Amid the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, a surprising voice led the charge against the Jewish state.
While Israel's defensive military response to thousands of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip generated a predictable outcry from Europe and some on the American Left, it was China that emerged as one of the country's most strident critics.
Beijing did not hesitate to point the finger at Jerusalem, going so far as to cosponsor the UN Human Rights Council decision to establish a commission to investigate Israeli "violations in the occupied Palestinian territory."
It was China that pushed the UN Security Council to hold three emergency sessions within a week, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi who described the conflict as Israeli "hostilities," excoriated Israel and demanded immediate "restraint."
In the same speech, Wang attacked the US for "standing on the opposite side of international justice" because it stood by Israel. Beijing's Arabic-language outlets and social media accounts were flooded with criticism of Israel and the US, while Chinese diplomats shared antisemitic posts on Twitter, and its official CGTV channel reported that "Jews dominate [US] finance, media and Internet sectors."
Beijing's position was as unexpected as it was strident. In recent years, China has become a major stakeholder in Israel's booming innovation economy. According to a recent study by Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, from 2001 to 2018, annually, bilateral trade between the two countries soared from just over $1 billion to nearly $12b. (It has dipped slightly since – to just under $10b. last year – on account of pressure from the Trump administration.) This massive surge of capital, much of which has flowed into the country's dynamic hi-tech sector, has put China on track to surpass the United States as Israel's single largest foreign investor in coming years. Chinese officials have waxed effusive about the "mutual trust" and "cooperation" that now prevails in relations between Beijing and Jerusalem. All this makes China's vocal anti-Israel stance surprising – and perhaps telling.
Nor can China's activism be chalked up to its strong backing for the Palestinian cause. Rhetorical support notwithstanding, Beijing has provided only paltry aid to the Palestinian Authority and its people. As of 2019, there was no measurable Chinese investment in either the West Bank or Gaza, and bilateral trade flows were negligible.
But while China has done little to support the Palestinians, it has nevertheless leveraged them against Washington.
"The aim is to earn points on the global stage by revealing and criticizing the US's double standards in the Middle East," explains Zhang Chuchu of Fudan University.
WHAT, THEN, accounts for Beijing's abrupt and vocal anti-Israel turn?
Part of the answer can be found in China's increasingly desperate efforts to shift the international conversation away from its ongoing genocide against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
By supporting the plight of the Palestinians, China is cynically stoking the most emotional issue in Middle Eastern politics in order to distract Muslim nations from its own domestic campaign to "break the lineage and roots" of Chinese Muslims via an extensive system of gulags.
At the same time, Beijing's expanding investments throughout the Middle East in recent years (in arenas ranging from Lebanon's telecom sector to assorted infrastructure projects in Egypt) have effectively bought the silence of Muslim governments when it comes to Chinese human rights abuses.
Another reason relates to China's choice of regional partners. Over the past several years, Beijing has inked strategic partnerships with at least seven countries (including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq). But, as the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission explains in a new report, China's sprawling 25-year strategic pact with Iran is the centerpiece of its Mideast strategy.
If fully realized, that deal would be a boon for China, giving it preferential access to infrastructure and telecom projects in the country, access to Iranian port facilities, and significantly expanding military cooperation between the two regimes. The cumulative effect of the deal is to transform Iran into a critical hub along China's vaunted Belt and Road Initiative, and in doing so give China a vital stake in the Islamic Republic.
China's response to Israel's recent conflict with Hamas should serve as a wake-up call for policy-makers in Jerusalem. It highlights that, despite its extensive financial stake and political platitudes, there are real limits to China's alignment with Israel. Indeed, the Israeli government's recent backing of a Canadian-sponsored UN resolution on the Xinjiang genocide suggests that a rethink on China policy may already be under way.
For the rest of the Middle East, meanwhile, China's anti-Israel turn represents a cautionary tale, one that states in the region and beyond would do well to take to heart: Beijing's friendship today is no guarantee of its fidelity tomorrow.