Israel china relationship

Not long ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described his country’s relationship with China as “.” When Biden in March 2023 that he wasn’t inviting Netanyahu to Washington due to his plans to undermine Israel’s independent judiciary, Netanyahu a trip to visit President Xi Jinping in China instead. 

For Israel, the trip was a reminder to Washington that there are other superpowers seeking to deepen ties with Israel. For China, it was an opportunity to increase the cost of the U.S.’ pivot away from the Middle East to Asia by signaling that Beijing could fill some of the void. Netanyahu’s ploy may have worked. Biden reversed his decision in September and to the White House. 

That dynamic shifted after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. In the current strained relationship between Netanyahu and Biden, Sino-Israeli ties are not a viable pressure tool for Netanyahu because China has other plans. Beijing has distanced itself from Israel amid widespread international criticism of its bombardment of Gaza – a move that is well-received around the world and contrasts with Washington’s diplomatic and military support for Israel.

China Arab States

This approach has also served China’s long-term goal of challenging its own reputation as a primarily commercial actor and the U.S.’ reputation as the Middle East’s diplomatic heavyweight. Since China successfully facilitated the restoration of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia last spring, it has sought out further opportunities to position itself as an alternative to the U.S.-led international order. Throughout the Israel-Hamas war, Beijing has attempted to flex its diplomatic muscle, including publishing , between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and with Arab and Muslim foreign ministers aimed at ending the fighting. None of these efforts have been successful, but they are resonating well in Arab and Global South capitals. 

To exploit the growing rift between the U.S. and key global actors, China has explicitly stated its support for the Palestinian cause in international fora. After the U.S. vetoed a December U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman , “We regret and are disappointed at the U.S. veto … Close to 100 countries, including China, co-sponsored the draft resolution tabled by the UAE representing Arab countries.” Deepening its relationship with the UAE—a major oil producer, emerging innovation hub, and key U.S. ally in the Middle East—could provide China with the same opportunity Israel once did: an exploitable entry point to potentially access sensitive American technologies.

Still, China’s approach to the Israel-Hamas war has triggered strong Israeli backlash. About a third of Israeli Jews in their perception of China since Oct. 7 and some private sector leaders have called for financial repercussions, such as Chinese companies from operating in Israel’s ports. Israel’s government has conveyed its “deep disappointment” to PRC officials and taken measures that have strained relations, including sending a parliamentary delegation to Taiwan, where Chair Boaz Toporovsky took aim at nearby China in his public comments, Israel and Taiwan “have much in common as small but strong democracies in a harsh environment.”

china israel

Despite this, other PRC geopolitical interests could ultimately push Beijing back towards Tel Aviv. China’s desire to solidify ties with U.S.-friendly Gulf States has been a key driver of its Gaza policy. However, China’s refusal to condemn Hamas and its labeling of Iran’s missile attack on Israel as “” have heightened concerns in the UAE and Saudi Arabia that the U.S. is an irreplaceable partner. While China portrays the U.S. as a warmonger to advocate for a Chinese-led world order that resolves conflicts without military force, many Gulf countries view Biden’s unwavering military support of Israel as the U.S. support they have long desired. (Even as they have publicly criticized Israel’s actions, reflecting public opinion in these countries.) Beijing may not aim to completely replace Washington in the region as the Gulf countries’ security guarantors, but it is still hoping to leverage this opportunity to strengthen its relationships with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. To do so, it may adopt rhetoric more aligned with theirs, and, in the process, align with Washington and Tel Aviv’s preferences.

China and Israel also have financial motivations to maintain a relationship. Israel’s war has and , creating obstacles for Israeli firms seeking to raise funds. China is the world’s second largest economy and was Israel’s third largest trading partner the year before Oct. 7, making it vital to Israel’s economy. Meanwhile, Chinese investors are facing a slowing domestic economy and . This dynamic could create a mutual—albeit hesitant—desire to bolster commercial ties. 

For Palestinians deeply frustrated with the U.S. and its largely unconditional support for Israel, China’s emerging interest in the conflict appears to be a positive development. But China’s current pro-Palestinian stance may simply reflect that today, a public relationship with Israel is more of a liability than an asset in the U.S.-China rivalry. If that changes, China’s position on Israel will likely follow suit. China’s support for Palestinians seems to be largely superficial, and even its vague peace plan places most of the responsibility on the U.N., not Beijing, giving it future flexibility to shift its stance on this issue and leave the Palestinians once more without a great power. 

Like Israelis, Palestinians may too soon discover that China is a fair-weather friend, and a relationship with it is not a perfect match.