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Chinese Perspectives on the Recent Iran-Israel Clash

On left: Dai Bing, chargé d'affaires of China's Permanent Mission to the UN, speaks during an emergency meeting of UN Security Council in New York, April 14, 2024 (Photo by Xinhua/Xie E); On right: People inspect the debris of an intercepted Iranian missile near the city of Arad, in southern Israel, on April 28, 2024 (Photo by Jamal Awad/Xinhua).

By Adam Koi

On April 1, 2024, an airstrike against the Iranian embassy complex in Damascus, Syria, destroyed the building housing the Iranian consulate and killed sixteen people, including high-ranking officers of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Although no country officially claimed responsibility, Iran and several media outlets promptly attributed this attack to Israel. Tehran vowed to retaliate, and on April 14, it launched over 300 drones and missiles at targets within Israeli territory. While almost all the drones and missiles were successfully intercepted, Tel Aviv responded on April 19 with a limited airstrike against an Iranian air base near Isfahan.

Against the backdrop of the war in the Gaza Strip, Chinese commentators closely followed this sudden escalation of the Iran-Israel proxy conflict. In this ChinaMed Research Note, we delve into the official Chinese response to this brief, direct conflict between Tehran and Tel Aviv, as well as the perspectives expressed within the Chinese press and by Chinese analysts.

Our analysis reveals that Chinese experts were largely caught off guard by the actions of Iran and Israel, as many had not expected a direct military engagement between these two states. In line with Beijing’s official stance, they also praised Iranian restraint and linked these tit-for-tat attacks to the conflict in Gaza. Looking ahead, Chinese scholars do not foresee a prolonged conflict between Israel and Iran on the horizon but acknowledge that their relationship has entered a new and more unstable phase.

Beijing’s Official Position

In response to this direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran, Beijing has consistently taken a firm pro-Iran position and suggested that Tehran is not an instigator of regional instability.

On April 14, in the wake of Iran’s attack, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a concise statement urging “relevant parties” to “exercise restraint” to prevent further escalation. This diplomatic language is consistent with China’s typical stance of condemning actions without condemning actors and, more generally, of not taking sides and instead urging dialogue. Moreover, Beijing immediately linked this escalation to the ongoing war in Gaza, a conflict which China has long advocated resolving through the UN. As articulated in the communiqué:

“The top priority is to effectively implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 2728 and settle the conflict in Gaza as soon as possible. China calls on the international community, especially influential countries, to play a constructive role in maintaining regional peace and stability.”

In response to the Iranian attack being raised at the UN Security Council on April 14, Chinese Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dai Bing reiterated China’s official position, defining the Israeli airstrike on the Iranian consulate a “crime vicious in nature” which violated the UN Charter and the sovereignty of Iran and Syria. Dai concluded by calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as for him:

“The ongoing situation is the latest spillover of the Gaza conflict. It serves as another reminder that the Palestinian question remains central to the Middle East issue and bears on the peace, stability, and long-term security in the region. If the flames of the Gaza conflict are allowed to continue raging, then the adverse spillover is set to spread still further, making the region even more unstable.”

The above elements of the Chinese position were also articulated by the Chinese Foreign Minister and Director of the CCP Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Commission, Wang Yi. During a phone call initiated by the Chinese side on April 15 with Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Wang Yi condemned the Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy complex in Damascus as an “unacceptable violation of international law.” Tellingly, the Chinese Foreign Minister praised Iran for refraining from targeting civilian facilities and characterized the Iranian retaliation as “limited” and ultimately “an exercise of the right of self-defense” that reaffirmed Iran’s commitment to “continued pursuit of good-neighborly and friendly policies.”

On the same day, Wang Yi also called Saud bin Faisal Al Saud, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, to convey the Chinese position. During the conversation, Wang emphasized the significance of resolving conflicts peacefully and called for the resolution of the war in Gaza through the UN while also condemning the Israeli air raid as unlawful. In response, Foreign Minister Faisal expressed Saudi Arabia’s expectation for China to play a larger role:

“Saudi Arabia highly expects China to play an active and important role in this regard and is willing to strengthen communication and coordination with China to promote the immediate and unconditional ceasefire in Gaza, launch the implementation of the ‘two-state solution,’ and achieve stability in the Middle East as soon as possible.”

These talks with Iranian and Saudi officials should be understood as part of China’s efforts to prevent relations between Riyadh and Tehran from destabilizing, especially as it is alleged that Saudi Arabia shared intelligence with Israel regarding the Iranian attack. Beijing’s interest in Saudi-Iranian relations stems from its pivotal role in brokering the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between these two “regional adversaries” in March 2023.

This so-called “wave of reconciliation” is often hailed by Chinese officials as evidence of the effectiveness of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Global Security Initiative. This alternative security framework is often placed in contrast to the Western system, which Chinese officials and scholars often portray as a front for US hegemony.

Against this backdrop, the bombings in Isfahan, attributed to (but not officially acknowledged by) Israel, were only briefly commented on by Chinese officials. During a press conference on April 19, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lin Jian stated:

“China has taken note of the relevant reports and opposes any behavior that would further escalate the situation.”

Chinese Experts Debate Iran’s Retaliation

Chinese scholars have characterized Iran’s retaliatory attack as an unprecedented development in its long-standing proxy conflict with Israel. Many were taken by surprise by this turn of events and expected Iran to respond militarily through a third party, like the Houthi movement in Yemen. For example, drawing substantial online criticism, China Institute of International Studies senior researcher Dong Manyuan stated that:

“I do not believe Iran will launch a direct strike on the Israeli homeland so as to avoid a direct war with Israel. Iran will not attack Israel’s diplomatic missions abroad because it is a civilized country with sophisticated diplomacy.”

Similarly, senior research fellow at China Institute of International Studies Teng Jianqun and Director of the Strategic Teaching and Research Office of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force Command College Wang Mingzhi downplayed the possibility of a direct attack from Iran, predicting instead that Iran would retaliate through its proxies like the Houthis. Talking with CCTV journalists, Senior Colonel Du Wenlong of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences stated:

“If Iran passes down its weaponry to these areas [Syria, Yemen, Gaza, and Lebanon], then through intermediary parties, it can achieve similar war exploits. So, in the next step, it can influence actors around the whole Middle East to carry out joint retaliations against Israel and the United States.”

In hindsight, Dong and Yin emphasized that Iran could not have allowed the Israeli attack on its consulate to go unpunished. That said, the Iranian drone and missile attack was interpreted by Chinese experts more as a show of strength rather than an attempt to inflict significant damage as a prelude to a prolonged conflict. According to Wang Mingzhi, Li Li from the PLA National Defense University, and Ningxia University’s Professor Niu Xinchun, the attack was notable for its “limited scope” and “demonstrative nature.” Wang Mingzhi added that Tehran’s statement immediately after the attack, declaring that it “considers the issue over,” clearly indicated Iran’s restraint and responsible approach toward regional stability. Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Yin Gang shared this perspective, and Li Shaoxian, Dean of the China Institute of Arab Studies at Ningxia University, stated:

“Iran is pursuing revenge without triggering a war.”

Likewise, military expert Li Li asserted that Iran effectively showcased its capability to retaliate, its operational planning prowess, and the capacity of its military industry, which she described as “highly systematic” and “extensive.” She emphasized that Iran’s objective was to demonstrate its ability to strike Israeli territory and bolster its deterrence to secure political and strategic goals. Ding Jun, Head of the Institute for Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) also emphasized the political nature of the operation, which “outweighs its military significance.”

According to Wang Mingzhi, the Iranian attack’s restraint was due to Tehran’s goal “not to divert the international community’s attention [away from Gaza and Israel] and not to entangle itself in conflict with ‘neutral forces’.” More specifically, Dong Manyuan added that safeguarding its relations with Saudi Arabia is a major Iranian concern. A researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Yu Guoqing, argued that Iran was also careful not to draw the United States into the conflict. Reflecting on General Qasem Soleimani’s assassination in 2020, Yin Gang pointed out that the April 1 attack marked the second time Israel had eliminated high-ranking officers of the elite Quds Force, underscoring its symbolic significance.

Mirroring the core ideas of Chinese official statements, experts viewed these events not merely as another chapter in the Israeli-Iran conflict but rather as a spillover of the war in Gaza. Professor Liu Zhongmin from SISU and Tang Zhichao, Director of the Middle East Development and Governance Research Center of the Institute of West Asian and African Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argued that the confrontation that started in Gaza has now expanded to five additional fronts—the West Bank, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Red Sea—as Israel’s enemies are trying to divert its attention and deplete its resources. For Tang:

“Although these conflicts occur at multiple points, the main line is clear. […] The conflicts occurring in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen are closely linked to the Gaza war, presenting a situation of multi-point linkage and mutual resonance.”

Li Shaoxian and Liu Zhongmin made similar points. In particular, Liu suggested that the conflict between Iran and Israel is driven more by ideology, regional and domestic politics, and third-party influence rather than being solely a zero-sum clash of interests. Therefore, he sees these recent developments as a significant escalation in their long-standing rivalry that, as a result of Israeli actions in the wake of the Hamas-led attack on October 7, 2023, has become indissolubly connected to the Middle East peace process and the Palestinian question. For Liu:

“Since the outbreak of the new round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2023, Palestinian Hamas, Lebanese Hezbollah, Yemeni Houthi armed forces, and Iraqi and Syrian Shiite militia armed forces, which have conflicts with Israel, have been viewed by Israel as “proxies” of Iran. This has led to Israel increasing its attacks on these organizations, leading to a spiral escalation of conflicts between Iran and Israel. The Israeli airstrikes on the Iranian Embassy in Syria and Iran’s retaliatory strikes are the latest manifestations of the escalation of conflicts between the two sides.”

On Israel’s Response

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on April 18 that his country reserves “the right to protect itself” in response to Iran’s attack, Chinese experts offered varied opinions on the likelihood and method of Israel’s retaliation, as well as on its deeper motivations. Initially, given the lack of information on the attack, Li Li and Wang Mingzhi suggested that indirect and non-military actions, such as cyberattacks against critical infrastructure or research facilities, were among the likeliest of possibilities. Similarly, Ding Jun anticipated that the strike would follow the patterns of previous Israeli retaliations, targeting Iran’s interests outside its borders, particularly in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Regarding motivations, prior to the Israeli operation, Li Li, Liu Zhongmin, and Wu Shiyao from the University of International Business and Economics suggested that amid the prolonged conflict in Gaza, the Netanyahu government is grappling with declining domestic support. Li explained that the Iranian attack exposed Israel’s vulnerability, challenging the perception of its absolute security in the people’s eyes. Ding Jun and Dong Manyuan highlighted the influence of far-right members of the Israeli cabinet, most notably Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir. These perspectives on Israeli politics are not new in the Chinese debate, as we pointed out in our most recent report.

Professor Li Li expressed doubts about White House statements claiming that Tel Aviv had not notified Washington prior to its strike on Iran. For Li, the notion of Israel carrying out attacks without informing the United States would constitute crossing a red line for Washington.

In the aftermath of the attack, scholars observed that Israel’s retaliation successfully achieved two major objectives. Firstly, it demonstrated Tel Aviv’s determination and capacity to strike targets anywhere if deemed necessary. For example, Niu Xinchun and Li Li highlighted the symbolic significance of timing the strike with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s birthday and targeting military targets near Iran’s nuclear facilities. Du Wenlong and Li Shaoxian echoed these sentiments. Secondly, Israel sought to retaliate without escalating the situation further, an objective that Niu also believes was achieved.

Regarding the future, scholars such as Sun Degang from Fudan University and Dong Manyuan expect direct confrontation to be the “new pattern” or the “2.0 version of the Iran-Israel conflict.” Yet, many Chinese experts, including Niu XinchunLi Shaoxian and Liu Zhongmin, foresee a return to the status quo ante. According to Niu:

“As direct attacks on each other’s territory are too hazardous, the parties are not willing to bear such risks, [therefore] as for the future, the state of affairs will return to the situation prior to April 1, characterized by an indirect war between Iran and Israel.

Despite acknowledging the potential for greater instability between Iran and Israel, Chinese scholars generally agree that these attacks are unlikely to be the prelude of a full-blown war between the two countries. For example, Niu noted the absence of official comments from both parties, which he interpreted as part of their efforts to avoid further escalation. Yet, he also cautioned that war could erupt unintentionally. According to him:

“During the April [1] attack, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu believed that Iran would not attack Israeli territory, […] it was a misjudgment from his side, […] Iran also did not expect or want to see attacks carried out in its territory, yet, a few days later, Israel raided Iranian targets, contrary to everyone’s expectations.”

Du WenlongLiu Zhongmin and Li Shaoxian echoed this perspective, emphasizing that “nothing can be ruled out with absolute certainty.” Yin Gang stressed the threat a full-scale war poses to Iran’s political stability.

The Debate Regarding the Role of the United States

The United States was heavily criticized by Chinese analysts for three reasons: Washington’s unwavering support for Israel’s actions in Gaza, its containment policy against Iran, and its failure to denounce Israel’s attack against the Iranian embassy complex on April 1.

Several scholars have argued that Israel is trying to manipulate and draw Washington into the conflict. Sun Degang and Du Wenlong highlighted the significance of the US abstaining from voting on UN Security Council Resolution 2728 on March 25, which calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza for Ramadan. They argue that the Israeli government was alarmed by the US allowing this resolution to pass as it may signal a potential shift toward a more detached American regional policy. They interpret the attack on Iran’s embassy within this context. A similar point was made by Teng Jianquan, while Du Wenlong, in another interview, suggested that:

“From Israel’s point of view, if it could once again draw the United States into the Middle East as a belligerent party, Israel would be the greatest beneficiary. The next step is to escalate tensions with Iran, either by engaging in a trial of strength or causing an incident that could spark a war, thereby inviting the US into the conflict.

Considering these dynamics, Li ShaoxianDing JunYin Gang and Yu Guoqing posited that Washington to some extent exerted pressure on Tel Aviv to refrain it from escalating the situation further. For Yu, “Israel is still very concerned about the recent subtle changes in US-Israel relations.” After all, ending the conflict is one of Washington’s important objectives because it “constrains the US strategy,” as Ding Jun explains. Tang also believes that prolonging the conflict could have grave repercussions on the Biden administration’s Middle East policy, which is “aimed at reshaping the region and discouraging its countries from forging closer relations with China.”

Niu Xinchun emphasized the predicament facing Israel, torn between heeding its allies urging restraint, while also demonstrating its willingness to potentially strain those relations in pursuit of its strategic and political interests. In particular, he said in an interview:

“In the past six months of the Gaza conflict we saw that Israel indeed does not always listen to the US. Israel has its own national interests, just as Netanyahu said. But as for the most basic interests in the Middle East, the United States, the Western allies and Israel agree. Their strategic interests such as containing Iran or fighting Hamas, in these questions they agree. But how to contain Iran and how to fight Hamas? It is in modes of approach, or to say, in tactical questions where they disagree. ”

That said, the prospect of Washington fundamentally altering its relations with Israel remains remote, according to Teng Jianqun, who dubbed the White House’s critical remarks toward Tel Aviv’s actions as mere “shows for others to see” (大棒高高举起,轻轻落下), underscoring Israel’s ultimately indispensable role in the US’ Middle East strategy. Dismissing the relevance of diplomatic critique and attributing responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza to the United States, Dong stated that:

 “The US and Israel are strategic partners, and for that reason on the strategic level the relationship will remain solid. even if conflicts arise on the tactical level […]”

US military support was thus branded “hypocritical” and described as an act that “thoroughly exposed the unreasonable and unjust nature of the Western liberal international order.” Similarly, a Research Fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, Su Xiaohui, and Dong Mangyuan highlighted that Washington is merely paying lip service to the two-state solution. Su believes that the US’ rhetoric is primarily aimed at facilitating the official recognition of Israel by Arab Gulf nations. Conversely, Tang Zhichao and Teng Jianqun argued that this stance is because of the importance of young Muslims in the upcoming US presidential elections.

Conclusion

Our analysis suggests that China was caught off guard by the escalation between Iran and Israel. This likely explains why Chinese diplomacy had to swiftly intervene to ensure the stability of Saudi-Iranian relations in the aftermath of Tehran’s retaliation.

Once the stability of this relationship was ascertained, China’s official response and the opinions of Chinese experts distinctly favored Iran, characterizing its actions as restrained and rational. In contrast, both Israeli actions and American support were heavily criticized for being motivated by short-sighted domestic goals and for unfairly blaming Iran, rather than Israel, for regional instability.

Against this background, Chinese scholars do not believe that this brief confrontation was a prelude of a full-scale war between Israel and Iran. However, they acknowledge Israel-Iran ties have entered a new more unstable phase that will continue at least until what they believe to be the real issue facing the region – the conflict in Gaza and the future of the Palestinians – is addressed.

Ádám KOI is Research Fellow at the ChinaMed Project. He is a PhD candidate in Sinology at ELTE Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. His primary areas of research are China’s governance and administrative system, and China’s foreign policy and economic strategy.


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