China’s Break With Israel Was Years in the Making

China’s Break With Israel Was Years in the Making
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pose for a photo during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, July 18, 2017 (AP photo by Mark Schiefelbein).

Since the start of the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, China has adopted a somewhat surprising position. Beijing has historically supported the Palestinian cause but maintained substantial ties with Israel since the two established diplomatic relations in 1992. Over the years, China has condemned Israeli settlement-building in the occupied Palestinian territories and even sought to bar its citizens from involvement in those activities. Nevertheless, it has continued to maintain significant economic relations with Israel. 

However, after Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7, China’s response surprised some observers, both in Israel and beyond. To begin with, Beijing refused to explicitly condemn Hamas, which it has not formally designated as a terrorist organization. And a week after the attack, at a time when Israel’s backers in the West were still supportive of its military campaign in Gaza, Chinese officials stated that Israel’s airstrikes had “gone beyond self-defense” and condemned them as “collective punishment,” while Chinese media outlets blamed the U.S. for the conflict. In the weeks thereafter, Beijing’s official communications about the war consistently pointed to the establishment of a Palestinian state as the only sustainable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel reacted by expressing “deep disappointment” in the Chinese response and objecting to China’s insistence on the need for a two-state solution under the current circumstances. 

To explain China’s position, many observers have argued that Beijing is merely seeking to appeal to audiences in the Global South, where public perception of the conflict largely favors the Palestinian cause. There is undoubtedly some truth to that. Beijing has long sought to position itself as a development model for and geopolitical leader of the nations of the Global South. But, in line with China’s pragmatic foreign policy approach to the Middle East, Sino-Israeli cooperation has in the past continued to deepen regardless of Beijing’s concern for the Palestinians. And Beijing has never issued such blatant condemnations of previous Israeli military campaigns in Gaza or southern Lebanon.

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