Written by Yoram Evron.

In May 2013, during the (separate) state visits in China of president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, China’s president Xi Jinping made a four-point proposal for settlement of the Palestinian question. About a year later, during the Gaza War, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi made a five-point proposal for a putative ceasefire in this conflict. This was not the first time China had made proposals on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and like previous initiatives these ones also seemed powerless to change the situation. Yet, announced one after another in a relatively short time and during a period of China’s increasing involvement in the Middle East, the proposals may serve as an indication to Beijing’s stand on and aspired role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Adhering to China’s general foreign policy principles, the 2013 proposal stated that, first, an independent Palestinian state should be established on the basis of the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, living in peaceful coexistence with Israel. Concurrently, Israel’s right to exist and its legitimate security concerns should be fully respected. Second, negotiation should be the only way to peace with compromises made by both sides, while simultaneously Israel’s settlement activity should be stopped, all violence against civilians should be ended, blockade on Gaza Strip should be lifted, and the Palestinian prisoners issue should be handled. Third, the basis for the conflict settlement should be the principles of ‘land for peace’, the relevant UN resolutions, and the Arab Peace Initiative. Fourth, the international community should play a bigger role in the process, while taking an objective and fair position, and provide economic and other resources to promote Palestine’s development. As expected, the 2014 proposal reiterated some of the main principles and stipulations included in the earlier proposal and included the following additions: it expressed China’s support for the ceasefire initiative made by Egypt concerning the Gaza conflict, and called on the UN Security Council to play an active role in promoting an urgent solution to the crisis.

Good intentions notwithstanding, the proposals contained no innovative solutions, clear milestones or timetable, and thus appeared inadequate to promoting a solution of any kind. Neither are there any indications that the proposals were discussed in advance with the parties involved, nor were they followed-up with serious intent. Therefore, one must conclude that Beijing had other aims than just promoting a solution to the Palestinian issue.

China’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue has always been motivated by external considerations, both global and regional. During the Maoist period, its vehement support of the Palestinian movement and its radical anti-Israeli policy were aimed at promoting its leadership position in the non-aligned movement and counterbalancing the Soviet influence in the Middle East. When in the late 1970s it replaced its class-struggle oriented foreign policy with a pragmatic, economic development oriented one, and realized that the Arab world was not unified anymore behind the Palestinian struggle, it established relations with Israel in order to benefit from its advanced technology while gradually limiting its support for the Palestinians. Since the 2000s, China seems to be seeking a nominal role in the international effort for a settlement to the Palestinian issue, probably as part of its pursuit of a global power position. During this period it has largely avoided, however, using its increasing capabilities to change the Israeli-Palestinian situation and tried to limit its actual involvement in this issue.

Against this backdrop, several features of China’s 2013 and 2014 proposals stand out. First, the proposals give no indication that China asks for an active role in the peace process. The only time China is indirectly mentioned is through the call for the UNSC to act urgently to find a solution to the 2014 Gaza crisis. In comparison, a previous Chinese proposal announced in 2003 mentioned specifically that “China is ready to get actively involved in the international efforts to promote the Middle East peace process.”

Another feature of the proposals is their balanced approach and the avoidance of any statement that could antagonize any of the involved parties. The call for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state is balanced by a demand for Palestinian acknowledgement of Israel’s right to exist and to fully respect its legitimate security concerns. And, the stipulation that East Jerusalem would be the capital of the Palestinian state – a difficult but not unrealistic demand as past negotiations show – is balanced by the acceptance of the Israeli position that the borders of the Palestinian state will be based on the 1967 line. On the other hand, the proposals do not include sensitive issues such as refugees or Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand for a Palestinian acknowledgement of Israel as a Jewish state – two issues that are seemingly unbridgeable. That path for solution demonstrates not only Beijing’s impartial approach but also its preference for stabilizing the situation rather than solving the conflict altogether.

Finally, the proposals include clear criticism of the way the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been handled to date. Urging the international community in both proposals to play a more active role in the conflict – both to solve problems and to develop Palestine – China implicitly blames the involved powers for making insufficient efforts. Moreover, calling the international community to act fairly and objectively, it implies that this has not been the case so far. Without saying this explicitly, these charges cannot be pointed at anyone else but the US, which has been the major mediator in the negotiations since they launched the Madrid Conference in 1991. Consistent with Beijing’s foreign policy guidelines, the alternative suggested here is to handle the issue within an international framework led by regional actors and the UN. By default, the US dominance in the process will be reduced. Accordingly, both proposals underscored the role of regional players and initiatives such as the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Egyptian Initiative to end the 2014 Gaza conflict, and the Arab League. However, in line with the proposals’ impractical outline it is not clear how these regional initiatives are integrated with other stipulations included in the proposals and how discrepancies between them are addressed.

To conclude, initiated during a period of increasing diplomatic and other activity in the Middle East, the very making of the proposals expresses China’s quest for a role in the peace process. Demonstrating Beijing’s impartial approach to the conflict they serve to reduce other parties’ concerns about letting it in, and concurrently clarify that if and when it gets a role it has no intention of over-playing it. And indeed, the proposals have a goal other than promoting solutions to the respective conflicts. While blaming the big powers (and implicitly the US) for the way the Palestinian conflict has been managed so far, China used the proposals to suggest alternative principles and arrangements to govern the region’s politics, including more room for regional players and international institutions, greater emphasis on stability and less intervention by world powers.

Yoram Evron is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa. He recently published Between Beijing and Washington: Israel’s Technology Transfers to China in the Journal of East Asian Studies. Image credit: CC by michael loadenthal/Flickr.