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March 6, 2024

China as a Conflict Negotiator?

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U.S.-China Nexus Podcast

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In March 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced a Chinese-brokered deal for the two countries to restore ties. This was the highest profile example of China cutting its teeth as a conflict mediator.

 Gedaliah Afterman and Dawn Murphy join the U.S.-China Nexus to discuss the characteristics of China’s approach to conflict mediation with its emphasis on being a convener, leveraging proposals from regional actors while refraining from offering its own solutions, and a focus on economic development. The two experts discuss the Saudi-Iran deal, China’s positioning on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the demand-side implications of China’s more visible conflict negotiation efforts.

Eleanor M. Albert: Today we are joined by Dawn Murphy and Gedaliah Afterman.

Gedaliah Afterman is the head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya). He previously served as an Australian foreign service officer working on Asian regional security issues and a diplomat at the Australian Embassy in Beijing, where he focused on issues related to China’s foreign policy, including the Middle East.

Dawn Murphy is an associate professor of national security strategy at the National War College. Previously, she held academic appointments at the Air War College and the George Washington University and was a postdoctoral research fellow with the Princeton (Columbia)-Harvard China and the World Program. Murphy’s research analyzes China’s interests and behavior as a rising global power towards the existing international order, as well as China’s foreign policy approach towards the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. She is the author of China’s Rise in the Global South: The Middle East, Africa, and Beijing’s Alternative World Order (Stanford University Press, 2022).

Dawn, Gedaliah, welcome to the show. It's a treat to have you.

Dawn Murphy: Thank you for having me.

Gedaliah Afterman: Very happy to be here.

Eleanor M. Albert: I like to start these conversations to be a little bit personal. So I wondered if you would both be willing to give some insight into how you came to study China. This is always an interesting story. I'll start with Dawn and then we can have Gedaliah.

Dawn Murphy: Great. So I do have to give a quick disclaimer that the views that I express today are my own; they don't represent the National War College or the U.S. government more broadly. And so as far as my China story, I'll try to keep this short as we've got time limits, right?

Back in the late ‘80s, at a time when Chinese was not offered in a lot of high schools, especially not in Oklahoma, I actually started taking Chinese all through high school. Ultimately, for college, I chose to go to Cornell, partially because in the early ‘90s, there weren't a lot of Chinese programs out there. At Cornell, I studied industry and labor relations, so I was looking at a different, although related, field. At that point, I went to study at Nanjing University my junior year of college.

Right after college, I started working for Ingersoll Rand, a large manufacturing company that had operations in China. My first assignment abroad was a year and a half with the large state-owned enterprise-U.S. joint venture. I came back to the [United S]tates; did a number of different roles.

At Columbia, my master’s [degree] was in East Asia and human rights—that's really when I started more kind of international relations and political science. After that I went back to China and spent two years in Changzhou, this time back in manufacturing as the president of a wholly owned U.S. company operating in China.

I then did my Ph.D. and that's really when I started looking in a much deeper way about Chinese foreign policy in the mid-to-late 2000s. This was a very understudied issue in the U.S., and I would argue in some ways continues to be. I was very fortunate to be able to do a year of
fieldwork at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. A lot of field work in Egypt and South Africa, and since I started my more formal professional career, I've had the ability to go over to the Arab Gulf, for example, and do interviewing there. It's been a long trajectory, but my origins with China started with a love of the language and it being a very novel thing to engage in.

Eleanor M. Albert: Dawn,
I'm very jealous, as a current Ph.D. student, about your access that you must
have had at a different time in the U.S.-China relationship for fieldwork in China,
in particular. How about you, Gedaliah? How did you come about studying China?

Gedaliah Afterman: My background is a little bit different. I studied philosophy, not international relations, and my Ph.D. had nothing to do with China—it was more about the way religious ideas influence reality. But later, I came to China first in 2003 and was very interested without any background.

Then I joined the Australian government in a strategic role working on Asian regional security. Of course, I got to do quite a bit of work on China. Then I was posted at the Australian Embassy in Beijing. My role specifically, they're focused on trying to understand the way China views itself in the world. So Chinese foreign policy superpower competition, China and the Middle East—I was really thrown into the deep end in a way and had to learn a lot as I went. I loved it.

I reached not a bad understanding from the ground just from talking to people and seeing what’s happening. Those were the very optimistic days of the Beijing Olympics and the year that came after that, where China was the big buzzword. Everyone wanted to be in China, et cetera.

Of course, I know the Middle East; I'm based in Israel at the moment. I was very interested in China and the Middle East, China and Iran, China-Israel. I decided to leave the Australian Foreign Ministry and move back to Israel and try and help Israelis think about superpower competition, about the rise of China, because I thought they were a little bit behind.

Over the last three or four years, I've been focusing on not only the bilateral, but the region, the way the Gulf sees China, the way things are changing, China's changing role in the Middle East. So that's where I'm coming from: more a policy perspective than an academic perspective.

Eleanor M. Albert: Well, this is perfect. I think having both perspectives will be really relevant to our conversation today, which is talk about China as a conflict mediator or negotiator.

The conventional wisdom is that [China] is very risk averse, right? It has this expansive global footprint, materially, but there are also with that growing expectations for China to step in as a pseudo/declared great power to clarify its vision of its role in international affairs, not just in economic development, but also in crises and conflicts.

With that said, how has China started to position itself more as a conflict mediator? And what are the factors that have contributed to this?

Gedaliah Afterman: First of all, it is a very good question because it's misunderstood and there's a lot of narratives about it. But let's try [to] cut through them a little bit.

When I think about China as a mediator, I go back to thinking about the six party talks and DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and the Iran nuclear issue. There it was really about China wanting to be at the big countries’ table—part of the big game to position itself, to show that it's a power, a big power. That was basically about images, right? About how China looks. Minimum risk, maximum gain; that was 15 years ago.

Then as China became more influential, as China was seen by others as a serious power, countries expected China to have more responsibility or to at least be seen to be doing more. That's where we saw China starting to be a little bit more active, but usually it was very symbolic. China would, say, talk the talk, [but] we don't really walk the walk in the Middle East. China would make all these statements and gestures, but no one would really expect China to do anything real about it in the past.

Then came March of last year and suddenly we have this agreement unveiled in Beijing where Saudi Arabia and Iran are coming together. People were very surprised that not only something pragmatic happened, but something that no one expected.

Here in Israel, if you would have asked whether this was possible and China would be the one doing that, I don't think many people would have said yes. In that sense, it's interesting to see China taking an opportunity. When it comes to Chinese foreign policy and the way China does things, it's a lot about taking an opportunity to position itself. And two, it is about China using this kind of role—this great power role—to its advantage, and we're talking both economic interest when I say that and strategic geopolitical interests.

Eleanor M. Albert: That's great. The context of the six party talks and the Iran nuclear talks are really interesting stepping stones, right? Because in those iterations China is one among a number of powers.  But I think this Saudi-Iran announcement was really interesting that it was China and just two other parties, right? I want to turn to Dawn and see if she wants to expand on anything as it relates to why China is being more involved in mediation.

Dawn Murphy: My own research looks at China in the Middle East and China and Africa, so I'll give some examples. Part of your question was about factors that drove China's desire to participate, and each of the examples that I'm going to give is a little bit of different drivers. The way that I look at this is over decades that China has been attempting or expressing a desire to serve as a mediator. Starting in 2002, establishing a special envoy for the Middle East focused on the Palestinian-Israeli [conflict].

[In] 2007, they established a special envoy for Africa issues that originally was focused on contributing to the resolution of some issues in Darfur. Over time [it] really evolved and included other issues, including in the early 2010s dealing with mediation between Sudan and South Sudan, for example. I would say the drivers of that were more about the West. It was more about criticism of China's role in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.

The next special envoy that they established was for the Syrian civil war in 2016. That one was also about China attempting to demonstrate that it's a responsible power. It had a concern regarding terrorist groups within Syria itself that it didn't want providing material support to Uyghurs within its own borders. It expressed a desire to contribute to humanitarian assistance and to reconstruction. One key feature of that was China very much wanted to engage in multilateral mechanisms, a number of different multilateral mechanisms for conflict resolution.

Then in 2022, [China] established a special envoy for the Horn of Africa. That's relatively new, really driven by concerns about the Ethiopian civil war, about instability in Somalia, about issues within South Sudan and Sudan. So that's much more about internal stability within countries.

Most recently, it was not a special envoy, but what's already been mentioned: the Saudi-Iran deal. That's an interesting example of the first successful case of [China] bringing together parties. But even that is still very early days in their efforts of mediating.

Gedaliah Afterman: Just to jump in with one more comment. When we’re thinking about these things, China being seen as a more responsible stakeholder and that also shifted out over time.

I would say that now one of the main factors is its positioning vis-à-vis the United States. That's a different game, especially in the Middle East. There’s also economic interest where China sees an opportunity, where if it takes a more active role, it can secure access to resources; it can position itself in a certain way. It's always good from Beijing's perspective to show that it's an alternative to the United States. Even when we go back to the DPRK and Iran, China was always the one that had some kind of special hook or special access, or at least it wanted to show itself as having that with both Iran and the DPRK.

Eleanor M. Albert: That's super interesting. This helps us transition to thinking about this contrast, for China to position itself vis-à-vis either the United States or even within the multilateral mechanisms. We talk a lot about these ideas of conflict mediation and conflict negotiation. I'm curious about how you might characterize China's own approach and whether that aligns or differs from the practices of other great powers. What form does Chinese mediation come in, and does it prioritize the types of incidents or crises that it wants to engage in? I'll have Dawn kick us off.

Dawn Murphy: In the regions that I look at specifically, some characteristics: China doesn't tend to offer its own solutions. It very much leverages the proposals of other actors involved in the conflict, portraying itself and attempting to act as a balanced actor. One of the ways in which it differentiates itself is that it has positive relations with all parties in a conflict, whether that's state actors or non-state actors.

Non-interference and non-intervention—that gets complicated when you think through mediation because in some ways this is interfering. But from a Chinese perspective, they're being asked by the parties involved to play a role. So they walk that very fine line attempting to maintain non-interference and non-intervention. One approach they use is just bringing all parties together to talk. So the special envoys—it's very much about going around listening to the concerns of relevant parties, bringing them together, attempting to facilitate dialogue in that way.

I mentioned this earlier also, but I think a real desire to go through multilateral mechanisms, so it depends on the conflict, whether that's through the UN or through a process that's already been established by other actors, or if it's cooperating with the African Union—but very much not wanting to be seen as unilaterally imposing its own solutions. And as far as how they pick these issues, at least in the regions that I look at, I think it's pretty much what they see as the hot spot issues in the region that they're worried about internal or interstate conflict really threatening Chinese interests.

Eleanor M. Albert: Right, you have to have peace and security for you to have development and if development is the ultimate goal, you must at some stage address the hotspot that might threaten that. How about you, Gedaliah? As it comes to thinking about Chinas approach to conflict negotiation and mediation?

Gedaliah Afterman: Dawn gave a great answer. Just [to] add a little bit to that. When China tries to provide conflict mediation, it focuses on economic development. It's not hard power in the American sense. It's not regime change. In that sense, if it's economic development, there's opportunities for China, right? When China chooses which countries it's interested in, then it keeps in mind its big economic strategic picture. Those countries tend to be perhaps aligned with the Belt and Road or other initiatives.

China won't necessarily try and solve a conflict in a country that has nothing to do with its economic or strategic interests. It would rather focus on countries that are part of its picture for different reasons. Part of the calculation would be, as Dawn said, internal security concerns. Of
course, positioning vis-à-vis the U.S. and also domestic pressure in China in about Chinese citizens abroad, safety of Chinese interests, etc.

But I think that what was interesting or a new element to that is proposing or pushing forward this multipolar world. It's not only about the old order. It's not only about the U.S. being this policeman, but there's other factors: China can play a leading role and it doesn't have to be China alone, right? If we think about this Jeddah conference in August about Russia-Ukraine, you have these new groupings that China wants to be a leader of but not to go alone to present this alternative vision, this alternative narrative to the Western, to the American-led narrative on these issues.

Eleanor M. Albert: That's really insightful, and I'm curious about this positioning of China creating these perhaps new venues. It seems to me that China, when it comes to conflict mediation, really sees itself as a convener of parties as opposed to actually being the actor that is doing the negotiating. And that seems to be a fundamentally different approach, right? The Chinese way of doing things, they're very much dialogue-oriented. I wonder if that might seem to be something that might appear more appealing to the Global South. Dawn, you mentioned a little bit about countries seeking out China on some of these issues. We only really hear about some of these in the news when there is a successful attempt. What is the demand for China to be a conflict mediator?

Dawn Murphy: It's a really interesting question. Even if you go back to the special envoy for the Middle East established in 2002—who, at least what my own interviews and research showed, at least the way it was being portrayed to me—was that Arab states very much wanted China to express their views and have made it an important component at for example, of the China Arab States Cooperation Forum, wanting verbiage regarding the Palestinians, wanting support for the Palestinians, and even that verbiage being articulated in a clearer way over time. So that would be one example that's been made a center piece.

Regarding the Saudi Arabia-Iran deal. Again this wasn't a special envoy, but to build on Gedaliah’s comments. Part of what's interesting about that is it really was Oman and it was Iraq as other players that had done a lot of the legwork. So to your point, China was more the convener. What I see is interesting in that is not so much that China was doing that, but the fact that Saudi Arabia and Iran wanted to highlight China’s role in a very public way. That ties in with a lot of their own autonomy. I think that's a demand signal; not that China was intimately involved in the actual renormalization, but they're serving as a platform. And then before October 7, there was talk of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] and Iran coming together for discussions as well. So [those] would be two examples that come to mind.

Gedaliah Afterman: What Dawn said is very interesting. When I think about the Saudi-Iran deal, China joined in for the last 500 meters of the marathon, but it was striking to see how much effort both the Saudis and the Iranians made to make sure that China gets a lot of credit. When we talk about countries seeking Chinese involvement or mediation we need to think about superpower competition, and I think we need to think about the dynamic especially in the Middle East and especially in the Gulf between the United States and China, and how the countries are trying to play that role.

Dawn mentioned the envoy to the Middle East. From an Israeli perspective at least, no one took China as a serious mediator on the Palestinian issue. But I think especially after the Iran-Saudi deal, some people thought that China could perhaps bring together Israel-Saudi Arabia, maybe Israel and Iran. So that sense that China could maybe play this new surprising role was starting to bubble. That changed after October 7 obviously. But I think that narrative shift that we're seeing, that was something that China did quite well.

Dawn Murphy: And Eleanor, to your question earlier on it resonating with the Global South, I do think the fact that China has positive relations and presents itself as a balanced actor that can be very appealing, especially in cases where the perception is that other great powers have a very significant relationship with one country and a very hostile relationship with another. I do think that that differentiates and provides a unique role that China could play that may be attractive to some.

Eleanor M. Albert: Right. We've inferred that China showed up after a lot of the legwork had been done. What role did China actually play in the normalization of these relations? And then how was it received by other actors in the region—Dawn mentioned Iraq and Oman doing a lot of the legwork. What are the dynamics about the announcement in the region. So, Gedaliah, given that you've been really focusing on the China-Middle East region, it would be great to hear your thoughts on this first.

Gedaliah Afterman: First of all, it's true, I think that China jumped in at the later stages of this process. But I think no other power could have really finalized this deal, and that's something that's important. That's something that does resonate with countries in the region, especially in contrast to the United States.

That's the big game here that we need to keep in mind. Whether or not Iraq and Oman pissed off about not getting enough credit, until you finalize the deal, it doesn't exist.

Again, we mentioned that both Saudi [Arabia] and Iran went out of their way to give China a lot of credit, and that has to do about the future role that they see China playing in the region. That's again something we need to keep in mind. So it's not only about China coming in and bringing the two countries together; it's about what would things look like in 10 and 15 years. For both Saudi and Iran in different ways, sometimes countering ways, China is a very important actor, very important player for the future.

And I think if we're talking about trust, if we're talking about who's the right country to play this role. With the U.S. now, you have a pretty big gap in terms of trust from the Saudis—of course from the Iranians. But China is suddenly emerging as an actor that will be around for a while and can be generally trusted. When we're trying to understand the picture, we should think about all of these factors.

Eleanor M. Albert: That's great. Dawn, do you want to add on?

Dawn Murphy: I agree with all of Gedaliah’s points, and I do think that what's most interesting to me is, having looked at this for a long time and trying to attempting to play a role as a mediator, just over the last couple of years, the dynamic and the focus on China in the Middle East, before the Iran-Saudi deal… in the year before that, you had President Biden going to Saudi Arabia and there was a lot of reporting on that. And then Xi Jinping was in Saudi in December before the deal. You had this build up. But them [China] actually being put in the place of, at least portrayed as, the facilitator that brought us together, and I agree with Gedaliah, China was the great power that was going to be able to do this. I think it raised awareness. It's still too early to tell really how it's perceived in the region, and that's the thing I'm researching, but anecdotally at this point, it caused a surprise and has been appreciated.

Gedaliah Afterman: One other point to just keep in mind on this is that unlike the U.S. model where the U.S. is counted on to follow through and to make sure that countries stick to it, the Chinese are not interested in that. That's not part of the deal. It makes things much easier for China in terms of responsibility and whether or not they failed or succeeded. If the Iran-Saudi deal breaks up now, that's not China’s business.

Dawn Murphy: That's a really important point because I don't think, Iran or Saudi, that they're going to blame China if relations deteriorate.

Eleanor M. Albert: Right. It also creates a cushion as a mediator, right? You become the convener but not the implementer or oversight for whether a deal that's been brokered is followed through upon.

I want to shift us to talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which of course escalated since last fall, and there's been a lot of attention on what China's stance has been on this conflict, both overtime—Dawn talking about the special envoy—but also in the more heightened form of this

It'd be interesting to have an overview of China’s position, both historically on the conflict, but also with a shortened timeline since things have escalated. How is China positioning itself vis-à-vis this issue?

Gedaliah Afterman: Maybe I'll start from sitting in Israel. From my perspective, China has traditionally supported the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli conflict and specifically the Palestinians. They recognized the Palestinians and Palestine before they did Israel; they very consistently vote against Israel and the UN, and specifically on these issues.

But over time, especially after Israel and China established economic relations, China and Israel came quite close. There was a lot of interest in Israeli technology, and in many ways, Israel became much more important than the Palestinians to China. China kept playing lip service to the Palestinian issue, but without doing much.

China and Israel had a record trade year in 2022—they had almost $22 billion. Benjamin Netanyahu was about to visit Beijing later in October. We mentioned this game of hedging between the U.S. and China on the regional issue. On the Palestinian side, we had Mahmoud Abbas visiting Beijing a few months earlier, but it was all very symbolic and not a lot of substance. 

Then we had the seventh of October. China initially didn't say much at all, really. For the first few days, it seemed to me that China was trying to understand what's going on from an Israeli perspective. I think China misunderstood how grave and how dramatic these events were seen in Israel. China stuck to its usual comments, calling for not targeting civilians, calling for a ceasefire but not mentioning Hamas. Gradually, China’s approach became more and more focused on countering the U.S., criticizing Israel as a way of countering the U.S.  

From an Israeli perspective, I think there was a lot of disappointment. Some people were quite surprised, and that came in a very stark contrast to the way the U.S. responded. The U.S. was very active: sent aircraft carriers, President Biden came, all the leadership was here. China basically not only did nothing, but was very, very critical, very aggressive, at least that's how it was seen here in Israel. It's very important to understand that from China's perspective, this was fairly consistent.

[When] China looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it doesn't really think about Israelis or Palestinians; it thinks about the region more generally. It thinks about the United States. We've already seen this kind of behavior in the last round in 2021, and before. Again, China's approach was not surprising. It was quite consistent. Rather than reflecting a new stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which it isn't, what was interesting here was the willingness or the decision on the Chinese side to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of its competition with the United States and the region.

Eleanor M. Albert: Interesting. Dawn, how do you read these developments, especially in the context of the larger time span that you've researched? Is there this continuity that Gedaliah is talking about, or has there been self-reflection in Beijing about how best to position themselves?

Dawn Murphy: A lot of what I'm going to say echoes Gedaliah, but also it highlights some different aspects. I have to go back a bit in history as you said, in order to give my perspective on this. Back during the Mao era, China was providing material support and training to the Palestinians, which very much changed in a post-Cold War environment. [In] 1988, they recognized Palestine as a state. [In] 1992, they recognized Israel. Since then, [they] have had robust state-to-state relations. The way that I would characterize it is that since at least the mid-90s, China at least portrays itself and it considers itself to have had a consistent approach.

The high-level stance from the mid-90s until now had been there needs to be peaceful negotiations, an end to violence, a two-state solution, an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as the capital, a cessation of settlements, establishing an international supervisory mechanism. They see it very much as a core issue in peace and security.

They've also been consistent in criticizing Israel. They have criticized what they see as Israel's disproportionate response, violations of international law. It's been an important part of their interaction with the Arab World and very much Palestinian leaning. The way China, before October 7, approached it and to this day approaches it is that this is a principled stance that they are taking. It's not about necessarily the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is about the broader region. But I also think it's about this lineage that's coming in even from the Mao era, in the ways in which they view this particular situation.

Fast forward to October 7. Right after the events on October 7th, China definitely started to frame this as just another flare up in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but all of the statements that were coming out from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from Zhang Jun, the representative to the UN, from Zhai Jun, the special envoy [to the Middle East]. If you look at the wording, it's incredibly simi lar, including as Gedaliah mentioned, on not specifically criticizing Hamas for terrorist activities.

We've seen this, China even further articulating in its statements to the International Court of Justice that China sees this as national liberation. It is not terrorism; they interpret it in a very different way. There's that verbiage from the Mao era.

Also, I would note that there's a deep concern from a Chinese perspective about this situation metastasizing into a much broader conflict, bringing in obviously Hezbollah and the Houthi, and Syria and Iran; part of their behavior is centered around that. But ultimately what China wanted before October 7 and what China wants now is an end to the current hostilities, the Palestinian-Israeli resolution in the longer term to be resolved, and no regional war.

Obviously, what happened in Israel had a very deep impact on the threat perceptions. The Sino-American competition in the region, right, the Global South consolidating around China, but actually, China's been really consistent in what they've done.

Gedaliah Afterman: I'll just add to that. I think something that did change is the role of the Middle East in superpower competition. The Middle East became a much more important theater for the competition between China and the United States in recent years, and as pressure grew in Asia.

We see China responding more and more in the Middle East and the Middle East being much more responsive to that, much more welcoming to China. When we're talking about the relationship between Israel and China, the triangle Israel-China-United States, the dynamic’s changed a little bit in recent years.

If in the past China looked at Israel and said Israel is great for technology, especially as the doors are closing down in the U.S., the U.S. responded by putting a lot of pressure on Israel. From a Chinese strategic calculation, we’re in a situation where you say, “Okay, we're not getting what we could potentially get from Israel. We can use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a way to criticize the American role in the Middle East.” So position yourself much better with more important countries like Saudi Arabia, like the UAE, even like Iran, that makes a lot of sense from a Chinese perspective. And that also helps to explain why China is behaving the way it is now.

Dawn Murphy: Eleanor, I think it's important that we differentiate the official government statements that are coming out. There's a lot of consistency and a byproduct is really playing up the U.S. role and there is absolutely an element of that. But some of the reporting out there focuses more on what's in the Global Times or what's happening in social media in China.

I have not analyzed that deeply, but I think we have to ask the question, who's the audience for that? Because I think a lot of that's more targeted at the Chinese population and bringing in nationalism. We need to be careful what sources we're looking at and how we interpret that and what it really means for China's desires in in relations with Israel, for example, in the longer term.

Eleanor M. Albert: One hundred percent—I think what's so interesting when we think about the demand for China to be a bigger player on the international stage. There are multiple audiences that are vying for influence in how Beijing thinks about these things, right? It's just as much the international audiences and then you have the domestic audience where it's a fine line to play, right? They've played up this idea of nationalism. China is a great power. How do you demonstrate that you are that power on an international stage?

I want to just ask one last question as it relates to this conflict in the region. We've talked about thinking about China as playing a greater role in the Middle East. Without seeing de-escalation in the situation in the Arab-Israeli conflict, is there a path for China to want to play a role to eliminate any potential escalation? How about you, Gedaliah?

Gedaliah Afterman: A good question. In the early days after the seventh of October, I kind of floated the idea of China playing a more active role mediating, especially humanitarian role—helping with releasing hostages, helping provide humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza, etc. but I wasn't expecting real mediation. But I thought China is in a position to really help on these kind of issues and that would be welcomed by everyone. It's low risk. But China decided not to do that. China decided to be quite passive, focusing on statements and positioning vis-à-vis the U.S. But I think that can change.

We might see a beginning of that changing. I mentioned before the Jeddah Conference on Russia-Ukraine. But I could easily see the Chinese and the Saudis, for example, convening a conference down the track. After we have a ceasefire, I could see, if we have a regional-led effort to reconstruct Gaza, I can see the Chinese coming in on an economic project, building the Gaza port. Then you'd have the Belt and Road: you'd have the Gaza port, the Ashdod port, and the Haifa port all in a row done by China.

Another angle where we have seen a little bit more cooperation with the U.S. is Iran. As far as I can tell, the Chinese have been talking to Iran in general following the 7th of October and trying to keep everyone calm, especially if Hezbollah [react]—also about the Houthis to an extent, although there the equation is a little bit more complicated. The calculation is basically China can suffer a little bit of damage as long as the U.S. seems like it's failing, especially on the military side of things, because then the Chinese are in a much better position in the region, right? China, with economic cooperation, with economic development, with connectivity, is the next in line in terms of the future. That's basically the game we've seen China playing. I wouldn't be surprised if in different ways we see China showing up proposing different initiatives, especially to do with economic development, with connectivity, with infrastructure...

Dawn Murphy: I agree with all of Gedaliah’s comments. In the short term until the current hostilities subside, I think there's limited opportunities because China is wanting to stay consistent. But also China's calculus is likely that they don't have a lot of leverage or ability to affect the actors involved.  but I absolutely think in the longer term on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there's many different areas, whether it's on reconstruction, if it's being involved in negotiations…

I also agree with Gedaliah that it's very hard to know exactly what China is doing behind closed doors with Iran and with Iranian proxies. But I suspect they are having discussions, attempting to use their influence in a positive way and expressing their concerns about escalation, not attempting to coerce or to apply pressure in that way.

In the Red Sea for example, I don't think China is going to change its behavior because this isn't the Gulf of Aden. This isn't anti-piracy or that type of activity they've been involved with before. But I agree with Gedaliah, we need to be optimistic though; there are potential roles for China in the longer term.

Eleanor M. Albert: That's wonderful and creates so many questions for what's to come. I know I'm speaking to two Middle East experts, but I have to bring up the war in Ukraine. It's going on two years now and given the relationship between [Vladimir] Putin and Xi Jinping and the conflict starting just after a very high-profile meeting between the two of them.

How are you seeing China's approach to the Ukraine crisis and what that might mean for China’s broader mediation efforts?

Dawn Murphy: Talking very broadly about China's approach. I think it's this balancing act that they're trying to maintain their relations with Russia, right? I suspect that there's a deep level of discomfort regarding Russia's actual behavior, but this balancing act of maintaining the relations with Russia and not necessarily having an incentive to side with the U.S., but being deeply concerned regarding the conflict. That peace plan, it's one of the ways in which they're trying to differentiate themselves from Russia and to multiple audiences.

I assumed when the peace plan came out the audience was both for the West and for the Global South in order to demonstrate that China wanted to try to bring the parties together. Not that they actually thought they could, but it was about messaging. When you look at the actual verbiage, if you look at other situations in Africa or in the Middle East, there's a lot of commonalities in the approach.

What makes this different is obviously you've got a great power that has aggressively invaded another country. I think China was trying to demonstrate that it wanted to serve as a mediator and to differentiate it from others.

Gedaliah Afterman: I agree again with Dawn. We need to look at the conflict in a few different prisms.

One, again, it's the United States. China likes to use Russia as the crazy one out front that's being very provocative and creating a lot of problems, and China can stand in the back and just enjoy it. That's one position.

The second is their actual relationship with Russia. I don't believe that China and Russia are allies; quite far away from it, they’re competitors. I think China is enjoying the relative state of weakness, especially economically, that the Russians have suffered in recent years, and China has been trying to position in a way that they can benefit the most from Russia's dependency on China. That's something to keep in mind. We did hear reports last year about China playing this role of dissuading Putin, or Russia from using tactical nuclear weapons.

But we have other factors and Dawn mentioned the Global South, for example, and the sense in the non-Western world that there might be a different way. We have to remember that most U.S. allies outside of Europe or outside of the West did not go with the United States on the war in Ukraine.

In the Middle East, it’s very clear. Even Israel didn’t side with the United States on Ukraine, very clearly. So everyone side, it actually was the other side. That's an opportunity in terms of geopolitics. Also, China has been playing this game trying to signal to countries like Germany, like France, that it can play a positive role and gain in rebuilding the relationship with them and maybe creating a little bit of distance between them and the United States.

It's an interesting game, an interesting dynamic. But in recent months as it seems that Russia is not failing or not losing the war, despite the West's support for Ukraine, and now we've seen these divides in the West. I think the incentives for China to play a constructive role has diminished. It would be great for China to see the U.S. failing in the war in Ukraine, at least in the immediate term, and it's always great for China again to present itself as a potential mediator. China might be able to come and help and be a better player and to have better solutions, so I think that's generally the game.

Eleanor M. Albert: What's super interesting is that most of these are from issues where China has mediated are actually quite far away from its own borders, with the exception of the six party talks. But I wanted to open the floor if there any concluding thoughts?

Gedaliah Afterman: I'll just maybe make one point. In the Middle East and the Western discourse about the Middle East, there's been a lot of talk about what does it mean that China did not do anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? since the seventh of October? Does that mean that China is not a diplomatic and not a political player? That China does not have the capacity to do it, that China lost?

Some people in the West would like to believe that. But I'm not sure about that. I think that will be shortsighted. If you ask people in Beijing, I think strategically speaking, I think China thinks that so far it gambled quite well and it finds itself in a better position especially vis-à-vis the U.S. We have the war in Gaza still ongoing. We have the Houthis still doing their thing in the Red Sea, despite America using force, and China can just stand there and tell the region: “Military force is not working. We need to try Plan B.” And Plan B is already playing out through the region. We talked about the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement last year. In many ways, if this works out, then that's paving the way for China to play a bigger role, not a smaller role moving forward.

Eleanor M. Albert: Dawn, final thoughts?

Dawn Murphy: I agree with Gedaliah’s points. What I'd really stress is that China's been attempting to be a mediator in various ways for decades. This is not new, although it may be more high-profile and we're paying more attention to it now. It's also not the U.S. approach. I think there are differences, and one reason why they may be more successful in the longer term is because it's not the U.S. approach, as far as they don't have the unilateral military presence around the world that the U.S. does, etc... They are able to bring something to the table as a bit more [of a] neutral arbiter on some of these issues.

Finally, it's important to think through that, the Global South, in many ways, sees China in a different way. In conflicts around the world may have that a country like China could help to bring parties together and that they don't necessarily look at it in a cynical way that makes some assumptions, [including] that China doesn't have its own solutions. It's not going to coerce. Therefore, it's not going to be successful. And I think it's way too early to tell.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Georgetown University.


The U.S.-China Nexus is created, produced, and edited by me, Eleanor M. Albert. Our music is from Universal Production Music. Special thanks to Shimeng Tong, Tuoya Wulan, and Amy Vander Vliet. For more initiative programming, videos, and links to events, visit our website at And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.