China’s Game in Gaza

How Beijing Is Exploiting Israel’s War to Win Over the Global South

Over the past year, as Western diplomats shuttled frantically from one end of the world to the other in their struggle to contain an ever-growing succession of wars, crises, and other calamities—from Ukraine to Darfur to Nagorno-Karabakh to the Democratic Republic of the Congo—China leaned in to the disorder. Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip have presented Beijing with yet another crisis to exploit. While the United States discredits itself with the countries of the global South through its seemingly unqualified support for Israel, Beijing has carefully calibrated its response to the war, paying close attention to public opinion in the developing world.

Six months ago, I warned in Foreign Affairs that while the West is seeking to preserve the existing rules-based international order by tweaking some of its elements and inviting in a few additional actors, Chinese strategists are increasingly focused on surviving in a world without order. And they are offering to help other countries build their own sovereignty and freedom of maneuver as Western dominance recedes.

Since Hamas’s brutal attack, the Biden administration has tried to reconcile public support for Israel with private pressure to more carefully target its attacks in Gaza and to be more open to a political settlement with the Palestinians. Beijing, on the other hand, has been much less constrained by the need for balance. By calling for a two-state solution, refusing to condemn Hamas, and making symbolic efforts to support a cease-fire, it has taken advantage of global anti-Israeli sentiment in a bid to elevate its own standing in the global South. In its painstaking attempts to mirror global public opinion as closely as possible, China is following a broader strategy: embracing the global conflagrations that so bedevil Western policymakers.

WEASEL WORDS
Just as an artificial intelligence model improves its response to a prompt with each new batch of data it is trained on, each new global crisis has given China a further opportunity to hone its rhetoric toward the global South. In this light, comparing China’s response to the war in Gaza with its response to the war in Ukraine is instructive.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, China took some time to find its feet. It fumbled its initial response, waiting before issuing somewhat confusing statements. In most of its messages, Beijing underlined the inviolability of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. It also sought to emphasize its closeness to Russia and acknowledged the country’s “reasonable security concerns,” criticizing the United States and NATO. Beijing was intentionally vague to avoid alienating everyone, but its execution was clumsy.

By the time Hamas launched its brutal attack on Israel, however, Beijing had sharpened its approach and was able to respond rapidly. As it became clear that public opinion in the global South was overwhelmingly weighted against Israel, China immediately sought to leverage the crisis to expose what it sees as American double standards. On October 8, China’s foreign ministry released a statement calling for a cease-fire and endorsing the two-state solution. What wasn’t included in the statement was any criticism of Hamas or condemnation of the massacre it carried out, even though four of the terrorist group’s victims had been Chinese nationals.

China’s anti-Israeli rhetoric extends to its diplomatic outreach.
The researcher Tuvia Gering has painstakingly documented the rise in anti-Israeli rhetoric, some of it anti-Semitic, that the Chinese Communist Party is encouraging in response to the war, through both official and unofficial channels. In late October, China Daily, a propaganda outlet, declared, “The U.S. is siding with the wrong side of history in Gaza.” Elsewhere, Chinese state television rolled out an anti-Semitic canard made a few years ago by one of its reporters: that Jews account for three percent of the U.S. population but “control more than 70 percent of its wealth.”

This sort of language should be understood as a conscious attempt to echo the narratives that dominate the debate in the global South. By aligning with majority opinion in such countries as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa, China can present itself as an alternative to what it sees as a warmongering, hegemonic, and hypocritical America.

And China’s anti-Israeli rhetoric extends to its diplomatic outreach. On November 20, a group of Arab foreign ministers embarked on a tour to the countries that are permanent members of the UN Security Council. Their first stop was in Beijing, where they were welcomed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The choice to travel east before their meetings in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States was surely intentional. It can be read as evidence of China’s increasing cachet in the Middle East since negotiating a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia last March. Even though the meeting in Beijing produced no concrete results, this never seems to have been the goal. Instead, it was a way for the Arab countries to signal that they have choices apart from just the United States. And China relishes playing the role of alternative partner.

PLAYING TO THE CROWD
Since the start of Israel’s campaign in Gaza, which the Biden administration has largely endorsed, distrust of the United States has deepened across the Arab world. Opinion polls show that Arab publics now favor China over the United States. This is part of a long-term trend, but one that is being exacerbated by the war in Gaza. Polling conducted in the fall of 2023 in eight major non-Western countries—Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa—by the European Council on Foreign Relations (which I direct) found that China, in contrast to Western powers, is much more closely aligned with public opinion in the global South. Whether it is believing in the likelihood of Russia winning its war with Ukraine, the likelihood that the EU might fall apart, or the fragile state of American democracy, China’s official positions take great care to reflect the sentiments of the average Brazilian or Turk.

China’s attempt to mirror global public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part of a much broader strategy aimed at winning over the global South. First and foremost, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza underpin China’s argument that the world is becoming ever more disorderly. In Beijing’s view, the United States’ support for Israel’s campaign in Gaza demonstrates that its much-vaunted rules-based order was always a self-serving sham. Whereas the United States was quick to condemn Russian war crimes in Ukraine and China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, it has remained silent when confronted with what the rest of the world views as identical behavior by Israel (whether that conception is grounded in fact or not).

The strategy was on full display on November 20, when the Chinese leader Xi Jinping participated in a virtual BRICS summit focused on the war in Gaza. The meeting brought the original members of the bloc, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, together with its newest additions, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The summit was a clear attempt to present the grouping as a new alternative to Western organizations such as the G-7. As with Wang’s meeting with Arab leaders, the optics of the meeting were far more important than the substance, and again, the group proposed no practical steps to end the violence, either in the short term or in the long term.

Opinion polls show that Arab publics now favor China over the United States.
Moreover, China’s stance on the war in Gaza is an attempt to make a virtue of its relative isolation. China has just a single treaty ally in the entire world—North Korea. In the Middle East, the United States has been steadfast in its commitment to Israel’s security since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. China, by contrast, is free to pick and choose its partners in the region depending on the issue—for example, buying Iranian oil while cooperating with Saudi Arabia on ballistic missile technology or building infrastructure in Syria while trying to bind Turkey into the Belt and Road Initiative. Thanks to this relative freedom, China has been able to prioritize the performative aspect of its response to the war in Gaza over everything else; unlike the United States, it has no long-standing ally to accuse it of betrayal.

Finally, China is not trying to unite these countries in a Chinese-led anti-Western alliance, as many in Washington seem to believe. Whereas the United States talks about how other countries should align with its positions and follow global rules, China presents itself as a champion of a “multicivilizational world” and a partner for development and sovereignty. Indeed, Beijing’s selling point is precisely that in a world of fragmentation, it is not forcing other countries to choose sides.

Here again, China is very much in line with global public opinion. According to a European Council on Foreign Relations poll of major non-Western countries conducted in December 2022 and January 2023, substantial majorities across the world do not think that their countries will ever have to choose between China and the United States. For example, only 14 percent of Indians expect a bipolar world in ten years in which they might be forced to choose between Chinese- and U.S.-dominated blocs. So even though the United States demands ever-closer alignment from those countries caught in between, China’s perceived nonalignment has allowed it to become the favored partner for infrastructure investment and economic development in many parts of the world.

THE DISCREDITED ORDER
In its attempts to contain the war between Israel and Hamas, the Biden administration has developed a strategy of hugging Israel closely, continually reiterating its support for the Jewish state and refraining from overt public criticism in order to influence the way it prosecutes the war. In public and private, however, the Biden administration is also encouraging the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to develop a realistic military strategy in Gaza, pay attention to international law, and do more to mitigate the unfolding humanitarian crisis. By leaning in, the administration seems to be setting itself up to act as a broker for a political process between Israelis, Palestinians, and their Arab neighbors after the violence subsides.

Everyone should hope that this strategy succeeds, but in the court of global public opinion, the limits of the U.S. approach and of Biden’s influence on Netanyahu have been striking. With every civilian casualty from an Israeli airstrike, the West’s arguments in defense of a rules-based order ring hollower in the global South. This could have enduring consequences for Ukraine, which derives the legitimacy for its struggle from the order-breaking nature of Russia’s aggression. And if, at some point in the future, Xi makes the fateful decision to invade Taiwan, he will surely hope that his stance on the Gaza war has made it more likely that the global South will line up behind Beijing rather than Washington.

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