Xi wanted to broker peace in the Middle East. He wasn’t counting on a new war

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It was mid-August and Wang Yi was feeling optimistic. The Chinese foreign minister had just had a phone call with Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, where he told him he believed a “wave of reconciliation” was washing over the Middle East.

China had brokered a peace deal between decade-long rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had finished a four-day state visit to Beijing, and in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been gifted a copy of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s book.

China’s President Xi Jinping has met with the leaders of Syria, Iran and Kuwait in Beijing this year. Credit: Illustration: Aresna Villanueva

“We are friends closer than brothers,” Palestinian Fatah Central Committee official Abbas Zaki told Chinese state media. Netanyahu had told US officials he had begun planning a trip to Beijing this year.

Now as the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas fires barrages of rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip, kidnaps and murders Israelis, and Israel declares war, no other country can claim to have stable relations with the two sides and with their influential neighbours Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Beijing has spent years building up goodwill in the region. COVID-19 provided the perfect platform to deliver millions of vaccines across the Middle East, including to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Then the US withdrew from Afghanistan and shifted its attention to the Asia Pacific and Russia.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Dr Benjamin Ho from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies told Carnegie Global Dialogue Series. “The very fact that the United States was perceived to have left the Middle East allowed China to put its foot in.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, is greeted by Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, at Al Yamama Palace, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in December.Credit: Saudi Press Agency/AP

On the surface, Beijing has a significant diplomatic advantage. Its relations are founded on “non-interference”. Middle Eastern leaders can largely do what they want within their borders and Chinese investment will still flow.

“China comes in and says we will not impose our vision on anybody. People in the region like this approach to negotiations,” said Maha Yahya, the director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center. “No one is going to impose anything on us the way the Americans do.”

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad visited China in September. Sanctioned for atrocities against his own people by the West, Assad was given the red-carpet treatment in Beijing.

“China supports Syria in opposing external interference, opposing unilateral bullying, and safeguarding national independence,” Xi told the Syrian leader.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, right, and first lady Asma al-Assad receive a bouquet of flowers from a young girl as they arrive in Hangzhou, China, on September 21.Credit: Xinhua/AP

Dr Yu Jie, a Chinese foreign affairs expert at British think tank Chatham House, said China had created an image that speaks to every single party in the Middle East. “And that seems to be the perfect image that has been constructed to act as a peace broker,” she said.

The formula is a useful contrast with the United States for Middle Eastern leaders who have been condemned for human rights abuses by the West.

“This is the double-edged sword of Biden’s value-based diplomacy,” said Australian National University political scientist Wen-Ti Sung. “It works a lot better in Europe and in parts of the Indo-Pacific, but may not be so endearing to many Middle Eastern partners.”

War-torn Syria signed up for the Belt and Road Initiative last year. Kuwait, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all members. Israel is not, but China has invested heavily in its technology sector.

Arms sales have begun, including drones to Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, and China has built a fledgling military base in Djibouti, but its interests are fundamentally economic.

“Chinese interest in the Middle East is not strategic, but transactional,” said Ho.

The investments allow it to both diversify its economy and break off from diplomatic isolation imposed by the West, while also creating the impression of influence and responsibility among the developing countries it is courting.

China was criticised for abandoning Ukraine but now has the opportunity to insert itself into the Middle East.

“There was a low-hanging fruit that China was going for. Brokering the Saudi-Iran deal was one, and exploring the possibilities of facilitating dialogue between Israel and Palestinians was another,” said Sung.

“China in recent years seems to be a lot more interested in increasing global perception of its influence, more than actually increasing it.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s book in July. 

But the same principles of non-interference can also hobble its ability to engage meaningfully in negotiations.

On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry would not label the Hamas militants who murdered hundreds of Israelis as they danced at a music festival as terrorists. “We are deeply concerned over the escalation of tensions and violence and saddened by the civilian casualties caused by the conflict,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning.

Then it reaffirmed its support for a two-state solution, a position it has not considered for the future of its democratic neighbour Taiwan.

“China has been pursuing an almost all-lives-matter rhetoric when it comes to Israel-Palestine,” said Sung.

That suits Beijing’s short-term goals, which are about maintaining its image as a global negotiator while keeping its relationships on an even keel.

“But I think if you want to deepen a relationship, then at some point, you’re going to start touching on some of these hot potato issues,” said Ho. “And I think that’s where the rubber meets the road.”

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