While the United States remains the dominant extra-regional superpower as the war between Hamas and Israel threatens to spread more broadly, China’s growing presence across the Middle East raises important questions about how it conceives its response to the crisis.
Enjoying close ties to Israel and decent relations with major Palestinian and Lebanese players, including Hamas and Hezbollah, Beijing’s foreign policy in the post-Mao era has been quite balanced between Israel and Arab actors. But Israel’s conduct of the war is pushing Beijing to take a stance that is increasingly pro-Palestinian, which risks harming its relations with Tel Aviv.
China’s main interests
Ultimately, what China wants in the Middle East more than anything else is stability. The region is extremely important to the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, which will face serious problems if wars continue to plague the region.
To help stabilize the Gulf, in particular, China played a catalyzing role in the renormalization of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran almost eight months ago. Now, he escalating conflict in Israel/Palestine and along the Israeli border with Lebanon has raised growing concern in Beijing about the possibility of a wider war. Beijing has called for a ceasefire, followed by a lasting political settlement to the conflict based on the implementation of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians as the best course.
China and Israel’s multifaceted and complicated bilateral relationship has evolved over the decades. Under Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule (1949-76), China supported left-wing and “radical” Arab regimes — namely Algeria, Egypt, South Yemen, and Syria — as well as national liberation movements in the Middle East, including the Palestinian struggle. By contrast, Mao saw Israel as a base of Western imperialism in the Arab world.
But since Beijing and Tel Aviv established diplomatic relations in 1992, economic relations between China and Israel have flourished across countless sectors, including technology, infrastructure, tourism, health, education, logistics, ports, and cosmetics. There is also a history of a military-tech exchange between the two countries going back to the 1980s. Sino-Israeli relations have deepened to the point where U.S. officials have pressured Tel Aviv to cool its ties with the Asian giant.
Despite these deep economic relations, however, China has opposed Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory outside its United Nations-recognized borders and criticized its past bombing campaigns against Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon. Unlike Israel, the United States and some other Western states, China has refused to designate Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations, instead viewing them as legitimate representatives of segments of the population in Palestine and Lebanon.
Beijing reacts to Hamas’ surprise attack
In response to Hamas’ unprecedented incursion into southern Israel on October 7 and the Israeli bombing campaign of Gaza that followed, Beijing has stressed three main messages. First, it condemned all attacks on civilians. Second, it called for the reactivation of dialogue between the warring sides. Finally, it has called for the effective establishment of a Palestinian state based alongside Israel’s 1949-67 borders.
“China has tried to maintain [neutrality], criticize attacks on civilians, and call for de-escalation and ceasefire,” said Yun Sun, co-director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center, in an interview with RS. “Hamas’s attacks on civilians are inexcusable. But for China, Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory is also the origin of the attacks.”
China’s response to October 7 was similar to the way Beijing positioned itself after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, according to some experts. “If in Ukraine there was talk of a ‘pro-Russian neutrality,’ in this case it is a ‘pro-Palestinian neutrality,’” according to Enrico Fardella, Director of the Italy-based ChinaMED Project.
“Neutrality is functional to maximize [China’s] diplomatic flexibility by presenting itself as the only major power capable of dialogue with both sides,” he told RS. “This serves to win consensus at the center (among all those actors critical of the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government but at the same time disgusted by Hamas’ brutalities), showing the superiority of its own diplomatic action in the face of the American one that is decidedly pro-Israel. The pro-Palestinian component, on the other hand, serves to gather support on the left, i.e., in the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel (and therefore anti-American) area inside and outside the Middle East.”
Can China help de-escalate?
Earlier this year, the Chinese offered to mediate between the Israelis and Palestinians. Now more than ever, the region could benefit from an outside actor playing an effective peacemaking role. But given Beijing’s apparent inability to muster the leverage necessary to bring the Israelis and Palestinians toward a peaceful settlement, it is doubtful that China can succeed.
“We know that Beijing wants to prevent the escalation of the crisis, but I do not think that it has enough instruments to defuse the crisis,” said Nurettin Akçay, of the Center for Global Studies at Shanghai University. He explained that China’s limited leverage over Israel is a major obstacle to Beijing successfully de-escalating this conflict through diplomatic means. “It is my belief that China's position in the Middle East is somewhat overstated. Its actual power to shape events in the region is quite limited, despite its economic clout. The ongoing crisis has highlighted the fact that China lacks the necessary hard power to pursue its objectives,” he told RS.
“I think all countries that call for de-escalation will help,” noted Sun. “Beijing has relatively good relationships with both Israel and Palestine, as well as other regional players. But such good relationships do not necessarily translate into influence on such a major issue,” she added. “To assume that Beijing can effectively help de-escalate is to assume that parties to the conflict are willing to change their course, which I do not see as probable at this point.”
Implications for U.S.-Israel ties
How much the ongoing violence in Israel-Palestine and Lebanon will impact China’s relationship with Israel is unclear. In recent years, China has become more vocal about the Palestinian cause, which serves to boost Beijing’s standing among governments and societies across the Islamic world and much of the Global South. This has served to differentiate China from the U.S. and helps Beijing to depict Washington as the isolated player on this issue while countering Western efforts to use the Xinjiang human rights file to distance Muslim-majority countries from China.
While the Chinese and Israelis have generally managed to separate their political disagreements from their economic ties in recent years, China’s increasingly pro-Palestinian position has the potential to create considerable irritation in the bilateral relationship. And while Netanyahu was flirting earlier this year with the idea of traveling to China and meeting with President Xi Jinping in the face of Biden administration’s criticism of the Israeli leader’s far-right domestic agenda, such a show of defiance and independence seems highly unlikely given both Washington’s strong backing for Israel in the current conflict and Beijing’s more pro-Palestinian position.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, DC. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project.
It’s 2024, and the U.S. has officially run out of money for Ukraine. As Congress debates what to do next, Kyiv’s military position will inevitably degrade, likely leaving the country unable to mount significant attacks within a month or two, according to some experts.
Ukraine, for its part, says it has no “plan B” if U.S. funding runs out. “We are confident in plan A,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Wednesday.
It is no great exaggeration to say that what happens on Capitol Hill over the next few weeks could decisively shape the next phase of the war. So let’s dive into what we know.
Senate negotiators are hopeful that they can reach a deal. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) said Wednesday that by next week talks could yield the outline of an agreement that would adopt many Republican-favored border security measures in exchange for funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan.
But the Senate has never been the real obstacle. Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) argues that House Republicans should only accept a deal that includes H.R. 2, a hard-line immigration bill that lays out the GOP’s ideal approach to border control, including many measures that are unacceptable to Democrats.
Some now speculate that Johnson’s goal is to tank Ukraine aid by tying it to border policy. His strategy, the theory goes, would save the trouble of a solo vote on funding for Kyiv, which would likely draw a significant number of “no” votes from House Republicans.
While this approach may work for fiscal conservatives, it could draw blowback from more hawkish members of Johnson’s caucus, who are eager to increase funding for Israel and Taiwan as well as Ukraine.
The main takeaway is clear: Congress may well fail to pass new funding for Ukraine aid this year. Such a possibility could force the Biden administration to make a push for negotiations to freeze the war along its current lines and find a deal that compromises on key aspects of each side’s stated goals.
But an end to U.S. aid could also hurt Kyiv’s negotiating position at a time when Moscow and Western officials have increasingly begun to express interest in talks, as George Beebe of the Quincy Institute argued in RS last year.
“The United States should not remove cards from its hand by ending aid to Ukraine unilaterally or playing them prematurely,” Beebe wrote.
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky struck back at claims that Russia is winning the war in an interview with the Economist. “Maybe not everything is as fast as someone imagined,” he said, but Russian forces continue to face enormous losses in Avdiivka and other hotspots. On the question of peace talks, Zelensky told reporters that the Kremlin was trying to deceive the West by signaling interest in negotiations “because they don’t have enough missiles, ammunition, or prepared troops.” Notably, he also made clear that Ukraine’s efforts in 2024 would focus on isolating Crimea and preventing Russia from launching new attacks from the peninsula.
— Nearly 500 detainees were freed Wednesday in the first prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine in nearly five months, according to AP News. Some prisoners had been held since 2022. The United Arab Emirates facilitated the talks leading to the deal, which is the largest single prisoner swap since the war began. The swap highlights the potential role of the UAE and other neutral states in future negotiations.
— NATO head Jens Stoltenberg expects Sweden to join NATO before July, when allies will gather for a summit in Washington, according to Politico. It’s unclear whether Stoltenberg’s comment is realistic given continued foot-dragging from Turkey and Hungary, both of which have pushed hard to get concessions from Europe and the U.S. in exchange for allowing Sweden to join the alliance.
— Polish farmers will once again join Polish truckers in a blockade of a border crossing with Ukraine in protest of the economic impact that special rules for imports of Ukrainian goods have had on local workers, according to the Financial Times. The news is a significant step back for new Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who had hoped to leverage his ties with European and Ukrainian leaders to end the protests. The blockade, which began in early November, has led to long waits at the border and a parallel drop in trade that threatens Ukraine’s export markets.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller denied that the U.S. has quietly let go of maximalist goals in Ukraine in favor of setting Kyiv up in a strong position for negotiations. “That is not true,” Miller told reporters.
A U.S. airstrike Thursday in the Iraqi capital city of Baghdad killed Abu Taqwa, a commander of Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba, along with an unranked individual, according to reports .
Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Kataib Hezbollah are two of the Iran-aligned militias that have most frequently targeted U.S. forces in Iraq, both before and notably after the start of the Gaza conflict on Oct. 7.
Abu Taqwa also served as the Deputy Commander of Baghdad Belt Operations in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). While formally part of a chain of command led by the prime minister, certain factions within the PMF, particularly Shi’a paramilitary units, operate outside of this structure.
The airstrike targeted a vehicle carrying Taqwa at a logistics center near Iraq’s Interior Ministry in Baghdad. Significantly, this strike occurred shortly after a meeting between Akram Al-Kaabi, Secretary-General of the al-Nujaba militia, and the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Ismail Qaani. Considering the location, timing, and Taqwa’s role within the PMF, this event represents a notable escalation and a clear message to both Iran-aligned militias and the Iraqi government.
The targeted killing occurred against a backdrop of tense relations between Washington and Baghdad. Widely interpreted as a preliminary warning to the Iraqi state, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin specifically addressed attacks by Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba against U.S. forces when he spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Sudani on Dec. 8. Furthermore, during a press conference with the Spanish Prime Minister at the end of December, Sudani mentioned that his government was reassessing the presence of the international coalition in Iraq.
In the near term, it is unlikely that U.S. troops will receive orders to leave Iraq or that Iran and its affiliated militias will launch a significant retaliation within Iraq. However, with each tit for tat escalation, sometimes without formal claims of responsibility, the risk of a broader regional conflict looms larger. If, especially during an election year, a U.S. soldier were to be killed by an Iran-aligned militia, the pressure on the Biden administration to escalate forcefully would be substantial.
The reality is that the United States has limited capacity to deter attacks by Iran-aligned militias in Iraq without diplomatic efforts or a notable increase in kinetic strikes, which would pose the risk of triggering a broader war.
U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria may contribute to strengthening partner forces against ISIS, but they neither contain Iran nor significantly protect the security of the homeland. They are deeply vulnerable to the aftershocks of other conflicts in the Middle East, raising the question of whether the advantages of their force presence outweigh the risks. Disturbingly, it is a war being conducted in the shadows with little Congressional oversight.
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Qassem Soleimani's gravesite. (Mohammad Ali Marizad/ CC BY 4.0)
UPDATE (Jan. 4 at 12:47 p.m.): ISIS claimed responsibility Thursday for the attack in Kerman, saying in a press release that two of its suicide bombers carried out the attack. The group has long been a bitter enemy of Iran, whose government adheres to Shia Islam, which ISIS considers an apostasy. In a subsequent statement, the group contended that Iran's primary goal today is to use Palestinian factions to fight Israel without having to put Iranian soldiers in harm's way.
A pair of explosions tore through a crowd of Iranians marking the fourth anniversary of the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani Wednesday, killing at least 100 people and injuring many others.
The Iranian government described the explosions as a terrorist attack but did not immediately accuse any group of carrying it out. The attack took place during a procession near Soleimani’s gravesite in the southeastern city of Kerman.
Observers immediately pointed to Israel as a possible culprit given its bitter rivalry with Iran and its willingness to attack outside of its borders. But, as AP News noted, such a move would signal a major departure from previous Israeli attacks in Iran, which usually targeted specific officials and caused far fewer casualties than today’s blast.
Another potential attacker is ISIS, which has carried out similar attacks in the past but has not previously struck Kerman, according to AP News.
Iran’s judiciary head said the “agents and perpetrators of this grievous crime will undoubtedly be punished,” adding that he expects officials to track down the attackers and bring them before the courts.
The unprecedented attack comes just hours before the leader of Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant group that works closely with Tehran, is set to give a speech marking the anniversary of Soleimani’s 2020 killing by U.S. forces in Iraq. The Iranian general had previously served as Tehran’s primary point of contact with Hezbollah as well as Iraqi militia groups.
Analysts are anxiously waiting to see how Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah will address Israel’s alleged assassination of a Hamas commander with ties to Hezbollah and Iran in Beirut on Tuesday, which marked the Israel Defense Forces’ first attack in central Lebanon in several years. While most experts say Nasrallah hopes to avoid a full-scale war with Israel, news of a highly symbolic potential Israeli attack in Iran could change that calculus.
“This is a very dangerous moment,” argued Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute, which publishes RS. “A region-wide war appears more likely by the day.”
If Israel is indeed behind the attack then Iran may feel forced to respond directly, a move that Tehran has carefully avoided so far.
“[A]s Israel's attacks continue, Tehran's long-game strategy is coming under increasing strain as more voices in Iran argue that the absence of a strong response undermines Iran's deterrence,” Parsi wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Iranian media has so far reported that the pair of bombs were placed in two suitcases that may have been detonated remotely. A witness told Al Jazeera that one explosion came from a trash can.
The U.S. has not yet commented on the attack in Kerman. The Biden administration has generally avoided weighing in on previous attacks alleged to have been carried out by Israel, including a recent strike that killed an Iranian commander in Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey is “deeply saddened” by the “heinous terrorist attacks” and extended his condolences to the Iranian people.
On Wednesday, Israel continued to strike targets in southern Lebanon, the traditional stronghold of Hezbollah, as Hezbollah pledged to respond to the Tuesday attack in Beirut. Spillover from the Gaza war also continued in the Red Sea, where a string of Houthi attacks on merchant ships has forced many cargo vessels to go around Africa instead of transiting the Suez Canal.