In mid-June 2023, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas traveled to China, becoming the first Arab president to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping since the latter won a third term last March. While Abbas left the Palestinian territories burning on more than one level due to Israeli aggressions, he found a great celebration from Beijing, which received him officially before meeting with the Chinese president in the Great Hall of the People (1).
This was Abbas's fifth visit to Beijing, and the man heard what he liked from Chinese pledges to support the Palestinians in peace talks with the occupying power, and China's readiness to continue providing assistance to Palestine to alleviate humanitarian difficulties and reconstruction, Xi told Abbas: "China and Palestine are close friends and good partners who trust and support each other," noting that his country "stands ready to strengthen coordination and cooperation with Palestine, and work for a comprehensive, just and lasting solution to the Palestinian issue," he said.
Most importantly, this visit came amid Beijing's interest in strengthening its presence in the Middle East, and in the absence of any clear diplomatic breakthrough in the paths of settlement between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation state sponsored by the United States, so that the Chinese presence in the Palestinian arena raises questions about the secret of Beijing's renewed interest in an issue that it has long neglected for years, and the extent to which this interest is likely to result in the development of a direct presence of the Chinese in the Palestinian issue.
For more than five decades, China has shown a rhetorical commitment to resolving the Palestinian issue in accordance with international resolutions, calling for the implementation of the two-state solution and the establishment of an independent and fully sovereign Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. Since the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, China has recognized the organization, and even Chinese leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have provided support of funds and weapons to the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, according to press sources (3).
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (left) and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. (Photo: Getty Images)
After the People's Republic of China regained its membership in the United Nations after an absence of 22 years in 1971, China supported the Palestinians on more than one occasion in international forums, called for the implementation of United Nations resolutions demanding the unconditional withdrawal of the occupation from the Palestinian territories, and described Israeli settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a "violation of international law". Beijing's support for the Palestinians was an exception to the Asian giant's policies based on the principle of neutrality, "non-interference in internal affairs," and the call for "respect and mutual benefit," as China wanted to support the first cause for the Arabs to gain influence in the Third World and strengthen its soft power in the region (4). By the eighties, China had officially established diplomatic relations with Palestine, and was one of the first countries to recognize Palestine as a sovereign state in 1988.
In this decade, Beijing also began to launch its own policy of opening-up, which included a gradual rapprochement with Israel, as it was attracted to the promising defense technology there, which China could benefit from at the time. In 1992, Beijing normalized diplomatic relations with Israel, and trade between the two sides quickly grew rapidly. China signed a comprehensive innovation partnership in the field of technology in 7 with the occupying power, and today it has become the third largest trading partner of the occupying power, as bilateral trade when the two countries established diplomatic relations in the early nineties was only about 2017 million dollars, while it jumped to 50.22 billion dollars in 8 (2022).
However, China has maintained ties with the Palestinian Authority and all Palestinian factions, including Hamas, and has established trade — albeit limited — relations with the Palestinians. In 2019, the two countries launched the first round of negotiations on the free trade area, and a year later the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in the Belt and Road Initiative, while the volume of bilateral trade reached 158 million dollars last year 2022, an annual increase of 23.2%, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, but the investment of Chinese companies in the Palestinian territories remains small compared to their presence in other Arab countries (9) (10).
The Palestinian delegation visits to discuss ways of cooperation with the Chinese side. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Although China has not gone beyond rhetorical solidarity and diplomatic interaction with Palestinian leaders in recent years, these limited interactions have often angered Israel, for example when China supported Security Council Resolution 2334, which demands that "Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem," to which then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by announcing his intention to restrict diplomatic relations with China (11).
Whenever Palestinian-Israeli tensions flare, Beijing had to "walk on eggshells to avoid taking sides," as Chinese political analyst Wang Jin put it, but this was not enough for the Israeli occupation state, which abandoned its traditional policy, which was initially based on separating politics from the economy in its relationship with Beijing, so Tel Aviv joined the international criticism campaign that condemned China's violations in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang ( 12).
At the "Peace" arena
In 2003, China presented its first five-point proposal on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, followed by a wave of regional visits by Chinese envoys. (Photo: Shutterstock)
At the height of its diplomatic victory following the success of its mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Beijing moved enthusiastically to engage in more conflicts in the Middle East, foremost of which is the file of negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation. On April 23, former Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Gang called Riyad al-Maliki, the Palestinian foreign minister, and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, and called on them to resume peace talks (13).
China's appearance on the mediation line between Palestine and Israel was not born of the moment. Over the past years, China has promoted a number of peace plans based on the principle of an independent Palestinian state based on the 14 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, dating back to 1967, when China appointed for the first time a special envoy to the Middle East, whose responsibilities include mediating between the two parties and urging them to "return to the negotiating table as soon as possible" (2002). One year later, China presented its first five-point proposal to resolve the conflict, followed by a wave of regional visits by Chinese envoys (15).
ظل محتوى المقترحات التي قدمتها الصين متشابها إلى حدٍّ كبير، بيد أن الميلاد الحقيقي للدور الصيني في القضية كان عام 2017، الذي تبنَّى فيه الرئيس الأميركي السابق "دونالد ترامب" سياسة منحازة انحيازا صارخا لصالح الإسرائيليين. وقد حفَّزت مواقف ترامب، وأبرزها إعلان القدس عاصمة لدولة الاحتلال، رغبة صينية في الاضطلاع بدور أكبر في ملف الصراع الأقدم في الشرق الأوسط. ففي ذلك العام، لم تكتفِ الصين باستضافة ندوة لـ"دعاة السلام الفلسطينيين والإسرائيليين" في بكين، بل وصرَّح وزير الخارجية الصيني قبل ساعات من التصويت الأخير في الأمم المتحدة على قرار إعلان القدس عاصمة لدولة الاحتلال أنها "مأساة تاريخية أن الفلسطينيين ما زالوا بلا دولة بعد أن أصدرت الأمم المتحدة القرار بشأن فلسطين وإسرائيل قبل 70 عاما" (17).
Following the outbreak of the Israeli aggression on Gaza in 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered to mediate between Israel and Palestine, and called for "engaging in direct talks in China." (Photo: Shutterstock)
China also recorded an important move following the outbreak of the Israeli aggression on Gaza in May 2021, when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered to mediate between Israel and Palestine, and called on the two sides to "engage in direct talks in China" (18). The Chinese minister submitted a proposal to the UN Security Council on "the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question" that includes four points for reaching peace: "a ceasefire, a cessation of violence and the provision of humanitarian aid, with Israel lifting the blockade on Gaza to ensure aid access, the seriousness of the Security Council to promote peace, and finally the resumption of talks on the basis of the two-state solution as soon as possible" (19).
But while the agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran has drawn attention to the feasibility of a possible Chinese mediation in a peace settlement between Palestinians and Israelis, analysts believe that the Chinese offers face several challenges, the first of which is that the conflict between the two sides is virtually unequal, as the occupation controls militarily and administratively the occupied Palestinian territory, while Israeli governments continue settlement operations at a faster pace than ever before, which means that the neutrality of the mediator is required, or replacing the more credible role of China with the role biased towards Washington. In the Palestinian issue, it is not the stall of the Persians, as what is required is to modify the imbalanced political and military balances in favor of Israel before this balance can be translated into a real peace agreement (20).
Otherwise, the United States has invested billions of dollars in what it calls the "cause of peace in the Middle East" over the past decades, and some analysts argue that a central role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would require China to allocate huge sums equivalent to what the Americans have allocated to assume the same position. In addition, China may not be able to devote the necessary time to reaching a result that satisfies all parties, especially since it does not have sufficient experience and influence in the region to become an effective mediator, in addition to the fact that the Middle East is outside the scope of its direct strategic concerns, unlike Washington, for which Israel's security and the security of Gulf oil have always been a clear motivation for it to devote enough time and money to the Arab-Israeli conflict (21).
It is unlikely that Israel will budge from its arrangements, which cling to the United States as a key mediator due to Washington's decades-long clear bias towards Tel Aviv. (Photo: Shutterstock)
For their part, the Palestinians are demonstrating a clear desire to bring in more international external actors in order to intensify pressure on Israel to implement its international obligations. However, Israel is unlikely to budge from its arrangements, which cling to the United States as a key mediator for Washington's decades-long clear bias towards Tel Aviv. The Israelis view Beijing as an unhonest broker and a biased or perhaps overly neutral player, and Israel, which sees Iran as a strategic threat, views with suspicion China's continued support for Tehran (22).
"The right player at the right time"?
But that hasn't stopped the PA in particular from stepping up its bet on Beijing in the recent period. At the height of the Sino-Taiwanese crisis, the PA did not hesitate to declare its support for the "one-China" policy and Beijing's right to "exercise its sovereignty, security and development rights", at a time when the Palestinian leadership could remain silent and ignore an Asian conflict thousands of miles away. On the face of it, the PA wanted to seize the opportunity to send messages to Washington, whose efforts to resolve the conflict have laxed, as US mediation has stalled since 2014, when the last direct peace talks were held between Palestinian and Israeli officials, while 24 American support for the occupying power and the use of veto power in the Security Council against most resolutions condemning Israel.
With no way out of this impasse in sight, the PA (25) seemed largely convinced that the administration of US President Joe Biden, despite its relatively supportive statements to the Palestinians compared to the Trump administration, has no serious intention of reviving the two-state solution, and that it is having more difficulty in stopping (26) Israeli far-right policies than ever before, especially with Netanyahu's return to power and his explicit announcement of continued construction in West Bank settlements that makes the two-state solution practically impossible.
Beijing is looking like never before to expand its presence in the Middle East and develop its influence in the region, including the Palestinian file. (Photo: Getty Images)
In this context, came the recent visit of President Abbas to China. In addition to the Palestinians' desire to receive more Chinese sponsorship of their struggle in international forums, and to obtain pledges of sufficient funding and financial support, the most important goal was to try to replace the Chinese role with the American role, or at least to give Beijing a foothold in the peace process at a time when it seeks to strengthen its international role, and to polish the Chinese president's position as a global statesman who can achieve diplomatic breakthroughs (27). Therefore, it was not surprising what the results of a YouGov poll conducted to find out the views of Palestinians on China's efforts to settle the conflict, with 80% of them welcoming China as a mediator on the issue, while about 60% said they do not trust the United States to mediate in the negotiations, although 86% according to the same poll believe that the United States has a significant influence on the occupying power (28).
While the Palestinian Authority is on its way towards attracting China into its conflict with the occupying power, Beijing is looking forward to expanding its presence in the Middle East and developing its influence in the region, including the Palestinian file, taking advantage of the Palestinians' frustration with the American and European role on the one hand, and the decline of the American role in general following the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan on the other hand, in addition to the loss of confidence in the United States as an ally (29). Although China's path to the Middle East's oldest conflict is not paved with roses, it has a presence that no one can ignore, including Israel itself, which is constantly looking for generous Chinese investments, and fears that ignoring Beijing's efforts may push it to invest more in unilateral relations with Palestine, Iran and other Tel Aviv adversaries (30).
In any case, it is inevitable to say that the Palestinian issue has become a new element in the broader geopolitical competition between the United States and China, and regardless of whether or not China succeeds in gaining a central place in Middle East issues, Washington is now very sensitive to any Chinese intervention that highlights its failures in the region. Washington today may not want to resolve conflicts as much as it is concerned with preventing the resolution of these conflicts by the Chinese, but that goal may push Washington to look for more effective ways than before to resolve conflicts around the world, in anticipation of losing its international standing. If China succeeds in offering new solutions, or if Washington is forced to take serious steps for fear of Chinese competition, the Palestinians hope that this will yield even a small breakthrough in their long-standing struggle with Israel's brutal occupation.
- (1) Xi: China willing to help foster Palestinian peacemaking with Israel.
- (2) China, Palestine agree to establish a strategic partnership.
- (3) https://www.jstor.org/stable/2536531
- (4) Why China Must Pay Attention to the Israel-Palestine Conflict.
- (5) What would China do to solve Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how do its ties with the two sides compare?
- (6) China to cement ties with Palestine, 'play a greater role to mediate Palestine-Israel conflict.
- (7) China: Developed relations with Israel and support for Palestinian national rights.
- (8) China, Israel, and the Palestinians: Navigating Politics and Economics.
- (9) Interview: Innovative cooperation becomes highlight, booster of China-Israel relations: Chinese ambassador.
- (10) China, Palestine agree to establish a strategic partnership.
- 11 Ibid.
- (12) China's Middle East Dilemma: Israel or Palestine?
- 13 Ibid.
- (14) China Offers to Facilitate Israel-Palestinian Peace Talk.
- 15 Ibid.
- (16) China's First Special Envoy to Middle East.
- (17) China wades into the Israel-Palestine conflict once more.
- (18) China Takes Bigger Role in Palestine-Israel Issue as UN Rejects Trump's Jerusalem Move.
- 19 Ibid.
- (20) China puts forward a four-point proposal regarding Palestine-Israel conflict.
- (21) China's Offer to Mediate in the Israel-Palestine Conflict Is Overstated – For Now.
- (22) Can China broker Israel-Palestine peace talks?
- (23) Can China become a 'peacemaker' in the Middle East?
- (24) Palestine supports China's sovereignty, territorial integrity.
- (25) Palestinians prefer Russia, China to mediate with Israel, don't trust U.S.
- (26) Giving Up on the U.S., Palestinian President Abbas Turns to China.
- (27) U.S. Announced Israeli Settlement Freeze, Netanyahu Rushed to Deny It.
- (28) China's Palestinian moment is about global standing rather than peace.
- (29) 80% of Palestinians welcome Chinese offer to mediate with Israel, US seen as least favorite option.
- (30) Can China become a 'peacemaker' in the Middle East?
- (31) Could China serve as broker of Israel-Palestinian peace? – Analysis.