November 7, 2023 | Memo
In Israel vs. Hamas, China Backs Iran vs. America
November 7, 2023 | Memo
In Israel vs. Hamas, China Backs Iran vs. America
China’s response to the Israel-Hamas war draws from the same playbook Beijing has applied to the Ukraine war since last year. Beijing is backing the interests of its main anti-U.S. ally in the region (Iran) while making hollow calls for peace, offering itself as a mediator, and blaming the United States for the troubles. The strategy is effectively Iran first, Israel as collateral damage. Beijing has some countervailing interests, namely ties with Israel, ties with Iran’s Sunni Arab rivals (e.g., Saudi Arabia), and a desire for uninterrupted energy flows (despite Iran sanctions risk). But Beijing appears to be subordinating these in pursuit of its primary goal of undermining U.S. influence.
Beijing’s Vocal Alignment with Hamas
China’s posture on the Israel-Hamas war has stayed consistent since the first days after Hamas’s October 7 attack.
China’s initial Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement from October 8 refrained from condemning Hamas’s attack on civilians, instead calling for a “peace process” and the creation of a Palestinian state. China’s United Nations (UN) envoy, Zhang Jun, hewed closely to Beijing’s framing in public remarks that same day, calling for “peace” and for “all parties concerned to exercise restraint and avoid further escalation of the conflict.” In a move reminiscent of Beijing’s refusal to criticize Russian aggression against Ukraine, Zhang avoided naming, let alone condemning, Hamas.
Chinese state media, both internal and external, followed suit. Xinhua, China’s official state news agency, and China Daily, an English-language daily newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department, published articles blaming Mideast violence on U.S. policies. Both Chinese government mouthpieces specifically criticized U.S. support for an Israeli-Saudi peace deal, which China Daily characterized as “promoting the normalization of relations between Israel and Arab countries at the expense of the ‘two-state solution’ between Palestine and Israel.”
China Central Television (CCTV), China’s top state broadcaster, used its 30-minute program on the conflict’s opening night to show footage of Gaza being shelled by Israel’s military but no footage of Hamas-perpetrated violence against Israel. China Global Television Network (CGTN), which broadcasts overseas in foreign languages, aired an “exclusive” interview with Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem, with no one from Israel or elsewhere to challenge his account of events. Among Qassem’s claims was that Hamas’s attack on Israel was conducted “in accordance with international law.”
Beijing shifted its rhetorical line somewhat after facing criticism. Israel’s embassy in Beijing said in an October 8 statement, “When people are being murdered, slaughtered in the streets, it is not the time to call for a two-state solution.” U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, then on a visit to Beijing, said that he was “very disappointed … by the Foreign Ministry statement that showed no sympathy or support for Israel during these troubled times.”
By Monday, October 9, China’s Foreign Ministry stated that “China opposes and condemns acts that harm civilians” or “expand conflict and undermine regional stability.” The ministry still avoided condemning Hamas. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, on an October 14 call with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, said Israel’s actions “had gone beyond self-defense.” He and other Chinese officials are now loudly reinforcing calls for an Israeli ceasefire.
Chinese state media news portals have since misrepresented the evolving story in ways that echo Beijing’s lopsided coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. As CCTV did on the first night of the war, Chinese news coverage has predominantly aired footage of bombed-out buildings in Gaza, while devoting minimal attention to Hamas violence or hostage-taking.
Beijing’s carefully censored domestic information space has permitted a torrent of antisemitic content, while the Beijing-controlled algorithms and censors of TikTok have promoted pro-Hamas and anti-Israel content, apparently, with major influence on the views of American TikTok users, who increasingly rely on the platform for news. In late October, China’s navigation app Baidu Maps appeared to erase Israel’s name from its platform.
Beijing’s actions are consistent with its past practice. During the last major clashes between Israel and Hamas in spring 2021, Chinese officials castigated Israel in diplomatic forums and on social media. Beijing showed particular interest in associating the United States, as Israel’s ally, with alleged human rights abuses occurring in Gaza. This time, as the war and its stakes intensify, Beijing’s harsh posture toward Israel will likely intensify along with it.
The China-Iran-Russia Axis
Whether in the Middle East or Europe, Beijing’s tactics underscore a consistent strategy to align with fellow authoritarian revisionist powers to challenge American primacy, even at the risk of other significant economic and diplomatic interests. China has spent years deepening ties with Iran as it sponsored terrorism, deployed destabilizing proxies across the Middle East, and pursued nuclear weapons. Iran and China have also been Russia’s indispensable supporters during the Ukraine war.
China-Iran-Russia collaboration has included the following:
–Drones for Russia: Chinese technology, such as navigation systems and electronics, reportedly constitute building blocks of the drones Iran has sent to Moscow to fuel attacks against civilian infrastructure throughout the war in Ukraine.
–Joint Statements of Solidarity: In February 2023, while Xi Jinping hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Beijing, the two issued a statement that said, “Both sides recognised each other’s contributions and sacrifices in the field of counter-terrorism, and agreed to further strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation and maintain international and regional peace and security.”
–Oil Trade: China has long been the world’s top purchaser of Iranian oil, with sales reportedly hitting a ten-year high this summer. Beijing has faced only occasional sanctions pressure from Washington for this booming trade, but that could change if U.S.-Iran tensions spike in the coming period.
–Playing Peacemaker: A surprising kind of Sino-Iranian cooperation emerged earlier this year, when Iran welcomed Beijing’s role in brokering the resumption of Iran-Saudi diplomatic relations after a seven-year freeze. Beijing played a less significant role in the Iran-Saudi negotiations than others, such as the Omanis, but its last-minute starring role was a clear assertion of diplomatic strength — especially in a neighborhood and context where Washington has long played chief peace broker.
The China-Russia-Iran axis has deepened cooperation since October 7, including with direct support for Hamas.
On October 17-18, Xi Jinping hosted Vladimir Putin in Beijing for a meeting on the sidelines of China’s Belt and Road Forum. On October 26, Chinese Premier Li Qiang met Iranian First Vice-President Mohammad Mokhber and vowed closer ties. Also on October 26, Russia hosted a Hamas delegation along with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani for a meeting in Moscow.
While the Russians said a main purpose of their talks with Hamas was to arrange the release of Russian citizens held hostage by Hamas, Hamas officials had a different take. In a televised interview on October 26, Hamas leader Khaled Mashal boasted that Russia intends to use Hamas’s recent attack on Israel as teaching material in its military academies, while China sees it as inspiration vis-à-vis Taiwan. Said Mashal:
“We want Arab communities in the West to be active and cooperate with superpowers like China and Russia. For your information, Russia has benefited from our attack because we distracted the U.S. from them and from Ukraine. China saw our attack as a dazzling example. The Chinese are thinking of carrying out a plan in Taiwan, doing what the Al-Qassam Brigades did on October 7. The Arabs are giving the world a master class.“
Lessons in Strategic Surprise — and Taiwan
Last year, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine underscored the risk of war over Taiwan by showing that ambitious revisionists often mean what they say when they threaten war. This year, Hamas’s devastating assault from Gaza should likewise underscore the risk of a Taiwan war by showing that confident intelligence assessments and perceptions of strategic stability are all too often wrong.
A notable aspect of Israel’s apparent intelligence failure was the belief that Hamas was unlikely to launch major attacks because Gaza was enjoying growing economic benefits, including through the expansion of an Israeli program to allow nearly 20,000 Gazans to cross into Israel for work.
This assumption of economic rationality (as we define it) is a common analytical error. It is one we risk repeating, with terrible effect, if we assume that Xi Jinping wouldn’t possibly risk his economy in pursuit of his political and ideological ambitions to annex Taiwan.
Beijing vs. Israeli-Arab Normalization
An important aspect of Beijing’s motivation is to help Iran slow, stall, or reverse progress toward Israeli-Arab normalization — especially Israel-Saudi normalization. Media reports suggested in the weeks before October 7 that a U.S.-backed “mega-deal” could combine normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia with new U.S. defense commitments to Saudi Arabia and Saudi reciprocal commitments to keep some distance from China, such as by avoiding certain military or technological ties or the trading of oil in Chinese yuan.
Now, any such deal may be off, for months or even years, as Saudi leaders watch how the war plays out. White House spokesman John Kirby said this week, as the Saudi defense minister was visiting Washington, that Riyadh remains interested in normalization “after the war in Gaza ends,” as Axios put it. This is significant but doesn’t come from Riyadh and leaves the timeframe unclear.
Meanwhile, the Hamas attack and its aftermath appear likely to cool China-Israel relations after roughly a decade of growth in diplomatic and commercial ties. A planned trip to China in October 2023 by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never materialized — presumably not just because Israel is in crisis at home but also because of Beijing’s pro-Hamas response.
If the new war somehow subsides, Israel may sweep the recent unpleasantness under the rug as it did in 2021. But this appears unlikely, and the effects of a protracted or wider war would be different. In that scenario, Beijing would likely back Israel’s enemies with strategic, diplomatic, propaganda and economic support, as it has with Russia in Ukraine — and in a manner that could be searing to Israel.