Netanyahu with Chinese President Xi Jinping 370.
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
For many decades China has been supporting the Palestinian cause in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This stance can be traced back to history. The success of the Chinese Revolution became almost immediately a beacon for the Palestinians while China later became the first non-Arab country that recognized the PLO. The stance of the current Chinese administration is outlined in its first Arab Policy Paper published two years ago. This, inter alia, states that “China supports the Middle East peace process and the establishment of an independent state of Palestine with full sovereignty, based on the pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
Within this framework it is not surprising that Beijing did not welcome the recent decision of US President Donald Trump to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Almost immediately after Trump’s decision was announced, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterated the aforementioned words and called on all parties “to uphold an objective and just position.” Subsequently, China voted “yes” in the Egyptian-drafted UNSC resolution on the status of Jerusalem, which was finally vetoed by the US.
On the occasion of the third Israeli-Palestinian Symposium, organized during the same days in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained China’s propositions on Jerusalem on the basis of four pillars. The first is the respect of diversified histories, religions and ethnic groups. The second is the fair and impartial consideration of the interest of all parties. The third is the implementation of the international consensus according to relevant resolutions of the United States, the Oslo Accords and other political and legal documents. And the fourth is the achievement of peaceful coexistence via the avoidance of actions leading to further deterioration of the situation.
The general tone of the Chinese administration has been rather mild though. When a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry was asked to comment on the Istanbul statement of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation calling upon the international community to recognize east Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine, he gave a balanced answer. While he shared the concern of the Islamic countries, he did not go further and only expressed support for a settlement in accordance with relevant UN resolutions.
It is also interesting that the Joint Communiqué following the 15th Meeting of the Foreign Ministers of China, India and Russia, which took place in the same period, did not contain the lemma “Jerusalem,” whereas it made extensive reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
No doubt, China is exploring opportunities for establishing a more active presence in the framework of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last July, for instance, Chinese President Xi Jinping – while hosting his Palestinian Authority counterpart Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing – revealed his plan to bring peace. Among other things, Xi’s plan envisages a two-state solution, calls on Israel to stop its settlements and hopes for more dialogue between China, Israel and the Palestinians to promote key projects. Although the proposal brings practically nothing new, it reflects the determination of the Chinese government to make a step further in the peace process. China’s UN ambassador Liu Jieyi has attempted to give the proposal an international boost since then.
But on the whole China’s approach remains moderate and distant. The country is only interested in playing a secondary role, without proactive intervention. Thus, it is waiting for a natural course of peace talks, whenever they do take place. It is also well aware that its influence in the Middle East still lags behind the US despite the alleged geopolitical lacuna after the latter’s pivot to Asia.
The Chinese administration acts with pragmatism in foreign affairs and is demonstrating respect vis-àvis other countries even if it disagrees with them on some issues. Israel constitutes a characteristic example.
This is how Beijing manages to closely cooperate with Jerusalem in fields such as agriculture, high-tech, innovation, tourism and infrastructure works. Its friendly ties with the Arab world and its straightforward pro-Palestinian position have not affected the impressive advancement of Sino-Israeli ties. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Beijing four months ahead of Abbas in 2017.
China’s current priority is to safeguard its energy security and the harmonious implementation of the “Belt and Road” initiative in which Israel, several Arab countries and the Palestinians are participating. Whether this initiative turns out to be an integration mechanism fostering peace, it is premature to say. For the time being, China finds it sufficient to draw on history and underline that its relations with the wider Middle East region remain economic and commercial, as was the case during the ancient Silk Road phase. It is even more convenient for it to see others take the onus of mediating instead of investing huge diplomatic capital in a particularly complicated conflict.The author is a research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a senior associate and lecturer at the European Institute of Nice and the Democritus University of Thrace.