Potential Peacemaker or Just Another Spectator?: China’s Relations with Israel and Palestine, and Its Prospect as a Broker for Peace

Participants of the Belt and Road Forum.

Introduction

 

Many experts have recently taken a keener eye to the activities of China in the Middle East, especially following heightened Chinese involvement there after recent international developments such as the Arab Spring. China has seemed to indicate interest in taking on a more constructive and active role in the Middle East, evidenced through its expanding global economic ventures that encompass the region, such as the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project. These new maneuvers have fomented speculation for how China, a country that unlike the United States does not maintain physical military bases in the region and also has had no historical track record of military intervention, will go about instantiating its soft power in the region. This question becomes even more key especially as the U.S.’s credibility and soft power have ostensibly regressed since the era immediately after the Cold War.

One of the ways in which China could perhaps step into the United States’ shoes lies within the mire of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Evidenced through recent statements by Chinese state officials in news outlets and through the U.N., China’s opinions seem to differ rhetorically from the U.S. on the subjects of Israel and Palestine, and China could potentially look to introduce itself as an alternative peacebroker or mediator. With healthy bilateral relations with both Israel and Palestine, China has stated that it plans to host a “symposium” between Israelis and Palestinians later in the year, and President Xi has promised to work “ceaselessly” to build peace in Israel and Palestine however he can.[1] Abbas and Netanyahu have been quoted in turn offering their takes on China taking on greater participation within the conflict: Abbas “hope[s] to see China play a greater role in the Middle East peace process,” and Netanyahu reportedly said that Israel was “willing to see China play a bigger role in Middle East affairs.”[2] Most recently, Chinese permanent deputy Wu Haitao at the U.N. general assembly on November 30 issued a statement containing China’s stance on the question of Palestine, stating that “Palestine and Israel must embark on a shared path to security. All settlement activities must end…China ha[s] always maintained an impartial and objective view of the Middle East situation. China support[s] the just cause of the Palestinian people as well as the establishment of a State based on pre-1967 borders.”[3]

This paper aims to interrogate the implications and value of China’s more recent rhetoric, while briefly examining China’s changing foreign policy within the Middle East, the history of Sino-Israeli and Sino-Palestinian relations, and whether China will be or could be a peace broker or mediator between the two sides.

 

Changing Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East

 

China’s foreign policy in the Middle East has undergone major changes, and these continuing and ever-shifting adaptations could in the future include a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While this opportunity may exist, whether China will seize it is a separate point of inquiry.

Chinese strategic interests, must like many other world actors’, are grounded in the fact that the Middle East is “crucial” to China from the energy security perspective.[4] Of late, to China, the Middle East “has become a location at which key objectives of [China’s] new multidimensional foreign policy can be implemented.”[5] These adaptations in its foreign policy originated from China’s becoming a net oil importer in 1993, making positive relationships with oil-rich Middle Eastern countries a strategic priority.[6]

Previously, China’s foreign policy maintained the mantra of “keeping a low profile.”[7] Generally, the strategy of a “low profile,” along with investments in certain countries that underwent periods of intense political conflict, caused Chinese holdings to sustain serious losses.[8] China’s stake in Middle Eastern regional stability has only grown, especially given its new One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project, which provides China with “unprecedented means” to influence affairs within the Middle East.[9] Renowned international relations theorist Wang Jisi in “March Westward” laid the theoretical foundations grounding China’s increased soft power presence in the Middle East as a response to several new realities: Obama’s “pivot” towards Asia, increased anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, America’s reduced dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and its higher reluctance for intervention post-Iraq War.[10]

Briefly, OBOR aims to economically consolidate China, Central and Western Asia, Russia, and Europe with a multi-billion dollar plan for infrastructural linkage.[11] OBOR gives China alternative land routes for movement and trade should imports be cut off by sea in an embargo situation.[12] The plan also provides more diverse markets and opportunities for Chinese enterprise, and the six GCC countries, along with Iraq and Iran, are key in its vision: “China has proposed a comprehensive cooperation strategy known as 1+2+3. Increased cooperation on energy…establishing a mutually beneficial… China-Arab energy relationship…construction and trade/investment facilitation…[and]…high-tech areas of nuclear energy, aerospace satellites, and new energy….”[13] OBOR will allow for higher volumes of trade for manufacturing goods that Gulf countries depend on.[14] Overall, China’s energy needs, its learning from past instances of sunk investment, as well as its grand plans for instantiating itself as a global power have caused China to shift from being a passive player to a more active piece on the Middle Eastern chessboard.

China cannot avoid the Israel-Palestine issue when it comes to its diplomatic relations, as it develops strong bilateral relations with Israel, and has maintained strong bilateral relations with Palestinians since even longer before. China’s rhetoric and actions in the Middle East “reflect a conscious effort” in balancing Israel’s and the Arab states’ interests.[15] The history of relations between China and Israel and Palestine reflects this balancing act.

 

The China-Israel Relationship

 

Diplomatic ties between China and Israel were first established in 1992.[16] Presently, China is Israel’s third-largest trading partner.[17] Although Israel was the first nation to recognize the PRC in 1950, China did not establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992, as China considered itself “pro-Palestine” and aligned itself with the PLO during the  more revolutionary years of Mao.[18] China used the Madrid peace conference in October 1991 to begin the process of formalizing relations with Israel.[19]

Since 1992, China-Israel trade volume has increased from $50 million to more than $10 billion as of 2013.[20] Joint endeavors include the XIN research center and the China-Israel Joint committee on Innovation Cooperation.[21] Both countries have competitive economic advantages that many figures, including Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, consider to be “complementary.”[22] Israel has made many advanced technological developments, while China is extremely proficient in building mass production capabilities.[23] Israel has never questioned the “One China Policy” and greeted OBOR with much enthusiasm.[24] However, this thriving trade relationship has not gone without U.S. scrutiny, particularly in the case of military technology. In two distinct instances, Israel was forced to stop the sale of weapons technologies to China in 2000 and 2004 out of concern for the U.S.-China competitive relationship.[25]

China also finds Israel an important coordinating partner when it comes to Middle Eastern security, especially on issues such as the fights against terrorism and piracy.[26] China has mentioned several times in statements relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the issue of terror that Israel faces.

Iran provides a complicating factor to the China-Israel relationship. Iran is China’s major trading partner, which is a fact detested by Israel; however, Israel could view a more positive relationship with China as a way to counterbalance Iranian influence in the Middle East. However, China has thus far been “unwilling to push for harder sanctions against Iran,” because Iran remains a more important trading partner to China than Israel.[27] Issues related to military security have also complicated the relationship between China and Israel, as China has held recent “joint military exercises” with Turkey, has positioned its ships in the Gulf of Aden in order to fight piracy, and “has pledged a large number of troops to the peacekeeping force in Lebanon,” making China one of the “largest contributors” to Lebanese multinational forces following the 2006 war.[28] Israel also maintains suspicions that some Chinese-made rockets have somehow found their way into the arsenal belonging to militants active in Gaza.[29]

The relationship between Israel and China, although more recently established than the relationship between China and Palestine, has grown in recent years and will continue to do so. The countries’ relationship strength, as well as China’s increasing stake in the future of the Israeli economy and in regional security, could push China to take a more active role in the peace process.

 

China’s relationship with Palestine

 

Official communications between Israel and China ended in 1963 as China became a champion of the Palestinian cause and became the first state outside of the Arab world to establish official diplomatic relations with the PLO.[30]

As mentioned before, China reconciled with Israel in 1992. As the PRC lost its revolutionary zeal, it also supported the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994.[31] Jiang Zemin visited Yasser Arafat, which constituted the first time that a Chinese president had ever visited Palestine.[32]

“Low-intensity” communications between China and the Palestinian Authority continued through the 90’s and 2000’s.[33] In 2006, China refused to designate Hamas a “terrorist organization” after the elections and instead referred to them as the “elected representatives of the Palestinian people.”[34] In 2010, Abbas visited China and was promised by the Chinese administration $4.4 million in aid.[35] Other actions include donations of Chinese medical equipment, pre-made housing, transportation technology, personnel training in China, as well as the Tarqomia Industrial Zone.[36] [37] As the PA has turned more towards international mechanisms for redress and justice, China has verbally stressed the “central role of the UN” in peace negotiations.[38] Foreign minister Wang Yi in April 2017 referred to the continued absence of a Palestinian state as a “terrible injustice.”[39]

Chinese-Palestinian trade outgrew American-Palestinian trade and has surpassed 42 percent of Palestinian-EU trade.[40] Obviously, Israel presents a more attractive investment opportunity. Chen Yiyi observes, however, that “the attractiveness of Israel and the unattractiveness of Palestine… point in the opposite direction of the mental and intellectual preferences of the Chinese scholars and journalists.”[41] This difference stems from a more general perspective of Chinese intellectuals: the Nakba to Palestinians constitutes a “shared national tragedy,” and to China the Nakba and the Opium Wars are “comparable,” because “both historical events took place on the respective nations’ own homeland.”[42] Additionally, China did not avenge itself on any colonial powers upon their land, and in the same way, the “Palestinian claim that it is not fair for the Jews to be compensated … [through giving up] Palestine” resonates with many in China.[43]

China’s most recent peace proposals include an independent Palestinian state on the “basis of the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital” and peaceful relations with Israel, along with assuaging Israel’s “security concerns” while curtailing further settlement proliferation.[44] Other statements concern the ending of violence against civilians, the lifting of the Gaza blockade, emphasizing existing UN resolutions, and highlighting the international community’s role.[45] China’s pronouncements have mostly been symbolic. However, these pronouncements have allowed China “to cultivate a positive image in the Arab world and preserve its chances should it decide in the future to increase its involvement with the peace process.”[46] Yakov Rabkin at the University of Montreal notes that these statements are, above all, a “useful public diplomacy tool” in “moderating criticism China often faces in Muslim countries for its treatment of its own Muslim population,” while also ingratiating China among other Arab states in preparation for further economic involvement and immense projects such as OBOR.[47]

However, in the present, unified Arab support for the issue of Palestine is harder to find, and China knows this, shifting its stance further away from outright support for the Palestinian cause. Following the 2014 Gaza War, China announced a gift of $1. M to the Palestinians, whereas Japan, in contrast, promised $200M in aid for the PA.[48] China’s previous motivations for one-sidedly supporting the Palestinian national cause have all but faded.

 

Peacemaker or spectator?

 

As of right now, all signs point to China not looking to jump in as the next United States or create the next Camp David Accords. However, while this paper may agree that such a prospect is unlikely tomorrow or even in the next year, China still possesses the capability to one day assume that role, which might prove a constructive strategic move with serious yields to China in the fields of diplomacy, security, and economic relations.

In practice, the divergence between China and the U.S.’s stance on the issue of Israel and Palestine and China’s growing influence in the Middle East does not signal trouble for Israel, because of China’s overarching philosophy of pragmatism. Economic forces play the biggest role in determining China’s foreign policy, and Israel has plenty to offer China in the fields of technology and trade. Likewise, attempting to actualize its more-Palestinian-leanings would only serve to annoy Israel and by proxy the United States while gleaning China no new economic benefits. Value for China in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to more liberal theories of international relations, would lie in counterbalancing U.S. influence and the U.S. pro-Israel vision for the Middle East.

Nevertheless, China could play an effective role as peace broker, and it could also be very strategically viable for them to do so. There is room for a peace broker other than the U.S., and China has long criticized the Quartet for its “inertia and inefficacy.”[49] China has vacillated between making claims at wishing to play a larger role in Middle East peace, or as special envoy for the Middle East Wu Sike stated, a “willingness to bring a constructive contribution.”[50] Liu Jieyi, another Chinese representative to the UN, reiterated this “veiled criticism” of the Quartet countries by urging the security council to abide by their commitment to seeing the peace process through.[51] Such statements have signaled China’s growing assertiveness, even if not backed up by physical actions.

China lacks the historical baggage that the U.S. has in the Middle East as a whole. Moreover, it didn’t label Hamas a “terrorist organization” after the group’s victory in the 2006 elections, and China remains one of the major powers in the world that can currently dialogue with the group as a representative of a plurality of Palestinians. Additionally, the rhetorical points through which China signals its diversion from the U.S.’s current stances on Israel-Palestine have won it a more favorable appraisal from Middle Eastern regional actors. Its perceived impartiality — as far as the comparison goes between the U.S. and itself — allows it to be perceived as more “rigorous” and more “juridical” than the U.S.[52]

Of course, this stance means nothing to Palestinians beyond the aid that China provides, even as that falls to the wayside. In spite of China’s firebrand past in lionizing the Palestinian cause, China will in no way, shape or form be a wholehearted champion of the Palestinian cause in the modern day to an extent that will benefit Palestinians. Palestinians need a world power on their side that is values-driven, rather than China, whose administration has acted almost chameleonic in camouflaging itself with different lights depending on its diplomatic audience, while still reaping the economic benefits of association with Israelis and Arabs alike.

The question turns to China as a potential impartial arbiter, as would be necessary for a peace settlement in which both Israeli and Palestinian administrations would agree to participate. China could turn its role into a more constructive one, as it is in the unique political position of being not only able to negotiate peace due to positive historical and current relationships with Israel and Palestine, as well as the Arab World, but also having peacemaking reflect well on its own international standing in a constructivist and realist sense. Proving that China could broker a deal that the U.S. has failed to deliver on for the past fifty years would provide a devastating blow to U.S. image abroad.

How the U.S. would respond to China attempting to take this new role in the international stage, as well as specifically within the Middle East, is another quite important subject of deliberation, but is outside of the scope of this paper for length reasons.

China assuming the role of peace broker, however, would signal China’s nascent inclination towards more constructive contributions in the Middle East and its desire to shoulder the burden of international stabilization, responding, perhaps, to more recent developments in the U.S. administration that have charted the course of a more isolationist U.S. policy in the future. As an increasingly important player in Middle East politics without a physical presence in the region, soft power becomes more important than ever, and contributing positively and constructively to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could allow China to inculcate soft power presence among the Arab world as well as in Israel.

 

Conclusion

 

As of right now, this paper does not predict that China will step out of its usual pragmatist bent in its approach to foreign affairs, and so it remains unlikely in the present that China will involve itself within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nevertheless, therein lie clear strategic advancements that positing itself as a neutral arbiter could provide China, especially as it makes larger moves in the region that rely on strong bilateral relations with Arab states and Israel, namely OBOR.

Future research would need to be conducted on the ramifications of the OBOR project and how they might affect Sino-U.S. relations down the line within the Middle East. As of now, the U.S. with its “pivot” has marginally shifted its locus of interest and influence away from the Middle East and towards Asia. Additionally, further scholarship would be useful in interrogating China’s future relations with other states currently enmeshed in conflict, as well as its potential role to play within the Saudi-Iranian rivalry should that matter manifest in more proxy conflict or an all-out war in the near future.

 

 

 


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Endnotes

[1]  AFP, “China Says It Will Host Israeli-Palestinian ‘Peace Symposium’,” Times of Israel (Beijing, China), July 18, 2017, accessed October 27, 2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/china-says-it-will-host-israeli-palestinian-peace-symposium/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] United Nations General Assembly, “Declaring Israel’s Actions in Syrian Golan, East Jerusalem ‘Null and Void’, General Assembly Adopts Six Resolutions on Palestine, Middle East,” General Assembly Plenary Seventy-Second Session, 60th Meeting (AM) GA, no. 11982 (November 30, 2017): accessed December 5, 2017, https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/ga11982.doc.htm.

[4] Yiyi Chen, “China’s Relationship with Israel, Opportunities and Challenges, Perspectives from China,” Israel Studies 17, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 10, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/israelstudies.17.3.1.

[5] A. Murat Agdemir, “Israel’s Rise in Asia: The Relations between Israel and the People’s Republic of China,” Uluslararası hukuk ve politika 12, no. 1 (January 1, 2017): 42, doi:10.19096/rilp.2016116719.

[6] Ibid., 42-43.

[7] Yiyi Chen, “The Basis of China’s Pro-Palestine Stance and the Current Status of Its Implementation,” Domes 22, no. 2 (October 1, 2013): 224, doi:10.1111/dome.12029.

[8] Chen, “China’s Relationship,” 10.

[9] Yoram Evron, “China Has a New Middle East Peace Plan,” The Diplomat, August 14, 2017, China Power, accessed October 27, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2017/08/china-has-a-new-middle-east-peace-plan/.

[10] Yoram Evron, “China’s Diplomatic Initiatives in the Middle East: The Quest for a Great-power Role in the Region,” International Relations 31, no. 2 (June 1, 2017): 128-129, doi:10.1177/0047117815619664.

[11] Evron, “China’s Diplomatic,” 129.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Sumedh Anil Lokhande, “China’s One Belt One Road Initiative and the Gulf Pearl Chain,” China Daily, June 5, 2017, Opinion, accessed October 27, 2017, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2017beltandroad/2017-06/05/content_29618549.htm.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Chen, “China’s Relationship,” 6.

[16] Agdemir, “Israel’s Rise,” 47.

[17] Ibid., 53.

[18] Aoun, “The Crises,” 204.

[19] Agdemir, “Israel’s Rise,” 47.

[20] Ibid., 53.

[21] Ibid., 55.

[22] Ibid., 51-52.

[23] Ibid., 57.

[24] Chen, “China’s Relationship,” 6.

[25] P. R. Kuraswamy, “Israel-China Relations and the Phalcon Controversy,” Middle East Policy 12, no. 2 (2005): https://search.proquest.com/docview/203690931.

[26] Aoun, “The Crises,” 213.

[27] Agdemir, “The Rise,” 62.

[28] Chen, “China’s Relationship,” 10.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Aoun, “The Crises,” 203.

[31] Ibid., 204.

[32] Ibid., 205.

[33] Ibid., 205-206.

[34] Daouad Kattab, “China Pledges Support for Palestine, but Keeps the Door Open to Israel,” The New Arab, July 19, 2017, In-depth, accessed October 27, 2017, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2017/7/19/abbas-seeks-out-chinese-support-for-palestine-1.

[35] Ibid., 207.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Daouad, “China Pledges.”

[38] Aoun, “The Crises,” 207.

[39] Daouad, “China Pledges.”

[40] Aoun, “The Crises,” 210.

[41] Ibid., 223.

[42] Chen, “China’s Relationship,” 9.

[43] Ibid., 9-10.

[44] Evron, “China’s Diplomatic,” 130.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Aoun, “The Crises,” 212.

[47] Yakov M. Rabkin, “Russia, China and India and the Israel–Palestine Conflict,” Holy Land 12, no. 1 (April 2013): 15, accessed October 27, 2017, http://www.euppublishing.com/doi/full/10.3366/hls.2013.0057.

[48] Evron, “China’s Diplomatic,” 132.

[49] Aoun, “The Crises,” 209.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 212.

[52] Ibid., 217.

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