China is Using Palestine to Challenge U.S. Hegemony

Sami Shirazi, Dec 18, 2023

Over the past three decades, China displayed little interest in wars raging in the Middle East. It opposed the Iraq War in 2003, remained neutral throughout the Syrian Civil War, and maintained relative silence on the war in Yemen. Chinese leadership saw little benefit in taking sides or providing support in any conflict in the Middle East. However, in response to the latest stage of the Israel-Palestine conflict, China has led calls for peace in Gaza, taking on a more critical tone towards Israel and the United States. China has become a peace broker in the region. After almost a decade of severed relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, China brought the rival nations together for discussions, leading to a ceasefire between the warring factions in Yemen. The U.S. has a notoriously strong influence over Middle Eastern politics but has experienced crucial foreign policy failures in recent decades. Just last year, it was forced to cede Afghanistan to Taliban rule after 20 years of warfare. Such failures, along with the recent devastation in Gaza, pose a significant threat to American primacy in the region. China is increasing its activities and influence in the Middle East as part of a larger effort to challenge the U.S.-led global order. 


While the U.S. has adopted a less interventionist foreign policy, China has been focused on increasing its global standing, investing heavily around the world. The Middle East's landscape is no exception and is already being reshaped by China's growing economic influence. Ensuring free-flowing oil imports from the Gulf has been a top priority of the U.S. in the Middle East, creating a symbiotic economic relationship that is a cornerstone of the U.S. alliance with Gulf nations. However, in the past several years the U.S. has imported dramatically less oil from the Gulf, both becoming more energy-independent and beginning to transition to renewable energy [1]. By contrast, China is both Saudi Arabia and Iran's largest oil consumer [2]. Still, China’s steady economic growth is rapidly increasing its energy requirements. As a result, China has taken economic, geopolitical, and strategic considerations in the Middle East. Its poster child of investment, the Belt Road Initiative, aims to enhance transport infrastructure in Central Asia and the Middle East and foster even greater economic integration [3]. By investing heavily in the Middle East, China ensures a steady future oil supply as its energy needs continue to grow. Politically, China’s historically ‘non-interventionist’ approach has appealed to the Arab governments, wary of U.S. meddling in the region. To Arab states, their growing ties with Beijing are a means of diversification that further ensures a steady oil consumer and reduces reliance on the U.S. for economic security [4].


Politically, the war in Gaza — and Israel's general treatment of Palestinians — is putting strain on American relations with the Arab world. In an age of easily accessible information, the destruction in Gaza has reinvigorated a pro-Palestinian protest movement in the Arab world [5]. These citizens have expressed their anger through mass boycotts and protests, often disparaging their governments for their varying degrees of relations with Israel, and the U.S. for its unwavering support of Israel. Before the violence, both the Trump and Biden administrations effectively cut Palestinians out of the future of the Middle East. Trump's Abraham Accords and the Biden administration’s Saudi-Israeli talks prioritized a relationship between Israel and Arab governments, particularly those of the Gulf [5]. Months ago, it was conceivable that Saudi Arabia would follow suit with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in normalizing relations with Israel, but now any engagement would be a public relations disaster for the Arab nations. Saudi Arabia’s role as guardian of two of Islam’s three major holy sites puts it in a delicate position within the Muslim world. It is already engaged in proxy conflicts with Iran in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Lebanon, and finding itself on the other side of the fence relative to the rest of the Muslim world could delegitimize and alienate it altogether. Other regional governments are also under extreme domestic pressure to condemn or otherwise completely disassociate with Israel. Since the war, Bahrain, Turkey, and Jordan have all recalled their ambassadors to Israel, sensing the pressure from their citizens [6]. For the U.S., the current pro-Palestinian movement exposes a major underestimation of Palestinian influence in the region. That miscalculation is now haunting the U.S. as it faces years of wasted negotiations and renewed anti-American sentiment in the Arab world. U.S. foreign policy has gone into damage-control. As Arab nations turn their backs on Israel once again, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been meeting with various leaders across the region in an effort to contain the crisis.


China has used the outpour of pro-Palestinian support in the Middle East to underscore its balanced approach to geopolitics in contrast to that of the U.S. Although China established relations with Israel in the early 1990s, it has nonetheless maintained warm relations with the Palestinians and the Muslim world in general. In support of Palestinians, China has not called the October 7th Hamas attack on Israel an act of terrorism. It has also continually referred to Israel's bombing of Gaza as an unjust form of ‘collective punishment’ and condemned Israel for turning off the water supply and electricity to Gaza [7]. It has offered itself up as a peace broker in the Middle East, taking credit for the week-long ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that it attributes to a resolution adopted under China’s month-long presidency of the UN Security Council [7]. However, beyond rhetoric, China has done little to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Given its track record on human rights, China’s concern for the rights of Palestinians seems opportunistic. In addition to extreme domestic censorship and political repression, it has forced an estimated 2 million Uyghur Muslims into state-sponsored detention camps, where government policies have included forced labor, suppression of religious practices, political indoctrination, and forced sterilization [8]. Given China’s history of human rights abuses, its rhetoric as an altruistic global actor concerned with the Israel-Palestine conflict is self-serving to its greater aspirations in the Middle East.


China sees the unwavering backing of Israel by the U.S. as a weakness to be exploited, so China is using its condemnation of Israel and support of a two-state solution to present itself as the more attractive ally in the greater Middle East. It has consistently used its state-run media to batter U.S. policy toward Palestine and blames U.S. support of Israel for the worsening humanitarian situation. China’s internet has been flooded with rampant anti-Semitism in recent months, and the Chinese government’s heavy regulation of the internet indicates that such hate speech has been sanctioned by the state [7]. In its media outlets, China has perpetuated tropes of Jewish control of American politics, suggesting that the Israel lobby has infiltrated all aspects of the American government. China’s goals go beyond criticizing Israel; it seeks to denounce U.S. involvement and question the role of the U.S. in the Middle East altogether. Though biased and self-serving, China’s tone strikes a chord with citizens and governments in the Arab world. If the U.S. is unable to reframe the narrative, it risks losing credibility as an arbiter both in the Middle East and internationally. 


The U.S. is uniquely equipped to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and maintain its influence in the Middle East. The U.S. is still the chief power player in the region, with the strongest military and economic ties to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. However, it will need to change its approach. First and foremost, it must end the perceived notions of U.S. bias toward Israel. Time after time, the U.S. has refused to condemn recurrent human rights abuses by Israel, vetoed UN resolutions for ceasefires, and provided unconditional military and financial support to Israel [9]. Additionally, it must work to find a diplomatic solution that restores self-determination and peace for the Palestinians. This is easier said than done. However, it has made no progress in realizing the two-state solution that was proposed in the Oslo Accords of 1993 and has offered tacit support for controversial Israeli policies over the past decades [10]. If anything has become clear in the past few weeks, it is that the Palestinian right to sovereignty can no longer be treated as an afterthought. As an international matter, it will never fade and has now become a political issue within the U.S. As China’s economic presence expands, it will inevitably increase its political influence on the region and undermine the U.S. at every opportunity. Any nation that has double standards for human rights will be viewed with skepticism. Only by opting for a stronger commitment to even-handed diplomacy can the U.S. reaffirm its reputation as a regional leader and stymie China's ambitions.  


[1] Croft, Helima. “How Much the U.S. Relies on Oil from the Middle East.” NPR, January 9, 2020.

[2] Bradsher, Keith. “China’s Economic Stake in the Middle East: Its Thirst for Oil.” The New York Times, October 11, 2023.

[3] McBride, James. “China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative.” Council on Foreign Relations, 2023.

[4] Eslami, Mohammad. “China’s Increasing Role in the Middle East: Implications for Regional and International Dynamics.” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, May 30, 2023.

[5] Guyer, Jonathan. “How the Arab World Sees the Israel-Palestine Conflict.” Vox, October 14, 2023.

[6] Ewing, Giselle Ruhiyyih. “Turkey Recalls Ambassador from Israel.” POLITICO, November 4, 2023.

[7] Wakabayashi, Daisuke, Tiffany May, and Claire Fu. “As China Looks to Broker Gaza Peace, Antisemitism Surges Online.” The New York Times, October 28, 2023.

[8] Maizland, Lindsay. “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.” Council on Foreign Relations, September 22, 2022.

[9] Newton, Creede. “A History of the US Blocking UN Resolutions against Israel.” Al Jazeera, November 9, 2021.

[10] Toosi, Nahal. “Joe Biden Is Not Planning to Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” POLITICO. Accessed December 15, 2023.