Written by Guy Burton.
It has become common to hear talk about China as as global ‘rising power’ over the last 15 years. China has of course undergone substantial economic growth and development since the 1980s, and to sustain the trend it has required reliable trade flows and, in particular, reliable energy imports from the Middle East. Between the 1980s and 2004 China went from East Asia’s largest oil producer to the world’s second largest importer, much of it from the Middle East. Consequently, Beijing’s stake in the stability of the region has greatly increased. Among the key issues affecting regional stability is the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to influenced the international politics of the region. With China having become a regional stakeholder and becoming ever closer to global power status, what contribution Beijing have on the conflict?
Can China make a difference?
Some observers see Chinese involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as desirable, particularly among those who perceive adverse effects in American domination. Since Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords in 1993, the negotiation process has been a stop-start affair. The US has been most active in bringing the two sides together, but its willingness to be involved has been questioned. For many in the Arab world it is not seen as an honest broker, due to its strong support for Israel, providing financial and military assistance. Providing international cover at the UN, where between 1970 and 2012 more than half of the 83 American vetoes in the Security Council prevented Israel from censure, is another bone of contention.
Recognising the potential to play a bigger role in the region, Beijing established the position of a Middle East envoy in 2002. The aim was to provide the Chinese leadership with direct and personal diplomacy between itself and the rulers of the regions’ countries. The present incumbent, Gong Xiaosheng, was appointed late last year and much has been made of one of his previous diplomatic roles as ambassador to the Palestinian Authority (PA), the transitional government introduced under Oslo.
In 2013, the new Chinese leadership under president Xi Jinping appeared keen to become more involved in brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Xi invited both the Israeli prime minister and Palestinian president to visit China, although they did so separately. During talks with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, Xi proposed a ‘four point’ plan that included a Palestinian state with peaceful co-existence with Israel, negotiations as the means to end the conflict, the principle of ‘land for peace’ as the basis of the talks and a supportive role for the international community.
Despite these moves, there is more evidence to suggest that China either can’t or won’t make much of a difference. First, the US dominates the Oslo process as the most active international party to the conflict. Recent Chinese involvement has been largely rhetorical and has not resulted in any Chinese-sponsored talks or action. Indeed, Xi’s four point plan was quickly overshadowed by US Secretary of State John Kerry’s (eventually doomed) shuttle diplomacy between the two sides during 2013-14.
Second, even if China did take a more active role, it is doubtful that it would offer anything different. Its four point plan is in line with the international consensus surrounding the Oslo process, which includes the principle of land for peace based on Israel withdrawing from the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza and a Palestinian state (in place of the PA) being established on them, alongside a peace agreement and security guarantees.
The problem with Oslo
The focus on Oslo by China, the US and the international community is important for two reasons. At one level it burnishes China’s desired image of being a ‘responsible stakeholder’ as it demonstrates its commitment to a global consensus on the character of the conflict and how it should be resolved. At another level though, it offers only a partial picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Oslo masks an asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians. It is not a conflict between equals. On one side the Israeli state commands access to substantial military and financial resources. On the other side the PA is financially dependent on international donors and the tax revenues collected by Israel. In addition, the PA has only partial control of the occupied territory; since 1967 illegal Israeli settlements have housed 500,000 people in the West Bank while Oslo has enabled Israel to keep direct control of two-thirds of the land. These differences are made worse by the current Israeli government’s unwillingness to make any concessions towards the Palestinians. With no pressure on the government, either from within Israeli society, or from outside by other national governments, Oslo is little more than a façade behind which Israeli policymakers can hide while the physical situation deteriorates year by year for the Palestinians.
In addition, Oslo only deals with the status of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the occupied territories (whether directly in the West Bank or through the siege of Gaza). It therefore only deals with the parameters of the conflict after 1967; it does not deal with the status of those 700,000 Palestinians made into refugees following the creation of Israel in 1948 (the Palestinian ‘Nakhba’ or ‘Catastrophe’) and their descendants.
China’s historical relations with Israel and the Palestinians
Today China seems keen to maintain open dialogue with both two sides. Over the past five years it has voted in support of Palestinian statehood at the UN as well as for an investigation into war crimes during Israel’s military action in Gaza during 2014, and for Israel to end its occupation last December. At the same time, it has continued to talk to Israeli policymakers, expanded trade and signed trade agreements with Israel, and established a Confucius Institute at Tel Aviv University.
China’s approach has not always been so even handed. Historically, Beijing has taken a strident position in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the 1960s the PRC opposed Israel and actively supported the Palestinians, seeing its representative body, the PLO, as a revolutionary national liberation movement which it provided with arms for its struggle against Israel. Especially significant was Beijing’s struggle with the Soviet Union to acquire greater influence in the Middle East – a race in which Moscow enjoyed a head start over China, having already cultivated diplomatic, financial and military relations with key Arab states, including Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
China’s radical stance has dissipated since Mao’s death and subsequent, more pragmatic leaderships. At the same time, Beijing has become more integrated into the international system, including joining the UN. Increasingly, it began to echo the statements of other great powers, including those related to the Israel-Palestine conflict. This includes opposition towards Palestinian terrorism, as opposed to the pursuit of peace through dialogue. In addition, Beijing began to build unofficial contact with Israel through the purchase of high-tech armaments. By the early 1990s it had established diplomatic relations with Israel and came down in favour of the Oslo process as the way to end the conflict.
Given Beijing’s statements and most recent four point plan, it is unlikely in the short term to break from the current consensus and offer an alternative to the limited Oslo process. Moreover, it is unwilling to use its economic power and influence to press the stronger party, Israel, either to return to talks or make concessions.
Although Israel faces a general election next month and the opposition offers no alternative to the position taken by the current government, there are already moves taking place within Israeli and Palestinian societies which suggest that Oslo’s days are numbered. Growing numbers on both sides are articulating and promoting their own version of a ‘one state solution’. For right-wing Israelis this involves the annexation of the West Bank and the corralling of Palestinians into smaller ‘Bantustans’. For Palestinians the aim is to erase the dividing line between Israel and the occupied territories and demand equal civil and political rights for all people across the whole of historic Palestine. In the face of such developments, China’s current position may also require adjustment.
Guy Burton is Assistant Professor in the School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus. Previously he was a Research Fellow and Acting Director of the Centre for Development Studies at Birzeit University in the West Bank between 2010 and 2012. Image credit : CC by Kashfi Halford/Flickr.