Gedaliah Afterman heads the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy. Tomer Raanan is a research assistant at the Asia Policy Program.
Despite Israel's efforts to distance itself from the intensifying strategic rivalry between the United States and China, it could soon find itself, reluctantly and against its interests, increasingly used as a pawn in this contest.
During the recent armed conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant organization that effectively controls Gaza, in May, China proved unusually vocal in its support for the Palestinians, harshly criticizing Israel's airstrikes in Gaza, drafting United Nations Security Council statements condemning Israel's actions -- while also omitting Hamas -- and repeatedly slamming the U.S. for its steadfast support for Israel.
Still, strident statements from Beijing probably do not signal a change in its bilateral relations with Jerusalem, but rather a conscious decision to insert Israel into its ongoing rivalry with the U.S.
Historically, China's support for the Palestinians dates to its traditional position as a champion of the developing world and its support for the Non-Aligned Movement.
As China's economic clout and global influence expanded, it also developed a robust economic relationship with Israel. Beijing now considers Israel an important partner for tech and innovation, with trade between the two countries growing by almost 20% in 2020 to $17.5 billion, according to Chinese officials.
Rhetoric aside, China's contribution to the Palestinian cause has mostly lacked substance, especially in recent years. While repeatedly putting forward its own policy proposals, like its four-point proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, China has invested little political capital in the plan.
The truth is that Beijing sees these initiatives as avenues to bolster its international image as a "responsible stakeholder" rather than a concrete geopolitical priority. Beijing's modest pledge of humanitarian aid to the reconstruction of Gaza further illustrates that it is in no hurry to put its money where its mouth is.
Beijing's recent statements against Israel are notable not because they reflect a new stance on the region's most protracted conflict but because they demonstrate China's willingness to use Israel as a pawn in its competition with Washington. A closer look at the statements and tweets by Chinese officials and state media demonstrates that they aim to target the U.S. at Israel's expense.
Beijing's vitriol seeks to delegitimize Washington's criticism of China's actions in Xinjiang against the Uighur Muslims. According to this logic, Washington's hypocritical abandonment of the Palestinians during the recent flare-up shows its true colors and apathy toward Muslims. Ergo, the U.S. is not genuinely concerned for the human rights of Uighur Muslims. It is simply launching politically motivated attacks against China.
As Western pressure on China increases, so does Beijing's need for Arab and Muslim diplomatic support in the international arena. For Beijing, expressing vocal support for the Palestinians signals that China is sympathetic to the plight of Muslims at home and elsewhere. It also serves to strengthen its standing in the Middle East, which plays a pivotal role in China's Belt and Road Initiative. Furthermore, almost half of China's energy supply comes from the region.
Israel's unusual decision last week to support a U.S.-backed UN Human Rights Council statement condemning Chinese policy in Xinjiang, but attempting to keep it very low-key, is indicative of the pressure it is under from both Washington and Beijing. China, for its part, supported a UNHRC resolution in late May establishing a commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations during the recent fighting in Gaza, a decision widely seen as singling out Israel.
The U.S. and China are Israel's biggest single-country trading partners and both are vital to its prosperity. The U.S. is irreplaceable to Israel in terms of military aid, intelligence sharing and innovation. However, Chinese companies are engaged in several key infrastructure projects in Israel, and China presents a growing market and a source of investment for Israeli tech firms.
Beijing's willingness to use Israel to spar with the U.S. on the global stage, therefore, does not bode well for the Jewish state. While Israel was not the target last time, Beijing sees the potential collateral damage to the bilateral relationship from such actions as manageable. If it believes this tactic helps undermine Washington's credibility, there is little to prevent it from repeating it in the future.
But Israel faces challenges from the U.S., too. In Washington, support for Israel is becoming an increasingly partisan and divisive issue. During the last round of violence, President Biden was criticized by fellow Democrats for not reining in Israel earlier than he eventually did. If Israel becomes a growing political liability for the administration, support for Jerusalem could waiver. More broadly, Biden seems set to continue the trend of recent administrations to diminish the U.S. presence in the Middle East.
President Biden seemed content over former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ouster and was quick to congratulate his successor Naftali Bennet and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
Nevertheless, Israel might quickly find itself forced to maneuver between an ambitious China and an increasingly disengaged U.S. This dynamic is likely to hurt its relationships with both. Devising creative strategies to manage Israel's position between the two superpowers should be an urgent priority for the new government.