Palestinian activists seem to believe they can maneuver China to sever ties with Israel.
On October 30, at the first “China and the Palestinian Question” conference in Istanbul, deputy chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, Moussa Abu Marzouk, was among those who submitted an appeal. After first stating, “we do not interfere in the internal affairs of any country or the way it runs its foreign relations,” Abu Marzouk began to plant the seeds of interference. “We would like China to stay away from the Zionist entity,” he said, adding that Israel stands in “stark contrast to everything China symbolizes and aspires to.”
The conference, organized by the Asia and the Middle East Forum and the Middle East Studies Center of the Chinese Foreign Affairs University (CFAU), was rife with carefully crafted narratives that leveraged existing tensions between China and the West to advance their anti-Israel agenda.
Abu Marzouk proclaimed that China’s relations with Israel “will definitely become a source of conflict and a threat to China’s medium- and long-term interests because the [Zionist] entity is racially and existentially attached to the colonial powers that are hostile to the Chinese awakening.”
Sami Al-Arian, a professor at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, told the conference that “the US is forming military alliances to besiege China.” He added that “Australia wanted to remain neutral but was forced to choose between security and trade,” referring to the recent AUKUS military pact among the US, UK and Australia.
The professor conveniently decided to omit the fact that deteriorating relations between Canberra and Beijing had more to do with alleged Chinese influencing operations “down under,” and Australia calling for an investigation into China’s handling of COVID-19, than with US pressure. Canberra has voiced concerns over national security issues, but trade between the two countries has increased 24% since 2020.
Al-Arian had no problem confidently advising China on how it should conduct relations with other countries. “Beijing would need allies to ward off the pressure on China in a new Cold War era,” he said. “Supporting the struggle of Palestine along the struggle of Kashmiris in their struggle against fascist India would endear China to the Muslim world and defeat the attempt [of the US] to isolate China.”
Evoking historical narratives that pit the West against China in flawed zero-sum terms and suggesting that China must support Palestinians to rally Muslim support is not only divisive but ignores new realities that have unfolded in the Middle East.
For China to follow this path, it would have to ignore that over a year ago, the UAE and Bahrain established diplomatic relations with Israel within the framework of the Abraham Accords; Sudan and Morocco followed shortly after. According to The Economist, “fully half of Arabs now live in states that recognize Israel.” While people-to-people ties between Israel and its newfound partners admittedly harbor much room for improvement, the Palestinian cause no longer binds the Arab, Muslim world.
Meanwhile, many Muslim states have no intention of choosing a side in the US-China rivalry.
As the UAE’s Economy Minister Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansouri made clear in a 2019 statement, “the UAE should stay away from the trade war between the US and China and not take sides with anyone.” China has emerged as Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, but Washington remains Riyadh’s strategic partner, and almost all the country’s arms originate from Western suppliers. Meanwhile, Egypt has long pursued a strategy of hedging its bets: Cairo has welcomed US military aid and diplomatic support, Russian military hardware and Chinese capital.
China’s relations with Israel and stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bears little influence on these realities.
The sophistry proliferated by academics at the conference should come as no surprise. Palestinian activists have long pursued a propaganda strategy designed to isolate Israel from the international community. The Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions campaign serves but one telling example. China’s rise to great power status has marked it as but another target for such influence campaigns.
Jawad Al-Hamad, head of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, called for the establishment of a research center in China that aims to “promote the Palestinian cause to the Chinese people.” Meanwhile, the head of the Pakistan-Chinese Institute, Mustafa Haider Syed, called for “coordination of efforts and the formation of an alliance by Arab and Islamic institutions, to pressure [China] for Palestine to take priority in Chinese foreign policy.”
Beijing’s position regarding the conflict has remained relatively consistent for decades. As director of the Center for Middle East Studies at CFAU Dr. Gao Shangtao reaffirmed to conference participants, “China supports the two-state solution on 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestine state.” Notably, this sentiment is not one that is supported by Hamas, which is openly committed to the total destruction of Israel.
Chinese academics are not entirely oblivious to the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor do they believe that severing ties with Israel is in Beijing’s interest. Gao acknowledged that “the Israeli-Palestinian peace process isn’t optimistic at the moment,” adding that “the international community need to put aside prejudices, grievances and accusations and work with China... to find more and better solutions to achieve Palestinian-Israeli peace.”
China has indeed sought to ramp up its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From the Chinese perspective, involving itself in such a high-profile issue is an opportunity to present itself as a responsible stakeholder in the international arena commensurate with its emerging great power status. However, Beijing’s ability to effectively act as an honest broker is contingent on adopting a more neutral stance.
Some Chinese scholars, like Fang Hongda, professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University, are beginning to bring some balance to the discussion on the mainland. In a recent Asia Times piece, Fang pointed out that “the plight of the Palestinians today is clearly not the fault of Israel alone,” and argued that “the Palestinians must be more realistic about the boundaries of their future state, and the international community must see this.”
The writer is director of research and strategy at the Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership.