Written by Meron Medzini.

A Chinese diplomat is reported to have claimed that the Middle East is the cemetery of the great powers. The implication being that China should avoid at all costs being drawn into the seemingly endless Arab-Israel conflict and specifically the Israel-Palestinian imbroglio. However, given China’s growing dependence on imported oil, mainly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, a relatively stable Middle East is a major requirement to insure its continued economic growth. This implies creating conditions to prevent a major outbreak in the region. China also realizes that the United States, once the major power broker in the region, is no longer considered as such by the international and by the regional players, hence the opportunity to play a role in resolving some of the conflicts and tensions that beset the Middle East. Can China play such a role, is it willing to do so, and are regional actors prepared to give China a role in resolving their problems?

Judging by its activities in the Middle East since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, China’s policy has been very hesitant and cautious, with much uncertainty about how to proceed. Beijing realizes that it must get more involved in the problems of this highly flammable region, but is not sure how to go about it. In December 2013, Foreign Minister Wang Yi described China’s Middle Eastern policy as one based on four pillars. They are peaceful and political-diplomatic solution of the region’s issues, achieving a win-win situation, protecting the legitimate rights and interests of all parties and the Arab states playing a larger role. He added that China will support the Arab states in their chosen path. He did not specifically say that China wanted to be more involved in resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict and for good reason.

Although it recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as early as 1964 and granted an embassy status to that organization a year later, the Chinese leadership at the time realized that ties with Israel could be useful in various fields, key among them from the late 1970’s was the upgrading of Chinese weaponry. They came to understand that Israeli technology, its many achievements in science, medicine, agriculture and other areas, could be highly useful to the new China under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. How to balance their need for Israeli technology and their need to insure a steady supply of oil from Arab states would now dictate their policy.

China seems to be reluctant to play a larger role in the international diplomacy that seeks to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It did not insist on being part of the Quartet (the U.S. UN, EU and the Russian Federation) that has been attempting to find a way to bring the warring parties together since the early years of the 21st century. Although it regularly votes with the Arab nations on anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations, it assures Israel that this has nothing to do with the flourishing economic ties that the two countries have forged in recent years. In 2014 the volume of trade between China and Israel was estimated at US$10 billion, representing very substantial growth since diplomatic relations were established between Beijing and Jerusalem in 1992.

There is much uncertainty in Israel about whether it is desirable for China to become more involved in the resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians. Israel has virtually no leverage over the Chinese government, legislature, the Communist party or the media. It cannot influence China in the way it can influence American public opinion and legislators, something Prime Minister Netanyahu will be seeking to do when he addresses a joint session of Congress on 3 March in an attempt to prevent what he sees as American capitulation to Iran. Unlike in the United States, there is no influential Jewish community in China with a strong lobby in Beijing. Hence, Israel does not yet see the benefits of an expanded Chinese effort to mediate. On the contrary, it may hurt their commercial, scientific, educational and even military ties. Above all, a greater Chinese role may not be to the liking of the United States, still Israel’s major political, military and economic backer. Israelis are doubtful that China can be a fair and honest broker given its dependence on Arab oil.

For their part, the Palestinians would probably welcome greater Chinese involvement in the political process. But they too are unsure of the extent they could rely on strong and consistent Chinese support. They realize that China is now Israel’s third trading partner and above all that it has never linked its economic and diplomatic relations with Israel to progress in the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that China has its own growing problems with radical Islam in Xinjiang. Bringing China into the Middle East peace process may not be to the liking of the Arab states. Each one of them has its own ties with China, while as a bloc they seem to prefer to keep China out of the political process. Let China vote with us in the United Nations, they say, but not delve deeply into the intricacies of the conflict lest the EU and the U.S. be tempted to back out of their involvement. The Arab side also realizes that China does not have a meaningful leverage over Israel with which to threaten it, like the imposition of economic sanctions, something the EU already did when imposed tariffs on goods made in the Israeli occupied territories.

Will the United States, Russia and the EU welcome a growing Chinese involvement in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The answer in short is that it is unlikely. Each has its own considerations, but they all fear the growing Chinese presence in the Middle East in the form of Chinese investments in infrastructure such as railways, power stations, harbours, food production and agricultural enterprises. They see China’s growing economic presence in the Arab states and fear that they may be pushed out of the region because China offers much better terms such as low cost long term loans. China also offers competitive prices and terms to the Arab states. They are aware of the tens of thousands of Chinese workers in the region and remember how 30,000 Chinese workers had to be withdrawn from Libya when the Gaddafi regime collapsed in 2012.

There are serious doubts that the United States would welcome China’s entry into the Middle East peace process. America knows well that China and Russia blocked its efforts in the United Nations Security Council when it came to imposing sanctions on Iran and Syria. It also fears growing Israeli-Chinese military ties and has in the past blocked Israeli sales of upgraded weapons to China. The Russian Federation certainly has no great interest in deeper Chinese involvement in the Middle East. China is becoming a major competitor of Russia in this region. President Putin’s visit to Cairo in February 2015 can be seen as an attempt to lure Egypt away not only from the West but also from China. All three groups, the US, EU and Russia fear that in the near future, China may want to sell weapons to the region pushing them out of this lucrative market as well.

In China itself, there seems to be much uncertainty about whether it should become more involved in the Middle East peace process. What will be the immediate gains and what will be some of the negative aspects? Greater involvement could strengthen their status as a global power, but why anger the Israelis and the Arabs if the process will not progress and risk taking the blame? They are also learning that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far more complex than a “normal” conflict over territory or even national security. They have come to understand that this conflict is over territory, history, religion, nationalism, water resources, economic gaps, psychology, it is also an ethnic and communal conflict. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also over Jerusalem and its holy sites, over Palestinian refugees, over Israeli settlements on what the Palestinians and most of the international community considers as Palestinian territory. Israel demands that once an agreement is reached, there will be no more claims (the finality of the conflict clause), which represents a major hurdle. All this means that it defies a visible short term solution. Why, then, should Beijing get deeply involved in what seems to be an insoluble conflict?

Meron Medzini is a Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Image credit: CC by Juliane Kravik.