• Home
  • China as Peacemaker? Iran-Israel Hostilities Undermine Beijing’s New Role
In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Ebrahim Raisi, left, arrives in an official welcoming ceremony by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

China as Peacemaker? Iran-Israel Hostilities Undermine Beijing’s New Role

Iran and Israel’s “shadow war” descended into direct state-to-state attacks and counterattacks in April 2024, dragging the Middle East into an unprecedented and dangerous era. Though hostilities have cooled for the time being, military clashes could resume at a moment’s notice and push tensions between Tehran and Tel Aviv up the escalation ladder. In other words, while last month’s missile and drone strikes did not trigger an all-out regional war, the possibility of future flashpoints casting the region into the abyss cannot be ruled out.

As a global power that seeks a greater role in the Middle East, China has no choice but to closely follow regional developments. Even as Iran and Israel’s “new rules of engagement” bring the region into a period of greater uncertainty, Beijing’s foreign policy in the Middle East will continue to prioritize promoting stability in order to advance China’s main interests, chiefly the advancement of its slew of major infrastructure projects—the Belt and Road Initiative.

Given China’s interest in maintaining stability throughout the Middle East, it was easy to understand why the unprecedented developments that shook the region last month alarmed Chinese policymakers. Although Beijing might not expect Iran and Israel to fight a full-blown war in the foreseeable future, there is an understanding among Chinese officials that hostilities between Tehran and Tel Aviv have entered a new chapter defined by greater unpredictability. Such dynamics can put Beijing in a difficult place, as regional volatility inherently threatens the country’s infrastructure initiatives.

Picking Sides

Traditionally, China has approached the Middle East’s geopolitical tensions cautiously, always seeking to strike a delicate balancing act between the region’s rivalries and festering feuds. Indeed, the Asian giant keeps positive relations with all the major players, including bitter enemies like Iran and Israel. Although there have been no fundamental changes in Sino-Israeli relations since the Gaza war erupted seven months ago and China and Israel still maintain a robust economic relationship, Chinese officials have employed strong rhetoric to condemn Tel Aviv’s military campaign in Gaza. China, like the majority of countries, has also voted on the side of the Palestinians at the UN both before and during this ongoing war in Gaza.

Beijing has carefully curated its language condemning Israel to position itself as the leading voice of the Global South and strengthen Beijing’s relationships with states and non-state actors throughout the Arab-Islamic world. By portraying itself as a defender of the Palestinian cause—or at least a great power genuinely interested in peace—China is sending a message to a non-western audience about the major differences between Beijing and Washington’s approaches to the Israel-Palestine issue and the Middle East more broadly. Within this context, Beijing’s reaction to the Iran-Israel military clashes last month was unsurprising. Although China called for de-escalation, Beijing also took a more pro-Iranian position that consisted of calling out Israel, but not Iran, for acting aggressively.

China condemned Israel’s attack on Iran’s diplomatic building in Damascus on April 1 that killed high-ranking Iranian military commanders and sparked the tit-for-tat escalation that brought the region to the brink of war. “The security of diplomatic institutions cannot be violated” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin. Later on, China’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Dai Bing called the strike a “crime vicious in nature”.

Less than two weeks later, Tehran responded by launching hundreds of drones and missiles directly at Israeli territory. Soon after that episode, which raised fears of a full-scale war between Iran and Israel, China called for de-escalation and restraint. Tellingly, China did not condemn the Islamic Republic’s unprecedented military operation against Israel. To the contrary, China’s top diplomat traveled to Tehran shortly after and praised Iran for demonstrating what Beijing classified as “restraint.” Chinese officials described the riposte as “limited” and a matter of Iranian “self-defense.”

When, on April 19, Israel conducted a limited strike against an Iranian military target in Isfahan, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian responded by voicing Beijing’s opposition to “any act that leads to further escalation of tensions.” China, he said, “will continue to play a constructive role in de-escalating the situation.” Similar to China’s reaction to the April 1 airstrike, there was no explicit mention of Israel in Beijing’s official response.

According to an analysis by Ádám Koi of the ChinaMed Project, a platform that analyzes China’s relations with the Mediterranean states, the recent Iran-Israel clashes took many Chinese experts by surprise. Rather than spill into direct confrontation, the Chinese assumed that Iran’s rivalry with Israel would continue to play out in third countries like Yemen, Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon, or through Iran-backed non-state actors such as the Houthis attacking Israel.

Another Humbled Superpower

China has drawn a direct link between last month’s clashes between Iran and Israel to the seven-month-old war in Gaza. Yet, China has found it difficult to use its regional influence to bring the Israel-Gaza conflict any closer to a resolution. Prior to the Hamas-led incursion into southern Israel, Beijing offered to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Since the Israel Defense Forces entered Gaza, nothing has come from Chinese diplomatic overtures on this front. With the U.S. affirming its ironclad support for Israel and granting Tel Aviv diplomatic cover, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is under essentially no pressure from Washington to wind down this war. Despite China’s increasingly close relations with power players throughout the Middle East, it does not appear that Beijing can alter this reality.

Put simply, the Chinese are seeing firsthand how difficult effective diplomacy is in the Middle East. When China managed to broker the Saudi-Iranian diplomatic agreement of March 2023 (with much help from Omani and Iraqi diplomats), the event was heralded as a sea change for Middle East power politics. Beijing had supplanted the United States as the most powerful voice at the negotiating table—or so some argued. But the events of the last seven months have shown that China lacks the diplomatic sway to persuade Iran and Israel into any de-escalation, let alone détente. Understanding the limits of China’s diplomatic capabilities in the Middle East, policymakers in Beijing will likely prioritize mitigating the risks of conflict and protecting Chinese interests in the region to hedge against future strife.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: Iran

From Concerns to Collaboration: Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and the Development Road Initiative

May 10, 2024

Turkey’s diplomatic skill and mediation have been central to its relationship with Kuwait, particularly during the Gulf crises and regional instability. As Ankara mends ties…

The GCC’s Joint Security Vision: Reading Between the Lines

May 9, 2024

On March 29, Jasem Mohamed Albudaiwi, the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), introduced the GCC’s Vision for Regional Security, the first publication…

Analyzing the Iran-Israel Conflict in a Regional Context

April 22, 2024

There Is No Silver Bullet to Stop Escalation Ambassador Patrick Theros Strategic Advisor and Senior Scholar, Gulf International Forum This recent series of performative actions…

Iran

Succession and Legitimacy Struggles: Assessing Iran’s Post-Raisi Political Landscape

Commentary

On May 19, the helicopter carrying Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, disappeared in the mountains...

Iran

The Next Administration Will Still Find a Successful Iran Strategy Elusive 

Commentary

The constraints and challenges facing U.S. policy toward Iran are largely as they were at...

Iran

China as Peacemaker? Iran-Israel Hostilities Undermine Beijing’s New Role

Commentary

Iran and Israel’s “shadow war” descended into direct state-to-state attacks and counterattacks in April 2024,...

Iran

Strategic Messages and Capabilities: Analyzing the Retaliatory Strikes Between Iran and Israel

Commentary

On April 1, as part of its periodic bombardment of Iranian and Iran-backed positions in...

Iran

Navigating a Tense Exchange: Israel and Iran Sent a Message, and Both Listened

Commentary

The attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1 destroyed the building and...

Iran

Untangling the Motives Behind Iran’s New Energy Agreements

Commentary

Though the country faces a raft of international sanctions and several major geopolitical hurdles, Iran’s...

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project. Mr. Cafiero is a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera, Gulf International Forum, The New Arab, Responsible Statecraft, Stimson Center, and Amwaj.Media. Throughout Mr. Cafiero’s career he has consulted many public and private sector entities, briefed diplomats of various countries on Gulf affairs, and worked as a subject matter expert for multinational law firms. Mr. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.


Iran

Succession and Legitimacy Struggles: Assessing Iran’s Post-Raisi Political Landscape

Commentary

On May 19, the helicopter carrying Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, disappeared in the mountains...

Iran

The Next Administration Will Still Find a Successful Iran Strategy Elusive 

Commentary

The constraints and challenges facing U.S. policy toward Iran are largely as they were at...

Iran

China as Peacemaker? Iran-Israel Hostilities Undermine Beijing’s New Role

Commentary

Iran and Israel’s “shadow war” descended into direct state-to-state attacks and counterattacks in April 2024,...

Iran

Strategic Messages and Capabilities: Analyzing the Retaliatory Strikes Between Iran and Israel

Commentary

On April 1, as part of its periodic bombardment of Iranian and Iran-backed positions in...

Iran

Navigating a Tense Exchange: Israel and Iran Sent a Message, and Both Listened

Commentary

The attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1 destroyed the building and...

Iran

Untangling the Motives Behind Iran’s New Energy Agreements

Commentary

Though the country faces a raft of international sanctions and several major geopolitical hurdles, Iran’s...

Subscribe to Receive Latest Updates from GIF.