Gaza: China's Opening

US missteps give Beijing opportunity for Middle East inroads

Salman Rafi Sheikh | 03 December 2023
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The fact that Arab and Muslim ministers chose Beijing as their first destination to meet all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council last week shows the centrality that China has acquired in the ongoing Middle East crisis, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi highlighted to illuminate the Arab world’s growing trust. It is China’s gateway for much deeper economic and political engagement with an Arab world that had hitherto been maintaining a pro-US disposition.

The visit’s purpose was “to send a clear signal … that we must immediately stop the fighting and the killings, we must immediately deliver humanitarian supplies to Gaza.” To this, Beijing said that China was a “good friend and brother of Arab and Muslim countries,” adding it has “always firmly supported the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore their legitimate national rights and interests.”

China’s ‘brotherly’ bonds with the Arab world appear to be maturing against the backdrop of the spectacular collapse of Washington’s Abraham Accords project. Signed in September 2020 involving the states of the UAE, Bahrain, Israel, and the US, the Abraham Accords sought to create a ‘new’ Middle East by having most of these states recognize Israel. This recognition, however, came at the expense of the Palestinian question itself. Although some analysts point out Arab leadership antipathy if not downright fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and its tentacles in Hamas and expect the US to ultimately regain its influence, that seems a forlorn hope.

The US has pushed to expand the Accords, pursuing a deal with Saudi Arabia to sign them, normalize ties with Israel, and permanently isolate Iran in exchange for US security guarantees. The fact that Washington’s plan completely ignored the lingering Palestinian question – and thus threatened the people of Palestine with permanent subjugation and extermination at the hands of Israel – created a scenario for Hamas to plan and execute its attacks on Israel.

Although Iran seems to have supported Hamas’ plans – and this support is itself rooted in the US withdrawal from the Iran-nuke deal, financial sanctions on Tehran, the killing of General Sulemani, etc. – it remains that Iran could not have supported Hamas if the politics of the Abraham Accords had not first created a suitable geopolitical scenario that threatened both Hamas and Iran.

Hamas’ attacks and Israel’s subsequent brutal military campaign that has killed more than 14,000 Palestinians already has now buried the whole US policy of the ‘new’ Middle East. There appear to be no buyers for the Accords, which is why Arab states are now increasingly turning towards a different center of power: China.

To be sure, the last week’s visit to Beijing is not the first. An Arab League delegation visited Beijing in October as well, and direct communication between Beijing and Arab states has been happening on an unprecedented scale since the beginning of this war on October 7. Chinese diplomats have been busy meeting Arab officials in the Middle East. This is being buttressed by China’s almost daily, or sometimes twice a day, pro-Palestine remarks.

At the same time, China’s arrogance shows through with its program, revealed by Human Rights Watch earlier this week, to strip hundreds of mosques of Islamic architectural features, and often destroying them entirely, decommissioning, closing, demolishing, or converting mosques for secular use in two provinces. Beijing apparently feels the Arab world’s need for development aid outstrips concerns over China’s domestic repression of its Muslims, as Asia Sentinel reported on November 28.

In the context of Beijing’s multi-billion dollar Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) economic engagement with the Arab world, China’s support for an ‘Arab view’ of the war makes sense. In the context of the ongoing US-China competition, China’s criticism of the US (and Israel) makes sense. In the context of China’s own quest to dominate the Middle East – an imperative that also guided China’s role in the Saudia-Iran normalization – a pro-Palestine position makes sense. In the long run, China hopes to gain similar support from these states vis-à-vis Beijing’s systematic oppression of its Uyghur Muslim population. But, for now, China’s larger imperative is to fully capitalize on Washington’s failure and deepen its own footprint in the Middle East.

Between 2005 and 2022, China completed almost 266 projects in the Middle East. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE are the four leading recipients. With most of the projects located in building digital infrastructure, China will remain engaged with them for a very long time. This is in addition to China’s investments in ports, railways, trade agreements, and Health Silk Road projects. China aims to expand it sharply – not only because the Middle East is a lucrative market and is seeking to modernize itself but also because, unlike many countries in Asia and Africa, these countries do not require Chinese credit and loans. For them, China’s BRI being a ‘debt-trap’ holds no relevance. For China, therefore, investments in the Middle East carry no such risks that, for instance, countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka pose to Chinese money.

It is for this reason that China is simply toeing the Arab line. Xi, in remarks delivered on the sidelines of the recent BRICS summit, reiterated the call for a permanent ceasefire and an end to the “collective punishment” of the Palestinians. In this context, China’s state-run media was not slow to attribute, although partly, the recent four-day pause in fighting to China’s successful diplomacy.

The Global Times noted that the pause was “achieved due to multiple factors including mounting pressure that both Israel and Hamas have been facing, the latest UN Security Council resolution adopted under China's rotating presidency, the strong voice of the Global South through the latest BRICS extraordinary virtual summit, and the active mediation of the Arab world.”

Washington is surely noting China’s diplomatic activity with a lot of unease. In fact, the US has “dismissed” China’s role in order for it to illuminate and magnify its own. But a simple dismissal of China’s role will not change the facts on the ground – especially, how China’s portrayal of Israel and its supporters as the ones responsible for the conflict matches not only with the wider Arab view of the war but also with what is actually happening in Palestine.

This convergence thus is an opportunity for Beijing to defeat Washington’s politics of de-coupling from China, ultimately isolating it globally. Since October 7, China’s pro-Arab position has coupled it even more strongly with the Arab world. Beijing could not have put this conflict to a better diplomatic use than to achieve two targets simultaneously, pushing back against the US-backed international decoupling plus deepening ties with a lucrative market that is also the main source of oil supply to Beijing.

Dr. Salman Rafi Sheikh teaches politics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and has contributed to Asia Sentinel for over a decade. 

This article was originally published on Asia Sentinel.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.