Prior to the horrific terrorist attacks by Hamas on civilians in southern Israel on October 7th, China presented itself as a burgeoning diplomatic power in the region that was gearing up to take on a larger role brokering peace deals across the Middle East.
But from October 8th onwards, Beijing became noticeably more reserved, ceding a lot of the diplomatic space back to the United States as it retreated to its longstanding positions that mostly criticized Israel and supported the Palestinians.
The number one priority now for Chinese policymakers is to try and bring this war to an end as soon as possible because if it goes on much longer, core Chinese interests could be at risk, according to Fan Hongda, a professor of Middle East studies at Shanghai International Studies University and one of China’s most highly-regarded scholars on the topic.
In a new article in ThinkChina, an English-language sister publication of the Singaporean newspaper United Morning News (联合早报), Fan explained the challenges that now confront China from a prolonged war in the Middle East:
- MORE SECURITY, LESS TRADE: “Once the situation in the Middle East continues to worsen, Middle Eastern leaders will inevitably focus more on national security, which is not a core area of China-Middle East cooperation.”
- DIPLOMATIC TEST: “With Beijing already paying great attention to the Palestinian issue, other countries — and especially the Middle East — are scrutinizing China’s ability to respond to the Gaza-Israel war. This is clearly a challenge for China as well.”
- HIGHER OIL PRICES: “A stable and peaceful Middle East is what China wants most. As the world’s largest crude oil importer, China certainly does not want the Middle East to be in turmoil or for the situation to further deteriorate as this could drive up global oil prices.”
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? China’s position on the war remains poorly understood by most outside observers, so insights from scholars like Fan are critical to providing a more nuanced perspective on the specific Chinese interests that are at stake.