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China Signals Willingness to Deepen Involvement in Facilitating Potential Hamas-israel Cease-fire

In a sign of possibly deepening its involvement in the ongoing conflict between Israel and militant group Hamas, China’s special envoy for the Middle East, Zhai Jun, will visit “relevant countries in the region” next week to facilitate a cease-fire and potential peace talks, China’s state broadcaster CCTV reported on Sunday. No itinerary was released.

In an interview with CCTV, Zhai said China has reiterated that “force is never the way to solve problems” and responding to violence with violence will only create a vicious cycle of revenge and create more obstacles to a political solution. Zhai didn’t offer further details about his travel plans.

“The only way to create the necessary conditions for a political settlement is to put an end to the violence as soon as possible and to promote a cooling of the situation,” Zhai said, adding that he will focus on coordinating with all parties since the conflict erupted.

Some analysts say the Chinese envoy’s trip to the Middle East shows that Beijing is doing what it thinks international powers should do during major global conflicts. “China is essentially copying what other big powers have done, which is to engage regional countries and travel around the region,” said Raffaello Pantucci, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

But rather than taking concrete steps to facilitate a potential cease-fire, some experts characterize Zhai Jun’s upcoming trip as a “listening tour,” during which Beijing will try to prove that it is participating in efforts to promote a cease-fire but in reality, it has no intention to “add more stakes to the outcome.”

“Beijing will try to project the image of a diplomatically active China without playing a leading role in the peace talks,” Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, told VOA by phone.

According to Sung, China has made such intentions “crystal clear” through official statements released over the last few days. During a call with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing is “ready to work with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to support the just cause of restoring Palestinian national rights.”

FILE - Zhai Jun, Special Envoy of the Chinese Government on the Middle East Issue, meets with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Dec. 7, 2019.

And in the CCTV interview, China’s Zhai said the U.N. has “an irreplaceable and important role to play” in the question of the Palestinians, and China will “support the United Nations in taking the lead” in providing humanitarian assistance. “China wouldn’t play a leading role in the peace process but it wants to provide support in a very ambiguous way,” Sung said.

Apart from lacking the willingness to mediate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, Pantucci thinks China also doesn’t have the leverage to fulfill the task.

“China is not forcing any country to come to the table for a peace talk because they don’t have the leverage to do that and also because they don’t want to,” he told VOA. “It’s difficult to tell other countries to sit down and make peace. This could create enemies and the Chinese don’t want to do that.”

The Chinese envoy’s trip comes as Israel prepares for a massive ground assault in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where the deadline for more than one million residents in northern Gaza to evacuate to the south has expired.

Israel has vowed to retaliate against the deadly rampage carried out by Hamas fighters on October 7, killing at least 1300 civilians and abducting dozens of Israelis and foreign nationals as hostages. Israel has carried out airstrikes against targets in Gaza, killing around 1,900 people.

China’s sympathy for Palestinians

While China tries to play a more visible role in the Israel-Hamas conflict, some analysts say the Chinese foreign minister’s latest statement reflects Beijing’s sympathy for the Palestinians. “China has become slightly more direct in demonstrating sympathy for the Palestinians,” Sung from ANU told VOA, pointing to the readout of Wang’s call with his Saudi counterpart.

In the official readout, Wang emphasized that “China believes that the historical injustice against Palestine, which has lasted for more than half a century, cannot continue.”

“When China only mentions justice be done to the Palestinians and make no mention of Israel’s sufferings, this is Beijing signaling that their sympathy lies mainly with the Palestinians,” Sung noted.

Some Israeli observers view China’s statements as proof of their biased stance on the conflict. “Beijing is proactively anti-Israel at our darkest hours,” Tuvia Gering, a researcher for the Diane and Guilford Glazer Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told VOA by phone. “On the bilateral level [with Israel,] they are friendly, but on the international level, China joins the Arab world.”

Sung says he thinks China’s supposed sympathy for Palestinians may damage its relationship with Israel. To Pantucci, it remains unclear how Israel might react to Beijing’s “slight tilt” toward the Palestinians.

“There is the risk of China alienating the Israelis a bit more, but I think the big question is how much the Israelis will want to keep engaging with the Chinese,” he told VOA. “My guess is that they will because Israel is very pragmatic at the end of the day.”

China tries to maintain a balance

Despite Beijing’s repeated emphasis that “injustice to Palestine” needs to be resolved and that implementing the “two-state solution” is crucial to peace in the Middle East, Pantucci says he thinks China is still trying to uphold its non-intervention policy in public.

“The world is currently torn between countries saying Israel is doing terrible things in Gaza and countries saying Hamas is evil,” he told VOA. “The Chinese are trying to tread a line between [ the two sides,] and the approach is probably appreciated by large parts of the world. If Beijing decided to stick their oar in, it doesn’t necessarily help to resolve the conflict.”

While many countries might welcome China’s non-intervention approach toward the Israel-Hamas conflict, Sung says he thinks Middle Eastern states will also observe whether China’s actions match its promises.

“Judging from the repeated statements from China about how the U.N. and the Arab League should be taking the lead, I think it’s not very likely that Arab countries will find Chinese involvement to be significant enough to truly endear them to the Arabs,” he said.

Source : VOA