President Xi Jinping’s meeting in Beijing last week with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was a signal that China aims to fill the vacuum left by the United States in the Middle East. The meeting came after Xi expressed interest in facilitating peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Xi met with Abbas in Saudi Arabia, saying that Beijing would continue to work on an “early, just and durable solution to the Palestinian issue.”
During a visit to Riyadh in December, Xi conveyed his country’s keenness to help resolve the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This led to five days of intense talks in March in Beijing, resulting in an agreement. This success has encouraged China to pursue more peace deals in the Middle East.
Carice Witte, founder and executive director of SIGNAL—Sino Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership, told JNS Beijing’s first major diplomatic success with Iran and Saudi Arabia is only part of the trouble China’s Middle East approach could cause for Israel.
There are two key factors behind how China’s involvement poses a problem for Israel, Witte said. The first, she said, “is China’s aim to address the conflict with its new Global Security Initiative (GSI) serving as a pillar of its diplomatic efforts in the region.”
The second challenge for Israel, Witte said, “is China’s stated intention to take the conflict to the U.N. and international community to be addressed there. China is pushing this agenda in spite of its awareness that the U.N. is biased against Israel and that Beijing itself has voted 100% against Israel in all international fora until today.”
According to Witte, until recently, China’s policy elite have said that they “did not understand the Middle East and called it a swamp that consumed great powers and that China would not get caught up in that trap. Nonetheless, in 2016, China became the largest investor in this region and [it] has remained so.”
After the Saudi-Iran rapprochement deal, Xi could feel he is at the top of his diplomatic game and want to build on that momentum. He wants to make further inroads in the Middle East and he knows focusing on the Palestinian issue is a great way to garner the attention he seeks.
“Facing unprecedented changes in the world and the new developments in the Middle East, China stands ready to strengthen coordination and cooperation with Palestine and work for a comprehensive, just and durable solution of the Palestinian question at an early date,” Xi told Abbas, according to China’s state-run news outlet CGTN.
Abbas and Xi signed bilateral cooperation documents on the economy, technology and visa exemptions for diplomats, as well as a friendship agreement between the Chinese city of Wuhan and Ramallah.
But it isn’t only Xi who believes Beijing would be a better mediator than Washington between Israel and the Palestinians. A majority of Palestinians view China and Russia as potentially effective mediators for peace talks with Israel, a recent survey revealed.
The survey, conducted by YouGov in May at the request of Arab News, showed that Palestinians’ preferred peace broker was Russia, followed closely by the European Union and China, while the U.S. proved far from popular among respondents.
The fact that the U.S. is a strong supporter of Palestinian human rights makes no difference. In fact, Xi and Abbas issued a joint statement “endorsing Beijing’s domestic and foreign policies and repudiating Western concepts of human rights,” according to an AP report.
While Palestinians run to the U.N. every time they perceive Israel as having violated Muslim sensitivities, Abbas showed no interest in protecting Muslims living in China. In the statement, the P.A. parroted Chinese propaganda and said China’s policies towards Muslims in Xinjiang have “nothing to do with human rights and are aimed at excising extremism and opposing terrorism and separatism.”
Reshape the global order
Witte told JNS China now has several interests in the Middle East and wants to use the region to reshape the global order, such as by interjecting its suite of initiatives that are aimed at this task: the GSI, the Global Development Initiative (GDI), and the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI)—each of which challenges different aspects of the current global order. In doing so, China seeks to undermine the image of the U.S. as a superpower while simultaneously highlighting American failures in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria and demonstrating that it has a better approach to diplomacy, security and development.
Witte noted that the Global Security Initiative “includes the concept of indivisible security whereby no country can advance its own security if doing so impinges on the security of another country. Applying this to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flies in the face of agreements among the U.S., Israel and the P.A. for decades, predicated on autonomy for the Palestinians in return for security for Israel.”
But Beijing has yet to move forward on any promises to Abbas and since it has relatively strong diplomatic relations with Israel, it is unlikely to push Israel beyond suggesting mediation.
For its part, Israel has no interest in allowing China to mediate peace talks given its anti-Israel voting history at the U.N. and because it continues to value the United States as the sole potential mediator.
Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, told JNS China “displays an anti-Israeli bent in its foreign policy by signing a strategic partnership with an entity of no consequence such as the P.A.”
China’s growing relationship with Iran indicates its intentions are not beneficial to Israel and that its proposal to the P.A. is not genuine, he said. “The paper with the P.A. is worthless, as the Chinese have no real investments in the P.A. and they have no intention to put any money into the P.A., a failing state,” Inbar said.
At the end of the day, China wants to replace the U.S. as the sole superpower in the Middle East.
According to the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies, “In the same vein as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the GDI, and the GCI, the GSI is a label under which China will promote an array of diplomatic initiatives. Through them, China hopes to enlarge a coalition of friendly countries and ultimately shape a post-Western security governance order, in which Russia could play a central role.”