China’s cognitive dissonance in the Israel-Hamas war

Politics & Current Affairs

The underlying premises driving China's approach in the Middle East seem increasingly out of sync with the shifting realities. Perhaps most ironically, Hamas (and its supporters in Iran, etc.) embrace a strand of radical Islam that China fears most.

Illustration for The China Project by Derek Zheng

The Israel-Hamas war has revealed a deep-seated cognitive dissonance emanating from Beijing’s assumptions about and approach toward the Middle East.

China has sought to portray itself as a neutral party in the conflict, an apparent attempt to position itself as a peacemaker. However, Beijing has refused to condemn Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel or the role played by Iran in executing these attacks. Instead, Chinese officials, state-controlled media outlets, and social media platforms blame Israel and the U.S. for the war.

It appears routine statecraft: China has sympathized with the Palestinian cause since as far back as the Cold War and has long engaged in the practice of denouncing Israel to curry favor with its Arab and Muslim partners — as evidenced by its voting in the UN. Likewise, capitalizing on the opportunity to portray the U.S. as a destabilizing actor and socializing the world to believe there is a viable alternative to America’s liberal international order is a familiar tactic.

However, the underlying premises driving China’s approach seem increasingly out of sync with the shifting realities of the Middle East.

The UAE and Bahrain, for instance, have since released statements condemning Hamas, which runs counter to Beijing’s rationale. While Chinese officials continue to repeat their long-held assertion that the Israel-Palestinian issue is “the core issue of the Middle East,” their Sunni friends no longer seem to share this sentiment. Instead, many Arab states now share with Israel the conviction that China’s comprehensive strategic partner, Iran, is the region’s most destabilizing force.

China’s relationship with Iran and Saudi Arabia

This common threat perception emanates from Iran’s promotion of an intolerant radical Islam, nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and aggressive deployment of proxy groups designed to stoke regional chaos, overthrow these Sunni regimes, and destroy Israel. Senior Hamas members, along with Iranian officials, have already confirmed that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies aided Hamas in this assault. (Hamas’s other primary source of funding is Qatar.) Hezbollah, another Islamist-militant group linked to Iran, called the attack “a message to those seeking normalization with Israel.”

The ideological threat posed to these moderate-Sunni states by Iran and its proxies cannot be understated. For at least a decade, governments from Morocco to the UAE have sought to promote a tolerant version of Islam as an alternative to the radical Islamism promulgated by the likes of Tehran’s Ayatollah. These desires to create a more stable and pluralistic Middle East have been articulated in the 2016 Marrakesh Declaration, and 2019 Charter of Makkah.

Like Iran, China is likely betting that as the conflict intensifies, rising public support for the Palestinians among Sunnis across the region will compel their leaders to ultimately denounce Israel. What’s more, should the current conflict derail the U.S.-led Abraham Accords, which has seen the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan normalize relations with Israel, it will poke a hole in America’s containment belt and create space for China to implement its alternative vision for regional security — as articulated in its February 2023 “Global Security Initiative” concept paper.

Granted, Tehran’s plan may well backfire. After all, the Iranian-supported attack by Hamas strikes at the very core of many Sunni states’ security concerns, a reality that is likely to enhance Israel’s appeal as a security partner in the medium to long term. Just this week, Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, chairman of the Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs Committee of the United Arab Emirates Federal National Council, affirmed this notion. According to the chairman: “The Accords are our future. It is not an agreement between two governments, but a platform that we believe should transform the region where everyone will enjoy security, stability and prosperity.”

China might see an advantage in having some influence over a destabilizing actor like Iran. Should the need arise, Beijing can leverage its relationship with Tehran as a bargaining chip in broader geopolitical negotiations with other powers. China currently lacks both the credibility among regional actors and regional hard power to meaningfully involve itself in the mediation process. However, Beijing’s relationship with the Islamic Republic will likely ensure China gets a seat at the negotiating table. Beijing will not offer to exercise this influence over Tehran free of charge.

Saudi Arabia is certainly not pleased. The Kingdom was hoping for calm in the wake of its Chinese-brokered detente with Iran. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) wanted to focus on the country’s digital and economic transformation, promote a more moderate version of Islam, and inch toward normalization with Israel.

Saudis believe joining the accords would marginalize Hamas and compel the Palestinians to abandon terrorism and adopt a peace settlement. MBS is watching apprehensively, with Yemen and the Houthis (another Iranian proxy) squarely in mind. He will have indeed noted the arrival of two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups as a symbol of what it means to be part of the U.S. security umbrella. This may not necessarily play in China’s favor in the long term.

A squandered opportunity?

Needless to say, despite Beijing’s widespread interests in the region — spanning energy, economic, technology, and security sectors — China’s Fujian carrier likely won’t be coming to a theater in the Middle East any time soon. Rising tensions between China and the West have only heightened China’s engagement in the region, as illustrated by its endeavors to expand BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China’s nascent regional military presence renders it rather exposed, relying on its strategic rival’s regional hard power projection capabilities to protect its interests.

Nevertheless, Beijing surrendered a rare opportunity to find common ground with its rivals, the U.S. (and West more broadly), India, and Japan, when it failed to denounce Hamas. Beijing understands its position will resonate with many in the Global South — like South Africa, Malaysia, or others — especially when colored with anti-colonial rhetoric.

Reports have already surfaced alleging that anti-Israel and anti-U.S./Western propaganda have intensified and become increasingly coordinated across the Iran-China-Russia axis. This trend is likely to continue. To lend perspective, one commentator described a segment that recently ran on CCTV as creating “the airy illusion that Israel just started bombing Gaza to smithereens out of nowhere for no particular reason (and targeting emergency vehicles) because that’s what Israel does.”

According to Matt Turpin, who served as the U.S. National Security Council’s China Director from 2018 to 2019, the axis is disseminating content that “feeds on divisions within and between democracies by amplifying popular criticisms from both the left and right of the political spectrums within individual countries.”

Accordingly, Chinese officials, academics, and state media continue to promulgate the ideas that “the root of this problem” is “the lack of a Palestinian state,” and “the historical injustice suffered by the Palestinian people” and the core issue of the Middle East at large. What Chinese scholars, policymakers, and commentators consistently fail to acknowledge is that Hamas has publicly stated that it plans to create an Islamic State of Palestine that stretches “from the river to the sea” — meaning there will be no Israel.

But reductionism is convenient when it supports Beijing’s interest in blaming Israel and the U.S. for all the region’s woes. It is also likely intentional: Offering a simple formula for a complex issue makes for a most effective meme. Chinese academics have been quick to draw on history to construct their narratives but almost always (conveniently) fail to mention that Israel had offered the Palestinians a state on several occasions, and each time, the Palestinians rejected the proposal.

China’s position further ignores the intra-Palestinian dynamics that impede progress on this front: Hamas was elected to rule the Gaza Strip in 2006, and a year later, violently ousted the Palestine Authority, which still rules the West Bank — they remain bitter rivals. Corruption is rampant among both parties’ ranks, and the lack of a sovereign Palestine ensures a steady stream of billions of dollars in foreign aid that is used to fuel their respective war machines, build intricate tunnel networks, and enrich themselves while regular Palestinian people suffer. Whom does Beijing suggest Israel negotiate with?

Perhaps what is most ironic in all of this is that Hamas and Iran (along with its proxies) embrace and promote the very strand of intolerant radical Islam that China fears most — one that has already compelled Beijing to implement domestic policies that have garnered staunch criticism from the international community. This radical Islamist ideology knows no borders, as illustrated by the Israeli who was recently stabbed in the streets of Beijing. Cozying up with Tehran will do little to safeguard China or its interests in the Middle East from any separatism, extremism, and terrorism being fueled by the Ayatollah and his disciples — quite the opposite.

It’s not that Chinese scholars and policymakers are oblivious to all these realities. However, China’s leadership seems to believe that acknowledging them does little to advance Beijing’s interests. China has surely prepared for taking leadership of the rotating presidency at the United Nations Security Council this month. It will likely present China’s “Global Security Initiative” as a harbinger of peace and prosperity and a solution to the security challenges of the Middle East.

In a sign of friendship, solidarity, and support for Israel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and U.S. President Joe Biden recently visited Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, China claims to be friends with all countries in the Middle East, as if that were possible.