Sergio Restelli

China’s opportunistic ‘neutrality’, with Israel and beyond

In a time of great uncertainty about the future and resilience of the liberal world order China’s rise and interplay with the foundations of that liberal order need to be examined carefully. China is increasingly portraying itself as a champion of liberal globalization, with its ascendance to power it is changing the rules of the game, confronting them, or developing alternative paths and one of ways it is doing this is by strengthening political separatist movements around the world.

Geopolitical and economic factors that have influenced China’s participation in the efforts to bring Tehran and Riyadh together. China’s calculated influence in Middle Eastern diplomacy is a result of the complex dynamics of the area and the dominance of other powerful countries.China is actively pushing for a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran and unity in the Arab world as it considers this crucial to counter US-Israeli dominance.

China has also not shied away from positively expressing its support for Palestinians. In November 2023, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a group of visiting diplomats from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Indonesia that China was a “good friend and brother of Arab and Muslim countries” and a firm supporter “of the cause of the Palestinian people”. China has been not only offering verbal support but also material support to the Palestinians through direct action such as offering aid. China has refrained from describing the Hamas incursion into Israel as a terrorist attack but has called Israel’s retaliation ‘collective punishment’ of Palestinian civilians.

So, China’s adoption of a self-proclaimed ‘principled neutrality’ in practice, leaned noticeably towards the Palestinians and took a strongly critical stance against the West.

China has seized a strategic opportunity to woo the Palestinians and the Arab-Islamic fraternity, and to alienate them from the United States, perceivably Israel’s all-weather patron. Chinese competence, however, was put to the test when, in May 2021, the Hamas/Palestinian-Israel conflict hit the UN Security Council agenda and demanded urgent action. At the open debate on ‘The Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Question’ Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, did not mention the rockets fired from the Gaza Strip to Israel. As a result China’s position as an unbiased neutral mediator was brought into question both by Israel and the United States.

With the ongoing US-China trade war and the rise to power of populist and autocratic leaders worldwide, many observers and analysts inside and outside of the study of world politics fear an impending end of the liberal order, the world reverting into rival nationalist or regionalist blocs led by authoritarian despots, in which China is assumed to desire taking the lead. The extent to and variegated ways in which China is not easy to discern.

For instance developments in New Caledonia, the South Pacific territory that had been part of France since 1853, is primarily a French domestic problem but is being exploited by China.

In three successive referendums between 2018 and 2021, New Caledonia had rejected independence. But violence has gripped New Caledonia since May 13, where the native and separatists are seeking independence from France. If New Caledonia becomes independent, financial subsidies from Paris, and China is eager to grant easy loans and become a significant trading partner. New Caledonia has taken on an increasing strategic importance in recent years both because of its location, only 1,500 kilometres from Australia’s eastern coast, and its abundance of nickel, with the world’s fourth-largest reserves. But almost 40 per cent of New Caledonia’s current nickel exports go to China, which dominates the global EV battery market. In recent years, Beijing has cultivated ties with the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front, the main pro-independence coalition in New Caledonia, separatist leaders are suggesting an independent New Caledonia would benefit from closer ties with China.

France’s political and military support for Armenia in a long-standing conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh has also made it a target of Azerbaijan’s pro-China government. France accuses Azerbaijan of fanning anti-colonialist sentiment in New Caledonia and other overseas French territories. Social-media posts this month showed some rioters in New Caledonia brandishing Azerbaijan flags, leading France to ban TikTok in the territory. Whether or not Beijing has had a direct hand in sowing unrest in New Caledonia, the territory has become the locus of a geopolitical struggle pitting France against China.

Clearly in a post-truth world in which power competition is again the order of the day, everything is fair game for China. It is more and more asserting itself all over the planet. Take for instance, China’s expanding role as a peace-broker and its preference for conflict management over resolution in the Middle East.

Signs that China is gearing up to contest America’s global leadership are unmistakable, and they are ubiquitous. There are systematic efforts to refine methods of converting economic influence into economic coercion throughout the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

South Asia expert Claude Arpi writes that in India’s neighborhood, China’s influencing strategy translates, in the Maldives falling for Beijing’s promises or in Nepal, a recrudescence of territorial claims in the Kalapani area, clearly influenced by Beijing.

Beijing’s approach to most of the conflicts, be it Ukraine- Russia, Israel-Gaza or France Caledonia, aims only to bolster China’s sway among Global South nations.

Similarly, China has used a mixture of inducement, coercion, and political manipulation in an effort to weaken America’s relationships with its military partners and treaty allies.

Beijing has been amassing the means and seeking the geopolitical influence to confront the United States as well as positioning itself for a broader global challenge.

About the Author
Sergio Restelli is an Italian political advisor, author and geopolitical expert. He served in the Craxi government in the 1990's as the special assistant to the deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice Martelli and worked closely with anti-mafia magistrates Falcone and Borsellino. Over the past decades he has been involved in peace building and diplomacy efforts in the Middle East and North Africa. He has written for Geopolitica and several Italian online and print media. In 2020 his first fiction "Napoli sta bene" was published.
Related Topics
Related Posts