Why China Is So Eager to Play Mediator Between Palestine and Israel

China is presenting itself as an alternative to the U.S.
May 20, 2021, 12:12pm
israel palestine china gaza
A Palestinian man walks past a building destroyed by Israeli bombardment in Gaza on May 19. Photo: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

China has offered to play peacemaker in an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has led to some of the worst bloodshed in seven years, calling for an immediate ceasefire and proposing to host negotiations.

By taking an active role in the most contentious issue in the Middle East, China is presenting itself as a responsible global power and an alternative to the United States. But Beijing’s reluctance to take actions on the ground means it will unlikely be a decisive partner in ending the violence, according to analysts.

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Compared with the United States, a strong ally of Israel’s, China is seeking to mediate the crisis as a neutral party, a position rooted in the country’s revolutionary history and decades of balancing acts in the Middle East.

China has been supporting the Palestinian cause since the early days of the People’s Republic, founded in 1949. Under Mao Zedong’s leadership, Beijing allied with nationalist movements and insurgencies around the world, including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). China provided it with weapons and military training to help its fight against Israel, viewing it as a liberation movement against Western imperialism.

But after 1979, following China’s own economic reforms, Beijing shifted its focus from ideological struggles to economic development. In the meantime, tensions between Israel and Arab countries eased. China came to purchase large amounts of defense equipment from Israel. And their exchanges expanded from military to trade, academics, and politics. The two countries established formal ties in 1992. China recognized the state declared by the PLO in 1988.

Since then, Beijing has largely treated Israel and Palestine as equals. China is currently Israel’s second-biggest trading partner, and Chinese companies have taken on major infrastructure projects in Israel and made massive investments in the tech industry. 

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“China still has this residue sympathy, at least at the official level, for Palestine,” said Guy Burton, an expert on China’s relations with the Middle East from the Brussels School of Governance. “But also yes, what was initially an arms-related commercial relationship with Israel has expanded. If you look solely on the economic basis, Israel offers a lot more to the Chinese than Palestine does.” 

During the latest round of violence, which has led to more than 200 deaths of mostly Palestinians, the Chinese government is offering to host talks and is pushing for a UN Security Council resolution on a ceasefire. At a UN meeting, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated the two-state solution that would see Palestine become a country with East Jerusalem as its capital. 

In the meantime, Beijing is accusing the U.S. of siding with Israel and contributing to the bloodshed.

“Israel and Palestine are deep in a cycle of violent revenge. Bloody conflicts keep happening,” the state-run Xinhua news agency said in a commentary on Thursday. “The U.S. will not be able to evade responsibility.” 

Lucille Greer, a researcher on China and the Middle East with the Wilson Center in Washington, said participation in the “keystone” issue in the region gave Beijing a chance to showcase its ambition to become a global power—one that will be more responsible than the U.S.

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“It has the chance to say the United States has dropped the ball here, but China can sort of take up the slack,” Greer said. “This is one place for China to make a case quite directly that it is a better partner than the United States.” 

But besides making calls from the UN Security Council, where China is holding the rotating presidency, experts say Beijing has yet to make any concrete moves that will make a difference in resolving the longstanding stalemate. 

Burton, with the Brussels School of Governance, said actual engagement in the conflict could damage China’s economic relations with Israel and add fuel to the confrontation between China and the U.S., which would not be in Beijing’s interest given the Middle East is not on top of its foreign policy priority. 

On Chinese social media, state media reports on the bloodshed in Gaza prompted condemnation of the U.S. and anti-semitic comments from right-wing nationalists. China’s foreign ministry has also cited the conflict in attacking Washington’s treatment of Muslims. 

Beijing has faced global backlash over the mass internment of Muslim minorities in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, ostensibly to prevent terrorism.

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.