Days after the United States’ shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, which culminated in President Joe Biden’s historic wartime visit to Israel, China has started its own diplomatic hustling in a region teetering on the brink of a wider conflict.
Zhai Jun, Beijing’s special envoy to the Middle East, has embarked on a whirlwind tour of the region aimed at promoting peace talks between Israel and Hamas – even though Beijing still refuses to condemn or even name the Palestinian militant group in any of its statements.
Zhai has traveled to Qatar and attended a peace summit in Egypt, calling for a ceasefire, humanitarian access to Gaza and reiterating China’s support for a two-state solution. It is unclear if he will visit Israel, as Beijing has provided no details of the trip.
But brokering peace is a tall order, especially for a country with little experience or expertise in mediating such a long-running, intractable conflict – in a deeply divided region where it lacks a meaningful political and security presence.
Few experts in or familiar with the Middle East expect Zhai’s trip will lead to any concrete deliverables in peacemaking.
Instead, they view it as a chance for China to tilt the global balance of power further in its favor as the strategic competition with the US heats up.
Beijing is seeking to use the diplomatic mission to shore up its position as a champion of the Arab world and the Global South, which has long been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and dissatisfied with the American-led world order, experts say.
“China is looking to play a diplomatic role by calling for calm and de-escalation and – at the same time – showing strong support for Palestine,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.
“This should be seen sort of opportunistically… China doesn’t have a huge track record of success in trying to be a neutral broker in this conflict. So the most that China can do is offer symbolic diplomatic support.”
Jonathan Fulton, an Abu Dhabi-based senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Zhai’s mission will be to “demonstrate China’s solidarity with Arab causes” and to promote “a different vision for the region than the US does.”
“China wants to be seen as an active, responsible great power, but it doesn’t really have the depth of engagement in the region that results in a leading position,” he added.