Hamas to be a terror organization. For example, the United Arab Emirates has criticized Hamas for the October 7 attack far more sharply than China has. Jonathan Fulton, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who specializes in China’s relations with the Middle East, told me that China’s effort to capitalize on the current crisis to sell itself in the region as the champion of all who have been oppressed by the United States has run up against the problem that “not every Arab country sees this the same way.” As a result, he said, “China’s response here has been a little ineffectual.”
China’s will and capacity to serve as a global peacemaker has been even more underwhelming. Beijing has previously offered to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, and it dispatched an envoy to the region after the current crisis erupted. Wang Yi told Israel’s foreign minister that Beijing “will exert its utmost to do anything conducive to the reconciliation” between the Palestinians and Israelis. But Chinese diplomats probably don’t have the pull to lure the two sides to the negotiating table. Even before the current crisis, the Israelis, close American allies, greeted Chinese overtures with skepticism. Now Beijing has struck an overtly pro-Palestinian position that one Israeli envoy has called “disturbing,” and which only deepens Israeli distrust in China’s ability to serve as an impartial mediator.
Xi does have relationships in the Middle East, however, and he could be doing more—if he wanted to. China was able to capitalize on its economic clout to broker a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year. Iran, much like Russia, relies on China for economic and political support due to its isolation from the West. Xi has raised Iran’s diplomatic profile, most recently by spearheading an expansion of the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—group of emerging nations, which invited Tehran to join in August. China also purchases nearly all of Iran’s oil exports, according to estimates from the data provider Kpler—a fact that Beijing tries to obfuscate because the Islamic Republic is under international sanctions.
Tehran is a significant player in the current conflict, as the major benefactor behind Hamas, Hezbollah, and several other regional militias that have threatened to widen the war. But Xi does not appear to have leveraged his influence to prod Iran into easing the crisis or at least preventing its escalation. Beijing could also work with Egypt, another close political and economic partner, to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, about which China claims to be so concerned. But it does not appear to have done so. In a recent note, Trivium, a China-focused research firm, opined that Beijing’s “hands-off” approach to international affairs “is appealing during peacetime, but can’t yet deliver security when it counts.”
China wants credit for stating the obvious—that peace is better than war—without the responsibility or entanglements involved in bringing that peace about. Worse, Xi appears willing to risk global instability in the pursuit of his geopolitical ambitions. The game he’s playing is a dangerous one—even for China itself, because the country depends heavily on energy imported from the Middle East. An escalation of the Gaza conflict into a wider regional war could be a disaster for China from an economic standpoint alone.
The same argument could be made of the broader dynamics Xi seeks to upset. More turmoil in the U.S.-led global order, which has historically underpinned China’s development into a great power, would undercut the country’s economic progress. But Xi’s policies toward Gaza and Ukraine show his readiness to torch the current order in pursuit of a China-centric world, whatever the long-term consequences are likely to be.