Written by Yitzhak Shichor.

A few years ago I was talking in Jerusalem with two visiting researchers from the China Institute of International Studies (China’s Foreign Ministry research organ), saying that by promoting Palestinian independence Beijing undermines its own policy that denies the same right to China’s Uyghurs and Tibetans. No, they told me, you are wrong. While Xinjiang and Tibet (and Taiwan) are universally recognized as an integral and inalienable part of China, the Palestinians’ right to an independent state is universally recognized by all countries, including Israel. They were right, and, thereby, implicitly exposed Beijing’s changing attitude on this issue. In the past China had been one of a handful of countries outside the Arab world that supported Palestinian independence. Indeed, the first non-Arab capital visited by a delegation of the newly-born Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1965 was Beijing. Now, China is one of many countries which uphold Palestinian independence. In other words, the Palestine problem has become a shared international responsibility – rather than China’s business.

Initially, Beijing’s stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was even-handed, if not pro-Israeli. By the early 1950s the Chinese had viewed the non-implementation of the 1947 UN-sponsored Partition Plan (which the Soviet Union supported) the fault of the Arabs as much, or even more, as Israel’s. Areas that had been allocated to a future state of Palestine were seized by Arab countries (e.g. Egypt and Jordan), that at that time China considered “aggressive”, and not just by Israel. It was only at the Bandung Conference (April 1955) that Beijing became fully aware of the significance and salience of Palestine, not only among the Arabs and Middle Eastern countries but also among Muslim nations in Asia and Africa. This realisation shut the door for Sino-Israeli relations, and opened it for Sino-Arab relations. Beijing began to offer the Palestinians rhetorical support, which was about to be upgraded.

By the mid-1960s, the radicalisation of China’s domestic politics also affected its foreign policy, as the Chinese were now facing not one enemy (the United States) but also their former ally, the Soviet Union. There was little Beijing could have done to compete with the two superpowers in the Middle East (in political, economic or military terms). China had one advantage: revolution. Since the PLO had been created by the Arab League, the Chinese believed that extensive support of the PLO would have won them the goodwill of the Arab governments – against both Washington and Moscow which maintained full diplomatic relations with Israel. Beijing’s anti-Israel rhetoric – that became more hostile than ever before – was, however, not enough. It was now accompanied by arms transfer and by military training and indoctrination of Palestinian fighters in China. Yet, much, if not all of this endeavour was in vain.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the Cultural Revolution had begun to calm down, the Chinese realised that the Soviets – who by then had offered the Palestinians much more than China could have – easily outranked them in the Middle East. Moreover, the Chinese were fed up with the splits among the Palestinians; their inability to organise a united front; and, not least, by their use of hijacking and terrorism which Beijing did not account as a real “people’s war”. However, China’s withdrawal from radicalism, at home and abroad, has by no means implied withdrawal from its commitments to the Palestine liberation movement. In fact, while the Chinese (tacitly) approved of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty (which the Palestinian rejected), they still insisted that China will not agree to relations with Israel unless three preconditions are met: complete Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories, including East Jerusalem; terminating Israel’s “aggressive” policies; and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. These conditions, however, had failed to prevent Palestinian criticism directed at Beijing on three issues in the late-1970s: its approval of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty; its diplomatic relations with the United States; and its military attack on Vietnam. They also failed to prevent a forthcoming rapprochement between China and Israel in the 1980s.

This rapprochement originated in Beijing’s preference of Israel as a supplier of advanced military technology that China could not get from other sources. These arms transfers to China had facilitated unofficial relations in other fields (e.g. agriculture, science, tourism etc.), culminating in the latter half of the 1980s with yearly high-level political meetings in the United Nations in New York. Beijing public denial of these exchanges still reflected lack of self-confidence and concern about negative Arab, Palestinian and, possibly, also Islamic reactions. Yet, there were none, at least not visible. While the Chinese could use the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty as a precedent for their relations with Israel, just to be on the safe side they recognized the State of Palestine on November 20, 1988, five days after its proclamation of independence (although a PLO office had been set up in Beijing as early as 1965), a little over three years before Beijing established diplomatic relations with Israel.

Since then, Beijing’s official policy on the Palestine problem has remained unchanged. It still upholds Palestinian independence, Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, endorses bilateral and multilateral negotiations, and votes for most UN pro-Palestinian motions. At the same time Beijing avoids any attempt to mediate between the parties and, although it underlines that direct negotiations are the best way to settle the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, it accepts that – given the failure of bilateral negotiations – regional and international auspices are also acceptable, as long as they do not involve China. No real Chinese mediation attempt has ever been offered, even when the opportunity was there (e.g. when both Netanyahu and Mahmud Abbas visited China at the same time in May 2013). A number of Chinese “peace plans” were published but none has ever been pursued and the several Chinese “special envoys” that have been regularly dispatched to the Middle East remained passive spectators. It is convenient for Beijing that the US continues to play the mediator role.

In fact, by the early 1990, against the background of the Iran-Iraq war and the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, Beijing had realised that the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestine problem are NOT the main issue in the Middle East. This realisation must have been reinforced by a series of upheavals in Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and the emergence of a radical Islamic wave including al-Qaeda and ISIS, as well as the so-called “Arab Spring” – all of which dwarfed the Palestine issue. Moreover, although they have not said it publicly, the Chinese reject Palestinian terrorism and suicide acts and deplore the “lack of solidarity” among the Palestinians, regarded as one of the main obstacles and complications on the road of the peace process.

China’s post-Mao domestic and international transformation has undermined its legacy of supporting national liberation movements and revolutionary organisations. Regarded as an upcoming superpower which underlines maintaining good relations with all states, oppressive ones included, China appears to have abandoned its identification with most oppressed peoples – except for few, such as the Palestinians. Yet assuming international responsibilities, promoting stability and having relations with Israel, Beijing’s capabilities of supporting the Palestinians have been eroded, practically if not symbolically. China’s emphasis on economic priorities and the pursuit of technology inevitably come at their expense. So, while theoretically Beijing still upholds Palestinian rights, in practice these have been marginalised. This reminds me of the joke about Bush, Gorbachev and Deng who were travelling in a convoy. Reaching a T-junction Bush’s driver asked which way to go? Bush said: of course, turn right. As Gorbachev reached the junction his driver asked for direction. Gorbachev said: follow Bush. Arriving last, Deng’s driver wasn’t sure if he should turn right or left. Deng told him: signal left then turn right.

Yitzhak Shichor is Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at the University of Haifa and Michael William Lipson Chair Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Image credit: CC by Jenni Konrad/Flickr.