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    HomePoliticsOpinion: Israel-Gaza war: how China is prioritising politics over economic interests in...

    Opinion: Israel-Gaza war: how China is prioritising politics over economic interests in the Middle East

    But to understand how this conflict is reshaping not only regional but also global paradigms, one must look further east: to China.

    Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman upon arriving at Al Yamama Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on December 8 last year. Photo: Saudi Press Agency via AP
    A comparison with China’s policy vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine is telling. Treading exceptionally carefully, Beijing put forward a 12-point peace plan only a year after the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which China still refers to as a mere “ crisis”.
    Its decision to get involved has been explained primarily through its relationship with Russia, whom Beijing views as a strategic partner in challenging the Western-led global order, as opposed to any independent Chinese interest in seeing the crisis resolved.
    In the Middle East, however, arguably the most significant foreign policy breakthrough in which the Chinese were directly involved in recent years was the resumption of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March. Many saw the deal as Beijing taking a further step in trying to fill a vacuum left by America’s perceived departure from the region.

    With Beijing believing Washington to be recalibrating its strategic interests, it began what was seen as a process of complementing its economic partnerships in the Middle East and North African region with a more active diplomatic role.

    01:49

    Chinese President Xi Jinping offers Palestinian leader a ‘lasting solution’ to conflict with Israel

    Chinese President Xi Jinping offers Palestinian leader a ‘lasting solution’ to conflict with Israel

    Since 2019, China’s trade in the Middle East has increased by US$79 billion to reach US$259 billion in 2021, against a drop of US$38 billion in US trade in the region to US$82 billion.

    While many have questioned the concrete impact of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement brokered by China, what matters is the potential Beijing sees in its playing a more significant role in the region on the diplomatic front; not as a member, however, of the Western-led global order and even at the expense of its economic interests, which were until not too long ago, its sole priority.

    When Beijing convened its third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation on October 18, one could not help but wonder what impact the war in Gaza would have on Chinese investment in Israel.

    From 2015 to 2018, Israel was the largest regional recipient of Chinese investment, with more Belt and Road Initiative projects and belt and road-like projects in Israel than anywhere else in the region.

    An estimated 54 out of 87 investments made by the Chinese in technology between 2011 and 2018 were in Israeli companies. This is not to mention large investments in Israel’s largest port, dairy company and others, all despite staunch opposition from the United States. However, with more than one deal cancelled due to US pressure, Beijing quite clearly understood where Israel’s loyalties lie.
    China’s foray into taking an active role in regional affairs will undoubtedly come at the expense of such economic relationships, though it appears Beijing has made its peace. In the case of the war between Israel and Hamas, Beijing’s avoidance of the word terror when discussing the Hamas attack, despite its citizens being among the victims and its experiences in Xinjiang, was indicative.
    With a 25-year investment deal with Tehran purportedly valued at US$400 million, ensuring Beijing a steady supply of cheap oil, the extent of the influence China wields over Iran, the primary actor challenging the Western-led global order, is tremendous.

    03:11

    China, Iran pledge to deepen cooperation as both grapple with strained US ties

    China, Iran pledge to deepen cooperation as both grapple with strained US ties

    China understands it is no match for the sheer power that the US military wields in the region. Despite reports of China sending military forces to the region (later clarified to be part of a routine patrol), Beijing is far too careful to challenge the US militarily.

    Rather, Beijing seeks to balance its economic advantage with supportive political goals, while attributing much more importance to overtly political goals than it has before. This, coupled with what Beijing perceives to be a tarnished American reputation in the region, will see China attempting to play a political role that it has not in the past.

    Indeed, out of the prioritisation of political dilemmas over economic benefit will emerge a China that is not strictly pro-business at all costs.

    Shlomo Roiter Jesner is the president and co-founder of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum. He is also the CEO of London-based F&R Strategy Group, a geopolitical consultancy at the intersection of politics and business

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