This essay is part of the series “All About China,” which aims to shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world and on the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...
On the surface, the Chinese reaction to the US decision to effectively recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was clear. Following President Trump’s announcement to transfer the US embassy to the Holy City on December 6, 2017. Several days later, China voted with every other member on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to uphold the international consensus and previous UN decisions on Jerusalem. But by being a permanent member on the UNSC, the US voted against, and the resolution failed. In response the resolution was debated and voted upon at the UN General Assembly on December 21. Despite US threats to cut aid to those countries which voted against it, an overwhelming majority of members, including China, voted (128-9, with 35 abstentions) for a resolution demanding that the United States withdraw its December 6 declaration on Jerusalem.
By going against world opinion, the US arguably looked out of step in relation to the conflict. By contrast, China’s alignment with international public opinion gave it the aura of a potential mediator — a role that it had offered to play last July when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was in Beijing. During that visit, Chinese leaders had offered to host trilateral talks with Israelis and Palestinians, in order to restart negotiations.
China as a Mediator?
China’s July offer bore fruit on the very day that the US position was censured at the UN: Beijing hosted a two-day peace symposium in which eight delegates from Palestine and Israel, and seven from China, including China’s Special Envoy Gong Xiaosheng, participated. Hilik Bar, the deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset and Nabil Shaath and Ahmed Majdalani, the Palestinian president’s foreign affairs adviser and a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive member respectively, led the two delegations.
The talks were covered in Israeli media, with reports stating that the two sides struggled to reach an agreement over Jerusalem and were unwilling to hold a joint press conference. However, following some Chinese pressure, a non-binding declaration — Promoting the Settlement of Palestine-Israel Conflict with the Two-State Solution as Its Basis — was eventually finalized, calling for a two-state solution that would include a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and a freeze on settlement building and expansion in Jerusalem; urging both sides to strengthen their support for moderate forces in the pursuit of peace; encouraging the international community to restart the peace process; and acknowledging China’s potentially valuable role in promoting international efforts to advance peace talks.
Although the Chinese initiative came from the top, it is uncertain whether it marks a new departure in relation to the conflict and its resolution. Hilik Bar made that clear when he said that “Beijing should not be in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in place of the US, but by its side.” Bar’s statement was significant for what it revealed about Israeli views: on the one hand, Israel cannot afford to ignore China as a rising (economic) power; on the other, Israel is not prepared to undermine the status quo, which is to its advantage.
Israel benefits from being in a stronger position compared to the Palestinians. First, the structural dynamics of the conflict mean that Israel’s status as a state and regional power means that it has a ‘matrix of control’ over both Palestinians and Palestinian territory. This includes control over the land, sea and air, the ability to construct and expand settlements where it wishes, cutting off and containing Palestinian building through the construction of bypass roads, house demolitions and a long-lasting siege and blockade of Gaza. Additionally, Palestinians who live in Israel have found themselves discriminated against and marginalized within Israeli society and the economy. Second, the imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians is manifested further in the framework for peace talks, the (stop-start) Oslo process, which has been in place since 1993 and is mediated by the United States. The US has not been a completely honest broker in the talks, tending towards the Israeli position over the Palestinians. That stance is reflected in both the relatively close links between Israel advocates and the political class generally and in efforts by US officials to press for a final status agreement at Camp David in 2000 and then US Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed shuttle diplomacy in 2013-14.
Chinese Policy Toward the Conflict (1949–2000)
Despite Israeli primacy within the conflict and the Oslo process, China’s recent and apparent willingness to play a more proactive role in talks between Israel and the Palestinians shows little sign of challenging that trend. Instead, its diplomatic and economic relations with Israel and the Palestinians over the past 20 years has largely reinforced Israeli predominance — a marked contrast to China’s historic position in relation to the conflict.
From the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949 until Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, China supported the Palestinians and was critical of Israel. The Chinese stance reflected both the global environment and domestic politics. Globally, the People’s Republic opposed US and Soviet ‘imperialism.’ Regionally, Israel and its Arab rivals were perceived as US and Soviet proxies, respectively. Moscow’s alliances with the Arab states left little space for Beijing in that regard, prompting it to look further afield for associates. Especially during the radical phase of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Chinese leaders identified with national liberation movements such as the PLO, which it provided with weapons in its armed struggle against Israel.
After Mao’s death in 1976, Chinese policy became less ideological and more pragmatic, as it sought resources to meet its development needs. A less confrontational stance enabled Beijing to cultivate new contacts and connections; that included Israel as an arm supplier after 1979. Beijing needed to upgrade its arms, much of which was Soviet in origin. Israel was ideal in this regard, having captured Soviet equipment from the Arab enemies during the 1967 war.
Beijing’s less confrontational policy was also reflected in its response to the conflict. In 1984 Beijing proposed an international conference to resolve the conflict, a call it repeated five years later. In 1988 it supported the PLO’s decision to accept a two-state solution. In 1991, following the first Gulf War, Israel and its Arab rivals sat down to talk at the Madrid conference. Although Madrid did not resolve the differences between them, they reinforced negotiations under international sponsorship as the means to end the conflict. It therefore served as a catalyst for countries like China to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1992, so as to be able to participate in any future talks.
A consequence of Chinese policy since the 1980s and since the establishment of the Oslo framework has been that relations with Israel and the Palestinians have been largely separated from the conflict. When the Second Intifada seemed to herald Oslo’s collapse in 2000, Beijing’s response was to endorse the Arab League’s Road Map in 2002 and appoint a Middle East envoy. However, the effect of both these measures was “mostly symbolic,” since they did not lead to active Chinese conflict management.
China’s “Four-Point Peace Plan” and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)
The global system has undergone a significant shift since the start of the 21st century. After the end of the Cold War, the US became the global hegemon. Since 2000, however, its preeminence has been undermined by weakness at home and abroad through the global financial crisis and an inability to quell insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, rising commodity prices and growing Chinese demand has seen a surge in several emerging markets as ‘rising powers’ — among them, the so-called BRICS. As a rising power, China has become more important, both economically and politically. Consequently, its public statements and utterances have demanded more attention than before.
In May 2013 Beijing announced its Four-Point Peace Plan, which included support for the current international consensus on UN resolutions relating to the conflict and the need for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as the way to establish a Palestinian state. But Beijing showed little sign that it would act. Soon after, then US Secretary of State John Kerry declared plans to conduct a year of shuttle diplomacy to achieve a final status settlement. Rather than condemn the move, Beijing offered tacit approval. When Kerry’s efforts failed in April 2014, Chinese leaders showed no more interest in taking over the talks. When Beijing announced its willingness to host talks in July 2017, it merely repeated its Four-Point Peace Plan.
If the Four-Point Peace Plan seems like a non-starter, one development which may have an impact on the conflict and its parties is China’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI). But rather than transform the conflict’s dynamics, it will most likely reinforce the current asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians.
In January 2016 the Chinese government published broad details of its Belt and Road Initiative for the Central and West Asia regions. It consists of various land and sea-based infrastructure projects using Chinese state finance and corporations as a way of improving trade links. Israel may benefit from the construction of a new port at Ashdod and a light railway in Tel Aviv; Israeli companies hope to become involved in urban planning and green technology application as infrastructure is upgraded across Eurasia. Israeli analysts also observed that the BRI offers Israel the chance to develop ties with countries with which it does not currently have diplomatic relations.
By contrast, the Belt and Road Initiative offers fewer prospects for the Palestinians; it is estimated that Chinese investment is around $7.5m for projects in the Palestinian territories. In anticipation, Chinese representatives met with Palestinians in the West Bank in September 2017 to consider possible projects, though a continuation of the conflict may discourage Chinese investment.
The Four-Point Plan and Belt and Road Initiative are the main features of current Chinese policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. But as pointed out, it is unlikely that either will make a significant difference to the conflict. If the Chinese leadership is keen to play an active role in the resolution of the conflict, then it would need to rethink its present approach. To that end, Beijing may need to make the link between the conflict and relations with the two sides more explicit and to undertake actions that directly engage both Israelis and Palestinians as well as those which underpin the current parameters of the conflict itself, strategically and economically.
However, it is not entirely evident that the Chinese leadership is keen to play a more active role anyway. Certainly, its greater economic weight makes it more important; political elites therefore need to pay attention to words coming out of Beijing. The recent willingness of Israel to send a delegation to talks in December 2017 to participate in talks with Palestinians demonstrates this. At the same time, China has not used either its economic or growing political weight to press for a change in the current approach to management of the conflict or its resolution. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is not unique in this regard; Beijing’s pronouncements in relation to Iraq and the Syrian civil war in recent years have not led to any significant change in Chinese action. Rather, Chinese policy and its diplomatic announcements should therefore be understood more as an ‘inexpensive’ means to promote its status as a contemporary global power while softly challenging (but not actively undermining) the prevailing US order in the region (especially the US stewardship of the Oslo process). This is likely to remain the case unless there is a substantive change within the region or in relation to the conflict, perhaps through an (unlikely) US withdrawal from mediation or the collapse and abandonment of the Oslo framework.
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