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World

China challenging US influence in Middle East

IANS | February 01, 2024 02:39 PM

NEW DELHI: The International Court of Justice has asked Israel to take measures to prevent any acts that would constitute a genocide in Gaza. China supported the UN court's interim and non-binding ruling in the case brought by South Africa. Israel has rejected the latter's allegations.

Since the war started with Hamas attacks on Israel over three months ago, at least 1, 200 Israelis and more than 26, 000 Palestinians have been killed; more than 130 hostages remain in Gaza; and most Gazans are internally displaced.

Analysts say China's statements on and diplomatic visits to the Middle East show it is challenging US influence in the region, in line with Beijing's geopolitical and economic interests.

"China has taken a pro-Palestine, anti-Israel stance, " Galia Lavi, an Israeli expert on China at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, said.

China reiterated support for the two-state solution and called for a cease-fire and the freeing of hostages, without mentioning Hamas, in its "position paper" on the war, late last year.

"China has misunderstood the Arab world and the conflict. Arab countries have condemned Hamas either by taking its name or condemning its actions, " Lavi said.

China's 2016 "Arab policy paper" says the country supports the establishment of an independent state of Palestine with full sovereignty, based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

"China has always supported the Palestinian cause, " the Palestinian Ambassador to Denmark Manuel Hassassian said, adding that with China emerging as a superpower, its stakes in geopolitics will naturally rise.

China, along with Russia, is seen as taking on Israel's biggest ally, the US, at the UN Security Council, which failed to pass some war-related resolutions because of vetoes by the three.

The 2023 Chinese statement asks the UNSC to demand a cease-fire, oppose the "forced transfer" and displacement of Palestinians, release of the hostages, prepare the international community to support the post-war reconstruction of Gaza, build diplomatic mediation and "support the good offices of the UN secretary-general".

"China is talking a lot about the war but the humanitarian aid it is giving Gaza is $4 million. In comparison, Japan has pledged $65 million and the US $100 million, " Lavi said.

Brokering role

China enjoys goodwill in the Middle East, especially since it got Iran and Saudi Arabia to talk, Hemant Adlakha, associate professor, Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, said.

Last year, China brokered the Iran-Saudi peace deal in Marchand hosted the first trilateral meeting in Beijing in December.

"China has utilised the 'anti-US, anti-Israel' sentiment to present itself as the spokesperson for the Palestinian cause in the global south, " Adlakha said at a recent seminar of the Institute of Chinese Studies, a Delhi-based think-tank.

"The war has provided China an opportunity to end its isolation of the Covid years, " he said.

China had imposed travel and visa restrictions while implementing its "zero-Covid" policy over 2020-23.

The Chinese envoy to the Middle East Zhai Jun visited the region soon after the Israel-Hamas war had started. China's Foreign Ministry then said the 22-member Arab league was ready to "maintain close communication with China to make concerted efforts to end the conflict".

Lavi saw the visit differently: The envoy went "to tell the China story and make sure they (the countries) know China is their friend and the US is the enemy".

"China's main goals are to counter US influence in the Middle East and safeguard China's economic interests."

China has not done enough to convince Iran, which is its ally, to get the Houthi militia to back off from their attacks on Red Sea ships, she said, adding that the war is diverting US attention from the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Three US soldiers in Jordon were killed in a drone strike, which the US says was by another Iran-backed group, this week.

China issued a statement along with the Secretariat General of the Arab League in Cairo during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to Egypt in January, expressing concern over the Red Sea situation.

China and Russia were among four countries that abstained from a UN vote condemning the Houthi attacks.

While China "will not pass up the opportunity to use the current and future crises to discredit the US while amplifying its alignment with its non-Western friends, it is likely to remain a nominal power broker in the Middle East by choice for the foreseeable future", according to a commentary published by the Washington-based think-tank Brookings in January.

Strained relations with Israel

Chinese President Xi Jinping held a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing in June. Xinhua news agency said Abbas was the first Arab head of state to be hosted by China in 2023.

"The bilateral relationship has been fruitful, " Hassassian said of China's ties with the Palestinian Authority, the government in the West Bank.

China has a "vibrant office" in Ramallah, he said, referring to the diplomatic mission and added that economic and trade relations include infrastructure and imports.

"China has emerged as a balancing power in the region - an alternative to the US, " Hassassian said, "China will play an important role in the reconstruction" of the devastated enclave after the war.

China-Israel relations have strained in the recent years.

China bought technology from Israel, and invested in Israel's Haifa port, among major projects. In addition, Israel was perhaps a "middle country" for backchannel talks between China and the US or China and the European Union.

"Israel-China relations peaked in 2019, then started to decline, " said Galia, adding that Israel's US alliance was a factor. Chinese investment in Israel fell between 2020 and 2022.

Israel recently criticised China at the UN Human Rights Council for its treatment of minority Muslims in Xinjiang, where according to activities, mass detentions happened. China has denied allegations of rights abuse, saying its policies in the region were to fight terrorism.

China said earlier that Israel's actions in Gaza had "gone beyond self-defence".

The China-Arab Cooperation forum was set up in 2004. China replaced the EU as the Arab world's largest trading partner in 2020, and two years later, the first China-Arab summit was held in Riyadh. China has also donated communications equipment to Syria to restore its telecom infrastructure. Much of China's oil imports is from the Middle East.

"While the Indo-Pacific has become a focal point of US overseas strategy and diplomacy in recent years, China has emerged as a significant player in the Middle East, reshaping regional security dynamics through increased involvement, " according to an essay in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs in June.

"China's interests in the region extend beyond traditional energy sources and encompass economic, geopolitical and strategic considerations."

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