Written by Yiyi Chen.
In 1954, leaders of China, India and Myanmar initiated Five Principles for handling international relations. These are mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. Since then China has been a strict practitioner of the non-interference principle when another country faces domestic turmoil, as prominently witnessed recently in the case of the Syrian civil war.
However, this is not true in the shuttle diplomacy China is practicing in the conflict in Sudan and South Sudan. There, Chinese State Owned Enterprises, mainly China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) have invested heavily in the oil fields of Sudan for decades, and in the oil infrastructure of South Sudan since its independence. China’s “crossing the water while feeling the stones” style of changing its non-interference policy is not only happening in Sudan, but in many other regions in Africa, where it surpassed the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. As a matter of fact, it is also happening outside of Africa, albeit on a smaller scale, since China has became the third-largest originator of foreign direct investment worldwide.
The rationale for these moves could not be simpler: One takes care to minimize the risk to one’s investments. In all the places China has decided to “interfere”, it has significant economic interests that risk being harmed if local conflicts or political turmoil were left to evolve by themselves. By this logic, China is unavoidably destined to become involved in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. It is increasingly difficult for China to stay aloof from this century long hotbed of conflict in the Middle East as China acquires part or full ownership of multiple Israeli companies of significant size.
Both Chinese and Israeli companies are benefiting from partnering in the high tech and startup field, with venture capital and PE deals spanning from Beijing’s Zhongguancun to the Silicon Valley then to Israel’s Silicon Wadi. Although China’s economic involvement with the Palestinians is not as extensive as with the Israelis, China understands well that as an old friend of the PLO, any show of lack of support for the Palestinian cause will not only bring complaint from the Arab brothers of the latter, but also damage China’s hard earned international image as a leader and promoter of justice in the developing world. Beijing still holds a reception commemorating the “International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People” every November. President Xi sent a congratulations letter to the 2014 event, a rare show of China’s increased attention to the Palestinian cause, a sign no Arab country in the Middle East would miss. In addition, at a time when it faces ethnic tensions in its northwest region, China considers a supportive stance toward the Palestinian cause as potentially useful in easing tensions with its own Muslim minorities, a crucial element in China’s New Silk Road Economic Belt vision.
The Middle East serves not only as China’s indispensable source of fossil energy, but as a vast market for China-produced commodities. Even though China has tried to diversify its energy sources so that it is less dependent on the Middle Eastern countries, the effort has not proven very successful. Russia is not a reliable nor economical source, as shown by the signing price paid for pipe-transferred oil. China has also learned the cost that has to be paid to maintain stability in many resource rich African countries. Compared to these challenges, cooperating with the underwriter of the existing order in the Middle East, i.e. the U.S., is not a bad option at all. Being called a “free rider” is a nuisance, but all drivers must first be free riders in order to learn, a fact the U.S. cannot argue against if it wants China to learn how to contribute to stability in any region.
Another motivation for China to increase its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the issue of seeking balance in international relations. The region’s 25 countries have generated more media attention than any other group of countries or region in the world. With growing tensions between China and the U.S. in East Asia relating to the handling of territorial disputes with China’s neighbours, China often feels the need to bring pressure to bear on one or two soft spots in U.S. foreign policy in its own “backyard”, be it the Middle East or South America. No issue in the Middle East has consumed more resources and caused chronic pain for the U.S. than the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Each U.S. government started a new round of initiatives to try to improve the status quo between the two parties, and each ended up with a larger Israel and a smaller and more fragmented Palestine. China is tempted to get its hands dirty to help solve this problem, but “being tempted” is as much as China would discuss internally. Externally, China still bows to the U.S. leadership and ownership of the matter. This for the most part is because China does not yet have a clear Middle East policy, nor a particular group of experts and policy makers with clear cut strategies and tactics for approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, let alone resolving it.
China has started to consider all the factors that might potentially influence its efforts to step into such an initiative. China understands that it needs to stand on Washington’s shoulders and play a supporting role, while jumping out of the vicious cycle that U.S. politicians are stuck in. Fortunately, there are many factors that sway the U.S. effort that are almost non-existent in China. China does not have a large Jewish population and its political system is almost completely immune from any possible lobbying pressure. It is similarly insulated from the complicated domestic party politics that prevail in the other nations involved. China not only has a cozy relationship with Israel, but also with all of Israel’s adversaries such as Iran, Syria and Turkey.
As for the Arab countries’ stance, it might be more complicated than it seems on the surface. Although there is a “comprehensive” Arab Peace Initiative that China supports, the plan is already outdated with many more settlements added by the Israeli government and many more lives taken in the armed conflicts after the plan was first proposed (2002) and later re-endorsed (2007). The political balance has also changed dramatically in the past five years in the Middle East, altering the Israeli and Palestinian decisionmaking calculus so that it is harder than ever to get them to sit down at the negotiating table. Added to this, the growing internal tensions between different Arab countries and religious factions are no less complex than party politics within Israel.
As a country with a long history of handling complex and sophisticated multi-party conflicts, (for example the Spring and Autumn and Warring States), China is well equipped to come up with a comprehensive and culturally sensitive solution to the long conflict in the Middle East. By working bilaterally with all countries in the region, China will be able to exert stronger demands on them so that each is willing to give up more for the benefit of long term peace.
The question now is when, not if, China will increase its involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps similar to many Chinese initiatives during the past several decades, it is better to learn while implementing. For now, China will stick to making strong diplomatic statements regarding the conflict whenever possible, while warming up the atmosphere for the U.S. to invite China to be part of the endeavor.
Professor Yiyi Chen is director of the Center for Middle East Peace Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Image credit: CC by Remko Tanis/Flickr.