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China, US Differ on Response to Widening Middle East Violence

FILE - Chinese Premier Li Qiang, right, receives Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 15, 2023.
FILE - Chinese Premier Li Qiang, right, receives Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 15, 2023.

China will continue to support "all efforts conducive to promoting dialogue" for the two-state solution amid the escalating conflict in the Middle East, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

In the regular foreign ministry press briefing on Oct. 23, spokesperson Mao Ning, said, "As we speak, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is escalating, the situation in Gaza is very grave and armed conflict is spreading with a growing spillover effect.”

“All parties should abide by the international law and international humanitarian law, protect civilians and do everything possible to avert an even worse humanitarian disaster," she said.

She added that humanitarian needs must be met.

“China will continue to support all efforts conducive to promoting dialogue and restoring peace and do its part … for a comprehensive, just and lasting settlement of the Palestinian question.”

Her remarks highlighted the difference between Washington and Beijing on the Israel-Hamas war, which analysts worry will further fuel tensions between the two superpowers.

President Joe Biden told Americans on Oct. 19 in a televised live speech that the U.S. must increase its support for Ukraine and Israel.

"History has taught us when terrorists don't pay a price for their terror, when dictators don't pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction," Biden said. “They keep going. And the cost and the threat to America and the world keep rising."

The China-mediated deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia that was announced in March and restored diplomatic ties between the two countries, which had been severed since 2016, was seen as a sign of Beijing’s arrival in Middle East power politics.

China sent Zhai Jun, the special envoy on the Middle East issue, to mediate between Israel and Hamas. He met with Qatari Foreign Minister Al-Huraifi in Doha on Oct. 19 and attended the Cairo Peace Summit in Egypt that convened without Israel and senior U.S. officials. The summit ended on Oct. 21 without the Arab leaders in attendance reaching an agreement on how to contain the spreading violence.

Alex Vatanka, founding director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, told VOA Mandarin that Beijing's position on Hamas has more to do with the Chinese competition for global influence with the U.S. than it has to do with the Palestinian issue itself.

“I think China clearly sees this as an awkward moment for the United States, and China wants to come in and play a different narrative … that China is just and America's unjust, and this is going to be the Chinese narrative," Vatanka said.

Guy Laron, a senior lecturer with the international relations department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told VOA Mandarin he is not optimistic about China's efforts as a peace broker.

He said at an online event hosted by the Wilson Center on Oct. 18, "China has been a free rider in the Middle East, taking advantage of the fact that the United States secured the freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, and it would explore opportunities to invest wherever it can, but I don't think it can replace the United States as the hegemon in the Persian Gulf, and I think that's the key thing. And I think also countries in the Persian Gulf understand that very well."

Speaking after a meeting on Oct. 19 in Qatar with Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian president's special representative for the Middle East and Africa, Zhai said, "The fundamental reason for the current situation of the Palestine-Israel conflict is that the Palestinian people's lawful national rights have not been guaranteed," according to a statement released Friday by the Chinese foreign ministry.

China recognized the state of Palestine in 1988 and established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992. The United States was the first country to recognize Israel in 1948 and it recognizes the Palestinian National Authority as the representative of the Palestinian people. Washington has designated Hamas as a terrorist group since 1997.

David Hale, former U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, told VOA Mandarin, "China and the United States may seem to have congruent interests in stability in the Middle East, but our sense of stability may be very different than their sense of stability. They want not just stability; they want control, at the end of the day, of their energy supplies, and I think that will be the direction of their future policy, and that is not, in the long run, a stable situation for the rest of us."

Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies, told VOA Mandarin that China's long-standing criticism of Israel and support for a Palestinian state reflect its efforts to develop favorable relations with Muslim countries and fill what Beijing sees as the void left by the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East.

China also has substantial interests in the Middle East’s oil.

Andon Pavlov, the lead refining and oil products analyst at Kpler, an analysis firm in Vienna, told the New York Times that half of China's oil imports, and a little more than a third of all the oil burned in China, comes from the Persian Gulf.

China has long-term contracts with Iran, one of the main backers of Hamas, the armed group that attacked Israel on Oct. 7. China's oil imports from Iran have more than tripled in the past two years, accounting for 87% of Iran's total exports in September.

Dalia Dassa Kaye, a fellow at UCLA's International Institute and Burkle Center, said the U.S. and China may cooperate in stabilizing the Middle East due to a shared concern about oil prices.

"China is not interested in instability globally in this region because that will raise oil prices," she said. "And that is something the United States most definitely does not want in the context of Ukraine. That's already been very, very difficult for the United States and for Europe, for the Western alliance, for NATO fighting this war in Ukraine. So, the U.S. and China have a common interest here in calming the region."

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.