Israel should work with China so that its initiative doesn’t interfere with the Abraham Accords, and should seek to capitalize on common denominators between Beijing and Washington.
Between March 24 and March 30, 2021, Secretary of State and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited six countries in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman (in that order). Concluding the trip, he said that “China is ready to make its contribution to peace and development in the Middle East through sincere cooperation” (CGTN, 2021).
In an interview with Al-Arabiya, Ambassador Wang then announced a new five-point Chinese strategy to achieve security and stability in the Middle East. The initiative was supposed to be the highlight of the trip, but it was overshadowed by the signing of a 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The five points urge regional countries to respect one another, work toward regional denuclearization and the return of the US and Iran to the nuclear agreement, accelerate regional development cooperation, foster Gulf collective security, and maintain equality and justice.
These elements are not novel in and of themselves, as China has addressed each point separately on several occasions in the past. However, when presented together they suggest and attempt to influence the international community’s Middle East agenda and focus attention on what China considers to be key issues in light of recent regional developments. They also clearly demonstrate Beijing’s interest in continuing to be engaged in Middle East affairs, although China is not yet ready to get into the thick of the action when it comes to security issues (Fulton, 2021).
Although the first three points use the laconic and ambiguous language typical of Chinese diplomacy, the remaining two include references to concrete action, demonstrating that China is more interested than before in being active on strategic issues in the Middle East. This includes another step in the evolution of the Chinese vision for Gulf security presented by Wang Yi on several occasions as an alternative to the American peace plan (Gering, 2020).
In the interview with Al Arabiya, Wang Yi said that Beijing would convene a multilateral meeting at a later date to study a confidence-building mechanism for the security of oil facilities and shipping lanes, as well as to develop a mechanism for long-term Middle East security. These are China’s most significant interests in the Middle East, a zone that provides more than half of China’s oil. China could also be trying to position itself as a mediator considering the sabotage of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure by Iranian proxies.
The second peculiar point is the quest for a Palestinian solution and the adoption of a two-state solution, which, according to Wang, is the highest expression of “equality and justice” in the Middle East. China will push for a substantive discussion of the Palestinian problem at the UN Security Council in May 2021, when Beijing will take over as the council’s monthly president. He also mentioned that China will continue to hold dialogues for both Israeli and Palestinian peace activists (Track II diplomacy), as well as inviting Israeli and Palestinian delegates to jointly negotiate under Beijing’s auspices.
What Can be Expected?
Ambassador Gang Shuang, China’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, made a comment at the Security Council in late February that could foreshadow China’s key points on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the Council in May (Permanent Mission of the PRC to the UN, 2021).
To begin, Ambassador Geng stated that China supports the “two-state solution” and “land for peace,” which he called “a bottom line from which there can be no deviation.” He also called for a halt to settlement construction as well as a halt to the demolition of Palestinian homes. He urged Israel to abide by previous UN resolutions, highlighting Resolution 2334 from December 2016.
The resolution, which received Chinese support (and was adopted due to the Obama administration’s decision not to veto it), condemns Israel, defines Judea, Samaria, and eastern Jerusalem as “occupied Palestinian territory,” and focuses on settlements as illegal and the primary impediment to a peace agreement based on 1967 lines.
Studies show that China has traditionally backed these formulas because they enjoy a high degree of consensus among the major powers. As a result, the vocal support enables China to present itself as a proactive major power willing to challenge US hegemony while posing little political risk (Sun & Zubir, 2018).
In practice, this support undermines the peace process by pushing core issues to the margins, such as Palestinian terrorism and denial of the Jewish state’s right to exist. It gives impetus to the BDS movement and creates the political climate for pressure on Israel, such as the investigation spearheaded by the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.
China has attempted to balance its unilateral remarks in support of the Palestinians over the years, following tightening ties with Israel and persistent remonstrance from Jerusalem. Geng Shuang was careful to address Israel’s legitimate security concerns, as well as its right to exist alongside a Palestinian state.
Despite this, the ambassador remained silent on the Palestinian refugee problem and refused to insist that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a sovereign Jewish state. Even when it comes to disagreements with its own neighbors, China tends to concentrate on issues that are easier to negotiate while deferring volatile issues to a later date to first build mutual trust between the parties (Evron, 2015).
Second, Ambassador Geng called for the promotion of peace talks within the framework of the international community. He only hinted at the positive changes brought about by the Abraham Accord’s normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. He did, however, express support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ 2018 initiative to establish an international mediation mechanism and convene a peace conference, as well as support for the Arab League’s peace initiative.
The ambivalent (at best) Chinese attitude toward “normalization” is set against a backdrop of tensions with the US, as well as the fact that the breakthrough was backed by the Trump administration, considered hostile to China. Beijing claims that the US initiative was biased against the Palestinians.
The last point made by Ambassador Geng encapsulates the three principles of “peace through development” (Abb, 2018). Unlike Western “liberal peace” that demands political reforms, this principle emphasizes the creation of economic opportunities with no strings attached. In the run-up to the Palestinian Authority elections on May 22, Geng thus stressed the importance of political stability and intra-Palestinian unity.
For China, the political nature of a government is less important than its ability to provide the security and stability needed for development. The latter principle entails external assistance, and accordingly Geng appealed to the international community to assist the Palestinian Authority in fighting COVID, stabilizing the economy, and backing UNRWA.
Dead on Arrival
Aside from its stated intention to mediate regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gulf tensions, and nuclear talks, China continues to be involved in a variety of Middle East and North African conflicts, ranging from the civil wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya, to the war in Afghanistan and the Darfur crisis.
In fact, Beijing convened the first international conference to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1984, eight years before establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and less than a decade after selling arms to the PLO and training its forces in guerrilla warfare against the Jewish state.
After the outbreak of the second intifada in 2002, China appointed a special envoy to the region for the first time to help mediate the conflict. It appointed more special envoys for other MENA conflicts over the years, and today four of the five emissaries are stationed there. (A single envoy is tasked with bridging the divide between North and South Korea).
The concentration of special envoys in the Middle East and North Africa may give the false impression that the region is at the center of Chinese diplomatic and geostrategic thinking. However, most of the diplomats who have been appointed as envoys are nearing retirement age and mostly serve in symbolic roles and have achieved little tangible results over the past two decades.
Another example of declarative engagement in the Middle East has been China’s repeated interest in joining the Middle East Quartet, which includes the United Nations, the United States, Russia, and the European Union. But it has yet to do so.
Wang Yi’s five-point initiative joins two previous proposals from 2013 and 2014, with four and five points, respectively, to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the 2014 Gaza War. The first of the two, known as Xi Jinping’s four-point plan, was drafted during separate visits to Beijing by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It reappeared in 2017 during Abbas’ second visit to Zhongnanhai.
On these occasions, the Chinese initiative was not backed up by major action, and in any case, Israel would not have been willing to have China broker deals without the involvement of the US, particularly during the Trump administration. In this regard, Israel’s attitude toward the current initiative is unlikely to change. While Palestinian officials have welcomed China’s offer to host talks in Beijing, Israel has ignored it.
The planned peace dialogue between the Palestinian and Israeli delegations in Beijing is also preceded by Chinese seminars also in 2006, 2013 and 2017. On the last occasion, Deputy Speaker of the Israeli parliament and opposition member Hilik Bar informally represented Israel as chairman of the Israel-China Friendship Group, while Abbas’ advisers Nabil Shaath and Ahmed Majdalani represented the Palestinians.
While China views the meeting as a breakthrough (Office of the PRC to the State of Palestine, 2021), it was reported after the fact that the Palestinian participants denied having met with the Israelis. Simultaneously, in Israel, the meeting was mentioned only in the context of the fact that Hilik Bar missed plenum votes in favor of an “unnecessary overseas trip.”
The two delegations refused to be in the same room, there was no joint press conference, and even group photos were prohibited from publication. And at the center of it all was China, which fumbled to build a bridge between the two opposing sides, but only managed (with great difficulty) to extract a joint statement about resolving political impasses.
Xi Jinping described China and Palestine as “brothers, friends, and good partners” in his annual talk with President Abbas on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People last July. Nonetheless, a leaked video from a Fatah movement central committee meeting on April 21 shows the latter burst into a stream of vulgarism involving female anatomy in response to a question about his position on China. Whether or not Xi supports the Palestinian cause, his good intentions are not matched by meaningful action, and Palestinians today feel more isolated than ever before.
Given that all Chinese mediation efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past 20 years have failed before they began, what prompted China to publicly announce yet another new initiative that is bound to come to naught?
One potential explanation is that China continues to invest in resolving the conflict because of its longstanding commitment to the Palestinians, and because it sees itself representing the global south and developing countries. In the same vein, some researchers have hypothesized that China is using conflict resolution in the Middle East, where its interests are limited, as a training ground for more important opportunities (Sun & Zubir, 2018).
China’s top policymakers and Mideast experts have long viewed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a core issue in the region. Although the Abraham Accords showed otherwise and pushed the Palestinians further away from the political agenda, China continues to see conflict resolution as one of the best ways to reduce regional tensions, not to mention the global prestige and Nobel Prizes associated with the peace process.
Despite not having the same political and security commitments in the Middle East as the United States and Russia, China’s growing economic and commercial presence over the last two decades has propelled it forward. This fact is reinforced by the events of the Arab Spring in 2010 and the significant damage it sustained as a result, as well as the 2013 launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, which has led China to take a more proactive approach to the region.
Finally, in joint statements between China and the Arab League and Iran, public support for the Palestinians by Beijing is usually accompanied by support from the other party for the former’s policies in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. A covert equation has been created whereby support for the Palestinians and human rights violations by one side qualifies for support for the “internal affairs” and non-interference regarding human rights of the other.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Several scholars in China are willing to admit that “in light of developments [in the Middle East] in the last two decades, the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians has come to a dead end.” But while they call on the Chinese government to rethink its position and adopt “other peace initiatives” (read: “Abraham Accords”) (Fan, 2020), Beijing remains committed to the Oslo process.
Rather than recognizing the positive changes in the Middle East stemming from Arab normalization with Israel, China continues to offer easily forgotten alternatives every other week. By doing so, it jeopardizes the peace and normalization processes, impedes the development of a long-term Gulf security framework, and empowers Iranian Islamic fundamentalism and state-sponsored terrorism.
More importantly, the Trump administration’s peace initiative, Peace to Prosperity, is more akin to the Chinese concept of “peace through development” than to “liberal peace” in that it emphasizes the realization of the region’s economic potential as a foundation for a long-term solution without prior political commitment. Trump’s plan, like the BRI, aims for development through regional infrastructure and trade integration, as well as strengthening the private sector, education systems, and better governance by the public sector, all while relying on international aid.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region desperately requires capital to close the infrastructure gap, both traditional and digital. The region needs to spend at least 8.2% of GDP by 2030 to meet its goals, but infrastructure spending has averaged just 3% of GDP over the last decade. The economic downturn caused by COVID is expected to exacerbate the deficit, and no country will be able to close the gap on its own (Um, 2020). The only way to solve the problem is for major players like China and the US to work together.
China, on the other hand, is more interested in defying US policy and establishing itself as a major player than in resolving conflicts and maintaining regional stability, let alone cooperating on development with the US. The status quo allows it to operate relatively freely in the Middle East under the American security umbrella. Conversely, the Abraham Accords demonstrated that a permanent settlement between Israel and the Palestinians holds diminishing returns for Beijing’s and Arab states’ economic and political interests.
Israel must make it clear to China that it will not collaborate on peace initiatives unless the US is involved. Simultaneously, Israel should convince the US to include China in long-term development plans for the Middle East. This includes initiatives such as a joint oil pipeline between Israel and the UAE, a high-speed train between the Mediterranean Sea and Eilat, and the “Tracks for Regional Peace” plan, and a regional economic and trade route linking Haifa and the Persian Gulf via Saudi Arabia.
But even before that, Israel must be ready for China’s anticipated UN Security Council initiatives in May. Jerusalem will not be able to stop China from making provocative statements, but nevertheless it should seek to modify Chinese insistence on a settlement freeze and Israeli withdrawal from eastern Jerusalem.
Following that, this year will see two major events in Israel-China relations. First, the Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation (JCIC), which is part of the Comprehensive Innovation Partnership between Israel and China, is expected to take place at the end of the year, with senior government officials from both sides in attendance. Second, the two countries will celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations in January 2022. Both anniversaries can be used as a springboard for symbolic and political shifts in Chinese policy toward the conflict, both in terms of messages to Israel and in relation to American peace initiatives.
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