Why has China emerged as leading critic of Israel over Gaza? - analysis

The recent controversy over the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza has led to harsh comments from China, some of them directed at the US, but which appear to be tougher critique of Israel than in the past.

China flag  (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/ECOW)
China flag
Israel-China relations have grown ever-closer in recent decades as new innovation hubs were created and both countries were looking forward to celebrating 30 years of diplomatic relations next year. President Reuven Rivlin received the new Chinese Ambassador Cai Run in April.
However, the recent controversy over the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza has elicited harsh comments from China, some directed at the United State, but which appear to be a tougher criticism of Israel than in the past.  
For instance, on May 16, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the US was obstructing an attempt by the UN Security Council to speak with one voice on Israel’s actions in Gaza.
According to CGTN, Wang Yi said that the escalation conflict between Israel and the Palestinians had caused a large number of casualties. The language of the statement did not mention Hamas rocket fire on Israel.
China said that a ceasefire is the current priority. “China strongly condemns violent acts against civilians, and once again urges both parties to the conflict to immediately stop military and hostile actions, and stop actions that deteriorate the situation, including air strikes, ground offensives, and rocket launches. Israel must exercise restraint in particular,” the CGTN report said.  
The statement went beyond simply not mentioning Hamas rocket fire, which has now reached 4,000. It also called on Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza and guarantee the safety and rights of Palestinians in occupied Palestinian territory. It was unclear if this referred also to Gaza.
What is clear is that China sought to be a leading voice on this issue. It called on the US to shoulder its responsibilities, portraying the US as a lone voice defending Israel and not letting the UNSC condemn Israel’s actions. China reiterated its support for a two-state solution.
The statements also noted that China is a supporter of the Palestinian people and that China has offered to have “peacemakers from Palestine and Israel” come to China for dialogue.  
In a more controversial move, a CGTN host also was accused of making anti-Jewish comments and they were not the only issue at hand.
The host, Zheng Junfeng, said that “some people believe that US pro-Israeli policy is traceable to the influence of wealthy Jews in the US and the Jewish lobby on US foreign policy makers.” He built on that by noting the US is a rival of China and that Israel is a “beachhead” in the Middle East linked to the US.  
Carice Witte, executive director of SIGNAL, the Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership, noted in a paper on the recent conflict that “in past conflicts involving Israel, China was never so vocal.”
Things are changing globally, however. “China is repositioning itself as the spokesman for the international community as part of the aim to reshape global governance to better suit China’s system and interests.” Comments from China are “fashioned to appeal to the growing radical left within the global audience that is following the current war between Israel and Gaza in part by taking on the traditional US position of statesman.”
This is important because Israel has taken a keen interest in closer Chinese relations over the last decades. In 2012, Israel’s Foreign Ministry noted that “Israel and China are commemorating today 20 years of diplomatic relations. Israel assigns great importance to the promotion of its ties with China, the number two economic power in the world, a member of the UN Security Council and a major player in Asia and in the international arena. Israel greatly admires the economic, scientific and technological development that characterizes the growth of China in the last few decades.”
China had impressive interests in Israel and was interested in listening to Israeli voices. At the same time the US began to push back on the Israel-China relationship, warning about technology transfer or a potential deal in the Port of Haifa and other infrastructure projects that might be deemed strategic. China was thinking about its “Belt and Road” initiative and speaking often about how this might have an Israeli angle.  
Things have shifted in the last years. The US became more openly hostile to China and vice-versa. China became more assertive as a naval power and also more involved around the world. China also signed a new 25-year agreement with Iran.
Major changes could occur as the world becomes more multi-polar and China, Russia, Iran and Turkey have converging interests. Iran and Turkey are hostile to Israel.
China is not hostile, but it has many interests and as it takes a more global role there may be debates about how it sees Israel. Comments about Israel being a “beachhead,” or US ally, place it in the opposition camp. What is of interest here is that there are also rising voices in the US, among far-left Democrats, that want to cut off military sales and aid to Israel and see Israel as an enemy state.
This puts Israel in an awkward position as it would like to play a key role with rising Asian economies. The US wants Israel to be distant from China but there is a lack of clarity about the US maintaining its commitments to the region.
The comments at the UN by various countries for decades bashing Israel are usually about lip service. However, the overall trend has its cycles. It was bad in the 1970s, better in the 1990s, and then bad in the 2000s, and in recent years it appeared Israel’s isolation might be changing with new peace partners. Asian countries don’t have the antisemitic baggage of the West. They can be more open to Israel and generally, they are.
However, the way in which Middle East states leverage Islamic issues and the Palestinian issue to blackmail other countries to be against Israel is still a major challenge.
This was how the Arab states used the oil weapon and sought to get the West to be cold to Israel between the 1950s and 1980s. However, that changed and peace deals have changed things too. Now, Iran and Turkey are the leading anti-Israel voices. Turkey wants a pan-Islamic alliance with Malaysia and Pakistan, two countries that often make antisemitic comments.
On the other side, Israel has good relations with India, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam and other countries, such as Australia and Japan. But India tends to have tense relations with China, putting Israel’s mega-military deals in India into a potential spotlight with China.  
There are two issues that now underpin the recent controversy. First is the fact that comments from China have appeared to target the US more than Israel. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the US was ignoring the suffering of Muslims. This was more about China-US relations and US accusations against China’s treatment of Muslims, than about Israel.  
Another factor is that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has concentrated power in his office and gutted the Foreign Ministry. This means that much of what goes on in Israel is related personally to Netanyahu. Did Israel even brief important states like China before launching airstrikes in Gaza? Did Israel even try to make sure the discussions at the UN would mention Hamas? Or did Israel simply not bother to brief any states, waiting some 10 days into the campaign to have real briefings and host foreign diplomats.
While Israel made impressive achievements last year diplomatically, it has foundered this year. This is because diplomacy requires ambassadors and investment in diplomats and explanation, and foreign countries want to be briefed and learn about Israel’s war aims.
Israel was under rocket fire from 4,000 rockets, an unprecedented terrorist onslaught.
Countries like China have not criticized Turkey for its airstrikes in Iraq or Syria. That is because countries like Turkey also are better at selling their reasoning for the strikes. Yet Israel, which has sustained the rocket attacks, was not able to get many countries to condemn Hamas or demand the organization ceases fire. Instead, the ceasefire calls were all on Israel.
Only the US, Hungary and a few states have been there to help Israel stall statements at the UN and the EU. This means that Israel’s issues with China may be deeper and relate to Israel not doing enough work discussing these issues with China.
Israel must also be wary of being pushed US too far by the US into the China-US rivalry. That is not because Israel is not a US ally, but questions remain over whether Israel will suffer disproportionately if it is perceived as a tool in this conflict, rather than just another country that is close to the West, like Greece or the UAE, for instance.