“In my mind, you see a lot of self-interest because … China gains a lot more by taking the side of the Arab and Muslim world and the Global South,” Gering said. “This way, it serves the purpose of isolating the US globally and tarnishing its image and dividing the West from within.”

Similar views were raised earlier at a hearing by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in April.

Tuvia Gering, with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. Photo: Tuvia Gering

Jonathan Fulton, an associate professor at Zayed University, told the committee that the Hamas attack has had “significant repercussions” for China’s approach to the region and “resulted in a more blatantly realpolitik” approach.

“Its messaging on the war in Gaza is … more about China presenting itself as an alternative to the US as a global leader than it is about the war itself,” he said, according to a transcript of his testimony.

Fulton said that China – riding the success of the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal it brokered – has positioned itself as a conflict mediator as part of a larger strategy to present itself as a leading global actor.

According to Fulton, Beijing’s reactions to the Gaza crisis has “negated any prior work towards being a mediator on the issue” and its relations with Israel have been “deeply damaged”.

“Generally, its response to events since the Hamas attack have made China look very transactional and self-interested in the region, rather than a responsible extra-regional power with substantial Middle East interests,” he said.

But Niu Xinchun, director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, disagreed, saying China had adopted a consistent and “principled” approach to the conflict rather than taking a transactional approach.

The conflict, he said, had “deep historical roots”, and the Hamas attack in October had occurred “under a certain historical context”.

While he said that Israel would certainly lose confidence and trust in China, Beijing’s stance was aligned with the vast majority of countries, pointing to how China voted for UN Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire.

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Where China stands on the Israel-Gaza war

Where China stands on the Israel-Gaza war

Jean-Loup Samaan, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Middle East Institute, said Beijing’s response to the Houthi rebel group attacking ships in the Red Sea showed “that there is no desire – and probably no ability – at the moment in China to play a major role in mediation efforts beyond courtesy visits of officials from the Middle East”.

China has called for an end to the attacks and expressed concern over the situation, with Bloomberg reporting that the Houthis have assured Beijing and Moscow that their ships would not be attacked. In return, however, the two countries were urged to provide “political support” to the Yemen-based group. China has not joined a US-led coalition to safeguard commercial traffic in the area.

Alessandro Arduino, an affiliate lecturer at the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, said China was cautiously navigating the Middle East security “quagmire”, and its go-to strategies – focusing primarily on trade and investment – were being tested.

“However, its cautious handling of the Gaza conflict and the Houthi crisis in the Red Sea reveals that regional countries must still balance their act between Beijing and Washington,” he said.

“China’s balanced vagueness is not necessarily to be considered a lack of resolve in engaging the region, but probably a lack of tools as the current situation relies heavily on the security toolbox.”

Among the goals of China’s strategic response to the Middle East crises is to undermine US hegemony in the region and to weaken its network of partnerships, said Gering, who is also a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Since the conflict broke out some seven months ago, China has repeatedly criticised Washington’s actions, including the earlier use of its veto powers to block UN Security Council resolutions that called for an immediate ceasefire.

Samaan, from the NUS Middle East Institute, said China’s actions reflected a “correction” of influence in the Middle East.

Observers have for years felt that China’s presence in the region was growing and was on its way to defy or possibly replace the US, but the Israel-Gaza war and its regional implications spoke to the limits of Beijing’s engagements, he said.

“Because its approach solely focuses on economic ties and avoids interference in local disputes, it is ill-suited during a time of conflict such as what we’ve witnessed in the past seven months,” he said.

He suggested that while Middle Eastern powers were likely not under the illusion China could resolve the conflict, some Gulf states may now feel “less confident” about using their relations with China as a bargaining chip to force the US to stay engaged in the region.

“In other words, the limits of Beijing’s influence are a wake-up call for the local players who were trying to hedge against the US,” he said.