Chinese Quest for Neutrality in Israel-Hamas Conflict

In the recent past, China has emerged as the major peacemaker in the war-torn region of the Middle East, which is home to various conflicts. In March of last year, the historic rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran signed an agreement to normalise ties and re-open their embassies in each other’s country. The event had a remarkable impact on regional geopolitics, resulting in a ceasefire between Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni Houthis. Syrian President Bashar al Asad, whose policies were previously rivalled by those of Saudi Arabia, attended a summit of the Arab League on 7 May 2023, marking the end of over a decade of strained relations.

The diplomatic efforts of Beijing in the Middle East, which were initially perceived to foster peace and stability, encountered a setback with the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict on 7 October 2023, which has resulted in the killing of 30,000 people in what has been described by some commentators as Israel’s war crimes. Despite the ongoing efforts, China has not been able to make any breakthrough and remained unable to put a stop to Israeli atrocities against Palestinian civilians.

In this current conflict between Israel and Hamas, Beijing has maintained a neutral stance, calling on both sides to show restraint. Although China immediately sent its envoy to the Middle East and supported resolutions in favour of a ceasefire in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the conflict has persisted, and its immediate end is not visible any time soon. Hence, it is pertinent to explore why China was unable to effectively leverage its influence in facilitating a ceasefire between the conflicting parties.

China likely opted for its balanced diplomacy, which doesn’t allow it to take sides in the conflict but maintains an equidistance approach.

Since the 2000s, China has proposed peace plans for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan in 2004 and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in 2007 proposed peace plans to end the deadlock in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Later, after taking office, President Xi Jinping also proposed a four-point peace plan to solve the solution of the Palestinian issue. Last year, former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang also extended an offer to mediate between Israel and Palestine in a separate phone call with Palestinian President Mehmood Abbas and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in April 2023, but the progress was halted.

In addition to above mentioned Chinese’s diplomatic proposals, Beijing has also introduced its Global Security Initiative (GSI) in 2022, which encompasses the principle of “indivisible security,” with the objective of enhancing global security governance and addressing threats from neighbouring countries. These initiatives and aspirations to take a leading role in the global security landscape raise expectations from China to present a constructive plan to end the unjust loss of human lives in Gaza.

There can be many reasons behind what Beijing is pursuing as its foreign policy in the region and maintaining its neutral position. Four main concerns and reasons listed below made the Xi administration think otherwise.

Firstly, the nature of the Israel-Hamas conflict is different from what it faced during the Saudi Iranian thaw for two reasons. Israel and Hamas are in a direct physical war, targeting each other’s facilities and capturing hostages. However, Saudi Arabia and Iran were not involved in such adventures, at least respecting the international order. In addition, China’s limited influence on both Israel and Hamas. Although China doesn’t designate Hamas as a terrorist outfit, it generally avoids comments in favour of the group. Its sympathies are attached only to the Palestinian people and not the group. Similarly, China’s policy to support a two-state solution and its condemnation of Israel’s attacks on civilians of Gaza don’t please the Benjamin Netanyahu administration in Tel Aviv. Therefore, these factors limit the potential for Chinese influence within both parties.

Secondly, as the United States is already aiding Israel directly and vetoing any resolution for a ceasefire in the UNSC, the involvement of China in this conflict could further complicate the situation. Beijing understands the tendency of such conflicts to become protracted and draw in other powers, as an expert from Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft noted. Therefore, any involvement from the outside, especially when a major power is already engaged in the conflict would likely lead to a situation similar to Ukraine’s, where achieving an end to the conflict would be extremely challenging in the near term.

Thirdly, taking sides in this conflict is highly risky for China as it has interests aligned within the region. China’s major audience is the Arab countries and the countries of the Global South. Beijing has also become the largest trading partner of Arab states, with a trade volume level that reaches US $ 431.4 billion in 2022.  Similarly, China is a part of the Global South and considers itself in the leading position among these countries. These countries are also aligned with Beijing in its campaign to bring reforms to the existing world order. Picking up a side opposed to the foreign policy stance of Arab States may damage its relations in the Middle East and North Africa Region and have detrimental consequences to its support from the global south. At the same time, China also wants to balance its ties with Israel. It is the second largest trade partner of Tel Aviv and recognises its potential to join Belt and Road Initiative(BRI). Therefore, China likely opted for its balanced diplomacy, which doesn’t allow it to take sides in the conflict but maintains an equidistance approach.

Lastly, China doesn’t hold significant leverage over Israel to put a halt to its atrocities in Gaza. Despite being a major export destination and a trade partner with an investment of US $ 19 billion over 20 years, it cannot solely bring Israel to the table. The United States holds significant leverage over Israel in bringing it to the negotiating table owing to its historic diplomatic and economic linkages. It has also invested US $ 150 billion over the same period. Therefore, China’s influence in the region is unable to convince Israel as it will unlikely support a Beijing-led peace process without approval from the United States.

China’s global influence and outreach have increased throughout the past few years, enabling it to convince middle and regional conflicting powers to sit with each other. From Saudi-Iran diplomatic re-engagement to a peace plan for the Israel-Palestine conflict determines its urge to become a leading mediator in the world. The ambitious agendas and various initiatives, such as the GSI, deepen the responsibility that lies on its shoulders to lead global security governance. Therefore, there is a pressing need for an impactful approach to bring peace and stability across the globe. However, China’s role in the Middle Eastern conflict may continue to be characterised by cautious diplomacy and limited influence in direct military confrontations.

Usman Zulfiqar Ali

Usman Zulfiqar Ali is a Communications and Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR). His research focuses mainly on China’s geopolitical and international affairs. He tweets @UsmanZulfiqar and can be reached at

Leave a Comment


Welcome! Login in to your account

Remember me Lost your password?

Lost Password