Beijing is vocal about Palestinian suffering on international platforms like the UN, but its economic and long-term regional interests mean its solidarity won’t go beyond strong rhetoric.
During Donald Trump’s one-term presidency, the US greatly retreated from international institutions like the United Nations in favour of an “America First” foreign policy. In response, China has been attempting to gain greater leverage in the UN, directly challenging American leadership on a host of international issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Keen to avoid taking sides in protracted conflicts and geopolitical rivalries, China approaches the Middle East with a careful foreign policy that generally keeps Beijing on good terms with virtually all countries on all sides of various wars and disputes.
“Sun Degang, a leading Chinese scholar on Middle Eastern affairs, once wrote that Beijing’s position is ‘Moral Supremacy with Palestine, Cooperation Supremacy with Israel,’” explained Jacopo Scita, a doctoral fellow at the UK’s Durham University, in an interview with TRT World.
“I believe Sun’s definition is a perfect summary of what China sees when looks at Palestine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Jonathan Hoffman, a political science PhD student at George Mason University, said, “China’s policies concerning Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories are a microcosm of Beijing’s broader Middle East strategy, which is designed to manoeuvre underneath the US-led security order in the region while compartmentalising their relations with individual nations in the hopes of avoiding being seen as blatantly taking one side in any particular conflict over the other.”
As summarised by Scita, balance is key to China’s approach to Israel/Palestine. “By keeping the door of diplomacy open, Beijing offers a position that cannot be explicitly rejected by the Israeli and the Palestinians, while distancing itself enough from the most pro-conflict factions of both camps.”
From Mao to Xi
Under Mao Zedong, China pursued a highly ideological Middle East policy, supporting anti-imperialist, Arab nationalist and Marxist governments and insurgencies in Algeria, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Amid the Cultural Revolution, Beijing armed the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
But after Mao’s death in 1976, the Chinese began approaching the Jewish state in less ideological ways, resulting in Beijing’s pro-Palestinian foreign policy taking on primarily diplomatic and symbolic dimensions.
By 1992, China and the Jewish state formalised diplomatic relations and Sino-Israeli cooperation has deepened across a host of domains such as technology, defense, investment and education since then. Ties between the countries have grown so close that the US has put pressure on Israel to cool its relationship with the Asian giant.
Nonetheless, when it comes to the politics surrounding the Palestinian question, Beijing’s position has not changed. In line with the international consensus, Beijing supports a two-state solution that requires an Israeli return to the 1967 borders.
Chinese officials frequently condemn Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and expansion of settlements. China also recognises Hamas as a legitimate political group, not a terrorist organisation, a source of contention between Beijing and Tel Aviv.
“The Palestinian people can always count on China’s support for their just cause and legitimate national rights,” was how China’s UN envoy Zhang Jun put it while addressing the UN Security Council last year.
Amid Israel’s 11-day bombardment of Gaza in May 2021, Beijing strongly denounced Israel and singled out the country. China also called out the Biden administration for its role in these latest clashes as the only country on the UN Security Council to oppose the 15-member body issuing a statement on the need to end the hostilities.
What can Palestinians see in China?
Palestinians have been appreciative of China’s pro-Palestinian rhetoric. In July 2019, Hamas praised Beijing for taking a stance against Israel’s demolition of homes in Jerusalem’s Sur Baher area, which led to China’s permanent UN representative
demanding that Israel halt these demolitions while condemning the violence waged against Palestinians.
But can Hamas or any other Palestinian faction seriously consider the possibility of China doing much beyond issuing strong rhetoric before international bodies?
Experts like the Wilson Center’s Lucille Greer maintain that Beijing offers the Palestinians “boilerplate” rhetoric but not much else — due to China’s relations with Israel.
“The material dimension of the Sino-Israeli relationship is far more valuable [to China] than that with the Palestinians and it is arguably a constraint on [Beijing’s] ability or willingness to become a more active mediator,” said Dr. Guy Burton, an adjunct professor at the Brussels School of Governance, in an interview with TRT World.
As officials in Beijing look to their long-term interests in the eastern Mediterranean, Israel — which stands out for being innovative, wealthy, educated and technologically advanced — is important to them. Additionally, most Israelis hold favourable views of China. Therefore, despite their political disagreements over the Palestinian cause, the Chinese want to work with the Israelis.
At least two other factors might also help explain Beijing’s decision to avoid major involvement in the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
First, the suffering in Gaza gives Beijing a chance to cast the US as an isolated power at the UN while emphasising that China’s stance is embraced by almost all countries.
Second, the humanitarian crises plaguing Gaza permit China to deflect from its own human rights violations against Muslims in Xinjiang, where Amnesty International recently accused Beijing of “crimes against humanity”.
This point was illustrated last month by the Chinese envoy at the UN calling on Washington to use its leverage over Israel to put an end to the warfare in Gaza, asserting that “the US has every opportunity to prove that it cares about Muslims.”
Although economic considerations heavily shape Beijing’s foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa, China’s positions on the situation in Gaza and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territories is more about diplomacy and political interests.
As a power that champions South-South solidarity against Western imperialism, the Palestinian cause is not an issue which Beijing can ignore, yet Palestine has less relevance to the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative than other countries in the region such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and the Gulf Cooperation Council states.
A bridge between Israelis and Palestinians?
Signs indicate that China seeks to play a more active role in bringing about a just resolution to conflict between Israel and Palestine.In late 2017, President Xi Jinping hosted “a symposium for Palestinian and Israeli peace advocates” in the Chinese capital, following previous ones held in China in 2003 and 2006. But it was a struggle for Chinese officials to simply bring both sides to agree to a non-binding resolution.
Could China have more luck down the road as the country continues gaining greater influence in the region? Among experts, there is skepticism.
“It’s also hard to see China making much of a difference unless it’s prepared to do things differently than the Americans, who have monopolised the position of third-party mediator in direct negotiations between the two but who in practice tend to side with Israel,” argued Dr. Burton, adding that challenging the US or changing the balance between the Israelis and Palestinians could put Beijing’s arrangements with Israel in jeopardy.
If China were to invest in diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict and fail, Dr. Burton says “a dent to the perception of [China] as a great power” could result.
Scita also doubts that China could play such a bridging role between the Jewish state and Palestine. “At the moment, China’s strategy in the Middle East is still focused on gaining the most from an economic perspective, staying away from regional politics and rivalries as much as possible”.
It seems more likely that Beijing will continue its current policy of avoiding the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ways that would go beyond rhetoric before international forums.
When it comes to working with Israel, the Chinese will aim to capitalise on this relationship as much as possible while keeping dialogue open with Palestinian factions. But there is no reason to expect China to put much pressure on Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
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