Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s urge for the transition of the kingdom from a traditional socio-political construct to a liberalized modern state, and Iran’s compulsion to wriggle out of isolation, intensified by brutal repression of the anti-hijab movement, were the compelling reasons for the two traditional hostile Middle East states to accept China’s mediation.
China’s extended footprints in the Middle East, not only for the reason of energy resources but also for its expanding economic empire, emphasized the pre-requisite of normalization of the Iran-Saudi relationship. Both wielded great influence as major exporters of hydrocarbon energy to the world.
For China, there could not be a better opportunity of filling the Middle East vacuum caused by Washington’s inability to recognize the inroad of the changing mindset of the Saudi monarchy.
Buoyed by the Iran-Saudi détente, Beijing chose the next flashpoint in the Middle East for another mediation trial. This time the issue is the Palestine-Israel conflict.
The attention of the Middle East observers was rivetted on the issue when the Palestinian Authority President, 87-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, the successor of the late Yasser Arafat, arrived in Beijing on 13 June for a four-day visit to discuss the Palestinian issue with the Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The two leaders jointly announced that they would establish a “strategic partnership between Palestine and China,” said the South China Morning Post on June 15. Earlier this year, Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang said China was ready to facilitate peace talks to settle the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The question is whether China can deliver on this dispute due to its complexity and international ramifications. Unlike Iran-Saudi, Palestine is a territorial issue far beyond a mediator’s capacity.
Let us first examine China’s relations with the two sides from a historical perspective and to what extent the parties involved carry trust in the neutrality of China.
China And Palestine
China has not just fixed its gaze on the Palestine-Israel conflict in the aftermath of the Iran-Saudi mediation. Beijing has been watching America’s strengths and weaknesses in fostering the State of Israel. China has long called solving the conflict the “heart of the Middle East issue.”
Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing has supported Palestine. That was before either had any form of recognition by the United Nations.
China was one of the first countries that recognized Palestine as a sovereign state in 1988. Late Yasser Arafat, the predecessor of Abbas, had made no fewer than fourteen visits to Beijing between 1964 and his death in 2004.
At a press conference in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin described the 87-year-old Abbas as an “old and good friend of the Chinese people.” Abbas is marking his fifth official visit to Beijing since he became President of the Palestinian Authority in 2005.
China, like India, has always supported the Palestinian cause at the UN and its affiliate bodies. It has supported and co-sponsored many resolutions calling for Palestinian statehood and denouncing Israel. It supported elevating Palestine to “non-state observer status” in 2011.
However, some observers think China’s relationship with Palestine is more rhetoric than action. While Beijing provides humanitarian aid to Palestinians, the two-way trade between the two totaled US$158 million in 2022.
China And Israel
However, China has been focusing more on Israel primarily because of the quantum of trade exchange between the two states. In 2022, China’s trade with Israel amounted to US$21 billion, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics.
Economic and commercial interests have weighed heavier with Beijing. Yet despite visible economic interests, China officially recognized the State of Israel only in 1992.
Jiang Zemin, the then Secretary General of the CPC, paid a visit to Israel in 2000, opening the door for brisk trade between China and Israel.
China has become Israel’s second-largest economic partner after the US. The trade between the two countries has grown by 127 percent over the past decade.
With that, the two sides have established the Chinese-Israel innovative, comprehensive partnership, with promises to expand cooperation in various fields, including science, technology, agriculture, clean energy, and finance.
An important facet of the trilateral relationship is that Israel is a close partner of the US. It is under pressure from US hawks to curb its ties with China because the US and China are running a big power rivalry that impacts US relations with Israel.
Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, says that despite US pressure to rein in Chinese investment and infrastructure projects.
But on major policy matters, Israel has been towing the American line. For example, since 2021, Israel has joined the US and other countries in criticizing China for violating the human rights of the Uighurs in the Autonomous State of Xinjiang.
China has been very vocal in accusing Israel of maltreating the Palestinians and singling out Israel as the instigator of the conflict. In May last, the Chinese ambassador to the UN, Geng Shuang, called on Israel to stop provocations on the West Bank.
China’s Proposed Solution
China is a votary of the “two-state solution.” The framework is to see the creation of an independent state of Palestine to exist alongside the state of Israel.
The US is also disposed to endorse the proposal. On the 75th anniversary of “the Nakba” – the mass displacement of Palestinians following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Chinese foreign minister Qin said, “The fundamental way out of the conflict was through the two-state solution.”
Beijing’s recently-unveiled peace plan calls for independent Palestine based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. Palestine would be entitled to increased development and humanitarian assistance and convening a large-scale international conference to resume peace talks.
Beijing has made several attempts since 2013—including the 2017 peace symposium—but without success. Although people are taking Beijing seriously after the Iran-Saudi mediation, differences are so deep that all efforts have been rendered abortive.
Attempts like Oslo Accord 1990 and Camp David Summit 2000 did not help. Support for a two-state formula has fallen to 33 percent and 34 percent between Palestinians and non-Arab Israelis.
Hostilities are renewed intermittently, the Palestinian government is fractured and almost dysfunctional, and Israeli settlements in West Bank have increased.
A hard right-wing government in Tel Aviv seems not inclined to reflect positively on China’s proposed solution. A mutually acceptable solution alone can become viable.
The tailpiece is that, of late, Israel has been working hard to straighten relations with other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, after it succeeded in breaking the ice with the UAE.
- KN Pandita (Padma Shri) is the former Director of the Center of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University. Views expressed here are of the author’s.
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