China has once again called for a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, including a globally agreed timeline for the creation of a separate state for the people of Palestine. China’s position, which many in the West see as singularly pro-Arab, has been consistent ever since the beginning of the present phase of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has already killed more than 23,000 civilians, including more than 10,000 Children. China has been trying to navigate the crisis in a way that guards its main interests, i.e., its multi-billion dollar investment across the region. A wider war in the region could hurt China’s interests more than it could hurt any other extra-regional power. China has a deep economic presence in most of the Arab world. Although it has sound economic ties with Israel too, those with the Muslim world in the Middle East, including Iran, clearly outweigh its ties with Israel. China’s collective investment in the Middle East and North Africa is above US$239 billion. This is on top of their bilateral trade, which crossed US$330 billion in 2021.
By contrast, the China-Israel bilateral trade is less than US$25 billion. Until 2018, China was a major investor in Israel, especially in the tech sector. However, due to the mounting US pressure over Chinese investments coming with potential “security risks”, China’s investments have cooled down. These investment and trade trends are shaping China’s options to navigate the present crisis. On the one hand, these trends explain a) why China has taken a pro-Arab position, and b) why China fears a wider war in the region. Not only, a wider war could impact billions of dollars but also put almost a million Chinese nationals based in the region working on numerous projects in serious jeopardy. Evacuating these many people will be a nightmare.
Beijing learnt a crucial lesson when NATO invaded Libya in 2011. When NATO invaded Libya in 2011, it cost China a lot. According to figures released by the Chinese government itself, 75 Chinese companies, including 13 state-owned companies, were involved in Libya in about 50 joint projects. More than 35,000 Chinese workers were there. The China State Construction Engineering Corporation said that its residential construction project worth US$2.68 billion was under threat. The China Railway Construction Corporation reported that it had to leave US$4.24 billion worth of unfinished projects in the country. The State-run Metallurgical Corporation of China said that it had suspended two projects in Libya that have a remaining value of 5.13 billion yuan.
China cannot afford a similar scenario, which will have a much bigger impact than Libya – not only because investments worth hundreds of billions of dollars will be adversely affected but also because this war will most certainly create a global energy crisis that would affect China’s economy that relies quite heavily on oil imports from this region. China, therefore, not only detests the already ongoing war but also fears its expansion. Therefore, Beijing, alongside Russia and its allies in the region, is pushing to block any possibilities of a wider conflagration.
Besides the economic logic, a more social-cum-security logic is also at play for Beijing. Taking anti-Palestine and pro-Israel/pro-US positions can also put Beijing in the line of the fire of religious extremism. China has a sensitive “Muslim problem” in its Xinjiang region. Beijing believes that taking a pro-Palestine position will help it a) reinforce its pro-Muslim credentials, reform its image in the wider Muslim world and help against Western propaganda that accuses China of running “concentration camps”, and b) help prevent radicalisation from spreading within its borders. A pro-Israel position, on the contrary, could make Beijing a target of jihadi forces not only within its borders but also outside, i.e., in Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc.
This position also has a geostrategic calculus. This strategy is tied to what came to be known as China’s “new security architecture for the Middle East” that Foreign Minister Wany Yi unveiled in September 2022. The minister highlighted this vision, saying that the “new security concept” is based on common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security. More importantly, it seeks to establish the Middle Eastern countries’ dominant position (as opposed to as extraterritorial players), who not only abide by the purposes and principles of the UN charter but also directly boost regional security.
Boosting the Middle Eastern states as dominant players is a key element of China’s push for a multipolar world order. Therefore, by taking a pro-Arab position, Beijing is basically reinforcing the Arab world’s position vis-à-vis not only Israel but also the collective West so that the latter behaves in a way that takes these states’ interests into account while pushing for a just solution to what China considers the “core” issue affecting the region since the end of the Second World War.
Multiple interests are at stake that Beijing wants to protect by taking this pro-Arab position. Thinking otherwise, were Beijing to take a pro-Israel position, it would not serve any of these objectives. For instance, a pro-Israel position will directly boost Israel’s position vis-à-vis the Arab world. It might even encourage Israel to expand the war to implement its version of the “final solution” on the Palestinians. The war, in this context, is more likely to expand than in a situation where China (and Russia) stand with the Arab world and their anti-US/anti-Israel position might boost the Arab world’s national power potential that might deter Israel’s brutal pursuit of the so-called “Greater Israel” at the expense of millions of lives.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”