Written by Manochehr Dorraj.

China’s general policy toward the Middle East under Mao was preoccupied with isolating Taiwan and garnering support for the recognition of People’s Republic. China’s policy toward Palestinian-Israeli conflict was marked by a strong rhetorical support for the Palestinian cause. This was in accordance with China’s general support for the national liberation movements occurring in many developing nations during the 1960s. Whereas China became the first non-Arab nation to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1965 and politically and militarily supported the Marxist-Leninist  (Fadayeen) wing of the PLO, it rejected the Israeli overtures for normalization of relations.

When China joined the United Nations in 1971, now possessing a veto power as a permanent member of its Security Council, it intensified Israeli desire for bilateral relations. With the passing of Mao and the ascendance of a more pragmatic Chinese foreign policy orientation under Deng Xiao Ping, in 1980s, a new tone emerged displaying China’s desire to court both the Palestinians and their Arab allies as well as the Israelis. As the Israeli defense industry’s technological advancements and potential contribution to modernizing the Chinese arsenal caught the eyes of the Chinese leaders, Beijing began to respond more positively to the long-standing Israeli overtures for the establishing of bilateral relations. However, the transfer of arms from Israel to China began in earnest without much publicity long before the normalization of relations. For example, the projected value of arms transfers from Israel to China between 1976-1988 is said to be about $4 billion. The transfer of arms continued and expanded throughout 1990s and beyond, despite the objection of the US government. At the same time, Chinese material support to the Palestinians began to diminish substantially from the 1990s.

Throughout the 1980s, the Chinese leadership stipulated that the normalization of relations with Israel would materialize only if an independent Palestinian state came to fruition. However, by 1992, in the aftermath of the Madrid Peace Accords that fell short of realizing a two state solution, China recognized the state of Israel, thus formalizing a burgeoning bilateral relationship that had been kept under the wraps for more than two decades. Throughout the 1990s China demonstrated its support for the peace process and the principle of “land for peace” and supported the UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.  China also recognized HAMAS after its 2006 electoral victory as the “legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”

However, the continued rise of China throughout 1990’s and its need for energy sources to fuel its economic rise accompanied by its new status as net energy importer in 1993, diverted Beijing’s attention from Palestine to the oil and gas rich countries of the Middle East and the Arab world. By 2010, when China overtook Japan as the number two economy in the world, it was dependent on the Middle East region for 47% of its energy imports. With the expansion of trade, energy and military ties between China and the Middle East energy exporting countries and the primacy of trade and the fading of ideological politics of the past, increasingly the Palestinian–Israeli conflict was on the backburner. In addition, the failure of all the Peace initiatives, from the 1991 Madrid Conference to the 1993 Oslo Accords, 2000 Camp David Two, the 2002 “Road Map”, to the 2007 Annapolis Conference, followed by the second Lebanon war (2006) and the Gaza Wars (2008-2009, 2012-2013), the continuation of the cycle of violence between the Palestinian and the Israelis has made the goal of a two state solution look more remote than ever. With the realization of this new reality, the Chinese interest in mediating this conflict has also diminished.

The Chinese sale of armaments, missiles, and nuclear technology to countries such as Iran has been the source of some tension between China and Israel. This was particularly manifest during the Israeli-Lebanese war of 2006 when some of these missiles sold to Iran found their way into the hands of Hizballah and sank an Israeli ship. However, since then subsequent diplomatic negotiations have eased this tension and Chinese-Israeli bilateral trade in recent years has expanded. By 2010 the bilateral trade between the two countries was estimated to be $6.77 billion and as many as 10,000 Chinese citizens worked in Israel. Israel now is one of the leading trade partners for China in the world. The Palestinians lack such burgeoning bilateral trade ties and have very little leverage to bring to bear to modify the Chinese political stand towards their own. In the latest Chinese leaders’ statements while they stipulate the necessity to protect the right of Palestinian to statehood, they equally emphasize the importance of security for the state of Israel. The Chinese leaders hope that this balancing act would allow them to do business with both Israelis and the Arabs and so far they have been successful in doing so. In so far as the peace process could further contribute to regional security and stability, the Chinese are supportive of it, but they do not aspire to take a leading role as mediator or coordinator.

Manochehr Dorraj is a professor of political Science at Texas Christian University. Image Credit: CC by michael loadenthal/Flickr.