Amid the current Middle East crisis, China has three objectives: Beijing seeks a semblance of peace in the Middle East, hopes for a halt to the Israel-Hamas conflict and wants to project an image of a responsible great power. But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) almost certainly won’t make any meaningful contribution toward Middle East peace, nor is it likely to take serious steps to facilitate an agreement to suspend hostilities in Gaza. Yet, amid not delivering on objectives one and two, the CCP is well postured to advance its third objective of making itself look good in the eyes of three audiences: the Chinese people, the Arab street and the Global South.
Why China Can’t Walk the Walk
Since the outbreak of the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel, Beijing has issued a flurry of mostly right-sounding official pronouncements — with the exception of its initial response, which many found tone deaf — calling for calm and urging all sides to exercise restraint. While these Chinese statements do not necessarily constitute insincere rhetoric, in essence, they amount to hollow platitudes. Beijing wants a peaceful and stable Middle East because it has little if anything to gain materially from continued conflict and much to lose economically — notably a disruption of petroleum supplies and international shipping routes — if the crisis persists or escalates.
But while CCP leaders and spokespersons can mouth all the right words and mean them, Beijing is ill-postured to follow through with concrete actions for two reasons: an absence of real clout and an extreme aversion to risk. The reality is that Beijing in many respects is a “great power lite” in the Middle East and rest of the world, certainly outside of China’s own Asia-Pacific neighborhood. Beijing is also risk averse because CCP leaders fear failure and are afraid of global overreach.
First, while Beijing is an undisputed world heavy-weight champion when it comes to economic might, China remains a light-to-middle-weight contender diplomatically and continues to constitute a feather-weight pretender globally in the military realm.
Of course, conditions are not static. Certainly, China’s military is growing ever-stronger and more capable. However, China’s ability to project military power and diplomatic muscle in the Middle East is extremely modest. A comparison with U.S. initiatives highlights the stark contrast between what Washington and Beijing can bring to bear during the current crisis. While the United States swiftly dispatched two potent aircraft carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean, last week China was temporarily able to marshal six naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden.
China’s total naval presence will quickly drop by half because the eruption of the crisis coincided with the handover from one anti-piracy three-ship task force to another three-ship task force. For all the hype over China’s burgeoning aircraft carrier program, none of China’s three commissioned carriers have yet to venture beyond the western Pacific. Moreover, Beijing cannot project air power of any significance into the Middle East or land power for that matter. While a few hundred Chinese marines are proximately posted at Beijing’s first official overseas military base in Djibouti on the shores of the Red Sea, they have yet to be deployed in any capacity except aboard Chinese naval vessels conducting counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
Beijing’s leaders and diplomats are also more active and engaged around the world than they have been in the past. In recent decades, CCP leaders have been globe trotters logging hundreds of thousands of air miles and Chinese diplomats are present and engaged almost everywhere. Indeed, China reportedly has more diplomatic outposts — 275 — than any other major power, ahead of the United States, France, Japan and the United Kingdom. Yet Beijing’s diplomatic heft has been limited in the Middle East because China has not sought and is not postured to do much beyond advance its economic interests or defend its core interests. To this end Beijing has endeavored to maintain cordial relations with all entities in the region and uniquely among external capitals has been remarkably successful at doing so — at least up to the current crisis. China, for example, has enjoyed good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as with Israel and the Palestinians.
Beijing’s brokering of the normalization of Saudi-Iranian relations earlier this year is sometimes presented — especially by China itself — as evidence of China’s growing influence in the Middle East and/or its diplomatic clout. The truth is that while China’s role was noteworthy, it was a relatively easy lift for Beijing with little potential downside. Beijing “exploited the opportunity” that entailed almost no risk.
Second, China is insecure and unwilling to take risks. As noted above, Beijing does not want to make enemies and the best way to do this is to avoid wandering into the minefield of Middle East politics. Although Chinese leaders and diplomats are energetic and professional, they are also wary and risk averse, especially compared to their U.S. counterparts. The contrast with recent U.S. initiatives is stark. In the wake of the horrific Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, Washington was quick to dispatch Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to the Middle East with President Joe Biden not far behind. In addition to Israel, Biden had initially intended to also travel to Jordan and meet with three Arab leaders there (but this in-person summit was scuttled in the wake of the Al-Ahli hospital explosion).
As the U.S. head of state boldly traveled to the eye of the storm, China’s president remained in China, hosted Russian dictator Vladimir Putin at a Belt and Road forum and assiduously avoiding any public mention of the Israel-Hamas war. While Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been publicly outspoken, Wang also has avoided travel to the region. It has been left to Middle East envoy Zhai Jun to run point for China in the region. To date Zhai has visited Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the UAE. But his gesture toward Middle East shuttle diplomacy is focused defensively on stabilizing Chinese bilateral relationships in the Arab world rather than any real effort at mediation.
China’s Three Audiences
Beijing’s Middle East act is an on-going performance with three different audiences in mind.
Domestic Public Opinion
Often overlooked is that in foreign policy Beijing is playing to Chinese public opinion. Despite being a brutal dictatorship, what CCP leaders fear most are their own people. In addition to commanding an extremely muscular coercive apparatus and a state-of-the-art high-tech surveillance system, the CCP works very hard to control information flows and dominant public messaging. This is because public opinion matters to Chinese communist rulers. On foreign policy issues, this means meticulously shaping and vigorously promoting an official narrative that puts the CCP in the most favorable light possible. The overarching message is that China, thanks to the CCP, is a powerful and respected country all around the world with principled positions on everything, including the current Middle East crisis. An important supporting narrative is that all the world’s problems are someone else’s fault, and here the United States is always a convenient scapegoat. Beijing blames the ongoing Israel-Hamas war on Washington and its typically vigilant internet censors have thus far permitted rampant anti-Semitic tropes to rage on Chinese social media platforms.
Beijing also targets leaders and public opinion in the Arab world. Chinese officials and media outlets articulate pro-Palestinian messages and are at least implicitly, if not explicitly, critical of Israel and the United States. In 2016, on the eve of Xi Jinping’s first visit as head of state to the Middle East, Beijing published a largely anodyne “Arab Policy Paper.” Perhaps the most significant and forthright sentence in the document is: “China supports the Middle East peace process and the establishment of an independent state of Palestine with full sovereignty based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
Beijing vigorously promotes the CCP as a friend of the Arab people and respectful of Islam. Relatedly, Beijing expends considerable behind-the-scenes effort to “inoculate” itself from public criticism of its harsh treatment of the Uyghur ethnic minority in westernmost China. The CCP’s brutal and ruthless repression of this Turkic people, including their ability to freely practice their Muslim faith has been widely documented. Yet, remarkably, Middle Eastern countries specifically and Muslim-majority countries around the world more generally have been completely absent from the international condemnation of Beijing’s campaign of mass incarceration and systemic persecution. This silence is not accidental — it is the result of vigorous CCP efforts to convince governments not to call out Beijing for its human rights atrocities against Chinese Muslims.
Beijing also looks to position itself as the champion of the Global South and present a more attractive and alternative vision to the U.S.-led world order. The developing world is a central audience for recently launched Chinese initiatives including the Global Security Initiative, the Global Development Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative. By distancing itself from U.S. and European rhetoric and initiatives, Beijing aims to differentiate itself as an authentically non-Western voice. When the CCP hypes its talking points and position papers and highlights its diplomatic activities these efforts frequently resonate in many countries of the Global South.
China’s communist rulers are extremely good at messaging. Yet the CCP can also be an effective doer and bring sizeable resources to bear if it concludes a course of action is in its core interests. While it has happened on occasion in the past, China today is unwilling and unprepared to step forward in the Middle East. Beijing has concluded that such a move is all risk and no reward. In short, where the Israel-Hamas war is concerned, Chinese leaders are prepared to talk the talk but completely unwilling to walk the walk.