This essay is part of the series “All About China”—a journey into the history and diverse culture of China through essays that shed light on the lasting imprint of China’s past encounters with the Islamic world as well as an exploration of the increasingly vibrant and complex dynamics of contemporary Sino-Middle Eastern relations. Read more ...
 


In June 1954, the leaders of China, India, and Burma (now Myanmar) issued a joint statement affirming the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence―mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence―as the basis for conducting international relations.[1] Since then, China has adhered strictly to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ domestic turmoil, as displayed prominently over the past several years in Beijing’s response to the Syrian civil war.

However, this is not true in the shuttle diplomacy China is practicing with respect to the conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan. There, Chinese state-owned enterprises (mainly the China National Petroleum Company) have invested heavily in the oil fields of Sudan for decades, and in the oil infrastructure of South Sudan since its independence in 2011. China’s “crossing the water by feeling the stones”[2] style of changing its non-interference policy is happening not just in Sudan but also in many other parts of Africa and, on a smaller scale, in other parts of the world.

China’s rationale could not be simpler: protect investments. Indeed, in all of the places where China has decided to “interfere,” significant Chinese economic interests are exposed to potential harm if local conflicts or political turmoil are allowed to fester. In 2009, China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner, and China has become the third-largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) worldwide. Chinese political activism has clearly increased—if thus far only selectively and incrementally—alongside its booming international trade.

According to this logic, therefore, China is destined to interfere in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. After all, China has acquired, either in full or in part, multiple Israeli companies of significant size. Both Chinese and Israeli companies are benefiting from partnering with each other in the high-tech startup field, with venture capital and private equity deals encompassing Beijing’s Zhongguancun—popularly referred to as “China’s Silicon Valley”—and Israel’s Silicon Wadi.

Although Chinese economic involvement with the Palestinians is not as extensive, Beijing understands well the importance of its role as an “old friend” of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Lackluster support for the Palestinian cause would not only bring complaints from Arab states but also damage China’s hard-earned international image as an advocate of justice in the developing world. Every November, Beijing continues to hold a reception commemorating the “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.” President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory letter to the commemoration in 2014, a rare show of China's increased attention to the Palestinian cause, a sign no Arab country would miss. Besides, China considers having a supportive stance on the Palestinian issue a means of easing tensions with its own Muslim minorities, a crucial element in Beijing’s New Silk Road Economic Belt vision.

The Middle East serves not only as China’s indispensable source of fossil fuels but also as a vast market for Chinese-produced commodities and products. Though China has tried to diversify its energy sources and thereby reduce its dependence on Middle East producers, these efforts have proven only modestly successful. Russia is neither a reliable nor an economical alternative, judging from, among other things, the cost of transporting Russian oil to China by pipeline. Beijing has also learned the high cost of seeking to maintain stability in African countries. Therefore, compared to the alternatives, working cooperatively with the existing guarantor of order in the Middle East—the United States—is not a bad option. Being called a “free rider” for doing so is merely a nuisance. And in any case, a would-be driver needs first to be a rider in order to learn how to drive―a fact the United States would do well to acknowledge if it wants China to learn how to contribute to stability in troubled regions of the world.

Also motivating China to become more involved in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the desire to achieve balance in its relations with the United States. With growing tensions between China and the United States regarding the handling of territorial disputes in East Asia, China sometimes seeks to test vulnerabilities in the United States’ own “backyard,” whether in the Middle East or South America. No issue in the Middle East has consumed more resources and caused more chronic pain for the United States than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each successive U.S. administration has started a new round of initiatives aimed at improving relations between the two parties, but all attempts have ended with a larger Israel and a smaller, more fragmented Palestine.

Though China is now tempted to involve itself in resolution of the conflict, and the risks and rewards of potential steps are being discussed internally, the temptation is not being acted upon. Beijing still defers to U.S. leadership—and ownership—of the matter. For the most part, this is because China does not yet have a clear, coherent Middle East policy or a group of experts and policymakers with a well-honed strategy for approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, let alone resolving it.

China understands that it needs to find a way out of the vicious cycle that has repeatedly doomed U.S. efforts to mediate the conflict. Fortunately, many of the factors that complicate U.S. efforts are almost nonexistent in China. China does not have a large Jewish population, and its political system is almost completely immune to lobbying pressure and to the complexities of inter- and intra-party politics. Moreover, China not only has a cozy relationship with Israel, but also with all of Israel’s adversaries, such as Iran, Syria, and Turkey.

As for the Arab countries, their stance might be more complicated than it seems on the surface. Although there is a "comprehensive" Arab Peace Initiative that China supports, the plan is already outdated due to the many new Israeli settlements and the many lives taken in the armed conflicts that have occurred since it was first proposed in 2002 (and later re-endorsed in 2007). Besides, the political balance in the Middle East has changed dramatically in the past five years. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have altered their calculus, and it is harder than ever to get them to sit down at the negotiating table. Growing internal tensions among different Arab countries and Muslim sects, as well as the party politics within Israel, contribute to the conflict’s ever-increasing complexity.

Nevertheless, as a country that itself has a long and complicated history in handling sophisticated multi-party conflicts (the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, for example), China is better equipped than the United States to come up with a comprehensive and culturally sensitive solution to the long conflict. By working bilaterally with all countries in the Middle East, China will be able to exert greater pressure on them. Each country will be willing to give up more for long-term peace in the region because each realizes that it needs China more than China needs it. This is a position that the United States envies.

Whether China is fully ready or not, the question now is when—not if—China will “interfere” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps, as with many Chinese initiatives during the past several decades, it is better to learn a new policy while in the process of implementing it. For the time being, it is likely that China will stick to making strong diplomatic statements regarding resolution of the conflict while preparing for the day when Washington invites Beijing to participate fully in the peace process.


[1] See Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “China’s Initiation of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/ziliao_665539/3602_665543/3604_665547/t18053.shtml.

[2] This is a Chinese expression referring to a methodical, pragmatic style in addressing a new problem.

Note: The original Chinese version of this essay appears below. Special thanks are due to Mr. Gangzheng She, a Ph. D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (NEJS) at Brandeis University and a fellow of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, for producing the English translation. 


中国会对巴以冲突进行干预吗?

中国、印度和缅甸的领导人在1954年提出了处理国际关系的五项基本原则,即互相尊重主权和领土完整、互不侵犯、互不干涉内政、平等互利以及和平共处。从那时起,每当他国陷入内部动乱,中国都坚称自己会严格遵循不干预的原则,而近期一个明显的例证便是在过去几年里中国处理叙利亚内战的方式。

然而,中国在面对苏丹和南苏丹冲突时所进行的穿梭外交证明了事实也许并非如此。中国的国有企业——主要是中国石油天然气集团公司(CNPC)——已在最近数十年间为开采苏丹的油田注入了巨资,而自南苏丹独立以来,亦对该国的石油基础设施进行投资。中国对其不干预政策所进行的“摸着石头过河”式的改良,不仅仅局限于苏丹,也同样发生在非洲的许多其他地区。在2009年中国已经超过美国成为非洲最大的贸易合作伙伴。事实上,鉴于中国已经成长为全球第三大的外商直接投资发起国,这种转变也发生在非洲以外,尽管规模要小得多。

这其中的道理再简单不过了:自己投资的风险需要自己来应付。中国在所有决定进行“干预”的地方都有着巨大的经济利益。而且,如果任由当地的冲突或政局动荡发展下去,这种利益极有可能遭到损害。

按照这个逻辑,中国注定会对巴以之间的冲突进行干预。现在的中国想从这张一个世纪以来中东冲突的温床中脱离开来已经越来越难了。中国业已收购了多家以色列大公司的全部或者部分股份。中以两国企业在高科技和创业领域的合作中收获颇丰,而相应的风险投资和私募股权投资也活跃于北京的中关村、美国的硅谷与以色列的“硅溪”(Silicon Wadi,以色列高科技聚集地)。

尽管相较之下中国与巴勒斯坦的经贸往来明显逊色,但是作为巴解组织的老朋友,中国非常清楚如果不支持巴勒斯坦不仅会招致阿拉伯世界的不满,还会损害其得来不易的国际形象——那就是作为发展中国家的领军者坚持在国际事务中提倡公平与正义。北京依然会在每年十一月为纪念“声援巴勒斯坦人民国际日”举行招待会。习近平主席还曾在2014年向这个活动致贺电,而这一点是中东地区的任何一个阿拉伯国家都不会忽视的,因为这个罕见的举动表明中国正在愈发关注巴勒斯坦问题。此外,在西北地区的民族冲突让人焦头烂额之际,中国认为支持巴勒斯坦可以从某种程度上缓和中央政府与穆斯林少数民族之间的矛盾,尤其是后者已经成为中国“一带一路”(“丝绸之路经济带”和“21世纪海上丝绸之路”)战略中的一个关键因素。

中东地区不仅仅是中国不可或缺的石化能源产地,也是其货物产品的广阔市场。尽管中国曾为了减少对中东国家的依赖而尝试过加强能源供应的多元化,这种努力从某种程度来看并不划算。考虑到把油气从俄罗斯运输到中国所需管线的签约价格以及其他各种因素,把俄罗斯作为能源供应国其实并非那么可靠和廉价。中国也已经明白为了维护非洲多个资源大国的稳定得付出何等巨大的代价。相较之下,与美国这个中东地区的已有秩序维护者维持良好的合作关系并不失为一种上策。尽管美国对中国“搭顺风车”的指责让人生厌,但是如果美国真心希望中国为该地区的稳定尽一份力,也就自然要明白:上车是学会开车的第一步。

维持国际关系中的均势是另一个促使中国干预巴以冲突的因素。在过去的五年里,该地区的25个国家所获得的媒体关注比世界上任何一个国家集团或者区域都要多。随着中美之间关于中国与其邻国边界纠纷的争论愈演愈烈,很多时候中国认为自己也有必要抓住一两个美国外交政策中的软肋——无论是在中东还是在拉美这个美国的“后院”。在中东的所有冲突中,让美国消耗了最多资源并且还给其造成了最漫长创伤的莫过于巴以冲突了。每一届美国政府都会发起新一轮的倡议来试图改善双方的现状,但是基本上每一次的结果都导致以色列愈发强势而巴勒斯坦方面愈发分崩离析。虽然中国有心去化解巴以冲突,但是国内也一直在争辩这种尝试会否弄脏自己的双手。所以目前在国际上,中国依然接受美国在这个问题上所占据的主导地位。

这种矛盾局面的出现很大程度上是因为不仅中国政府并没有一个清晰的中东政策,其专家和政策制定者也缺乏明确的战略构想或具体策略来研究巴以问题,更别说解决这场冲突了。

中国已经开始考虑到如果加入到和谈的努力中来,将会受到哪些方面因素的影响了。中国明白首先要站在美国的肩膀上发挥好自己的支持性作用,但是同时又必须跳出让美国人深陷其中的恶性循环。令人庆幸的是,很多动摇美国人努力的因素在中国都基本不存在。首先,中国没有一个庞大的犹太群体;其次,中国的政治体系也使得其既不受任何游说集团的压力,也不会陷入多党政治的纷争;另外,中国不仅与以色列还与它的所有对头——例如伊朗、叙利亚和土耳其——都保持着良好的关系。

而阿拉伯国家的立场也许比其表面上展现出来的更加复杂。尽管中国还在支持一份所谓“全面的”阿拉伯和平倡议,但是考虑到以色列新修建的定居点以及最近十年来武装冲突给双方造成的大量人员伤亡,这个在2002年提出并在2007年重启的方案其实早已过时。此外,在过去的五年里,中东各个政治力量间的平衡已经发生了翻天覆地的变化,同时巴以双方也都重新打量彼此并改变了自身的策略,这使得双方已经越来越难坐到同一张谈判桌前了。火上浇油的是阿拉伯世界各个穆斯林宗派之间的内部纷争有增无减,而以色列国内的政治矛盾也层出不穷。

尽管如此,中国作为一个拥有漫长而复杂历史的国度,有着从春秋战国时期开始积累的处理多方冲突的丰富经验,所以中国应该要能对这样一个在文化层面上都相当敏感的冲突构思出一个全面的解决方案。如果中东各国意识到在未来比起中国需要它们,它们更需要中国,那么中国可以通过与中东各国开展的双边合作,采取一些更强硬的手段要求相关各方为长远的和平做出一些合理的让步。这一点也许是当下的美国所力所不及的。

无论中国是否做好了充分的准备,现在的问题都是中国将何时干预,而不是会否干预巴以冲突。相比起过去几年里在倡议巴以和谈时只说不做,或许中国能在实践的过程中更好地学习如何解决国际冲突。目前,中国随时可能会为解决冲突发表更强硬的外交声明,同时为美国邀请中国参与到和谈的努力中来营造氛围;而未来中国的加入,很可能会为改变现状起到关键性的作用。