The geopolitics of China’s rise and its implications for the Arab world and wider Middle East is a topic for serious debate. Currently, China’s Middle East strategy revolves around shoring up its energy security and tapping consumer markets and investment opportunities for Chinese businesses. Given China’s status as the world’s fastest growing energy consumer and third-largest net importer of oil coupled with the global financial crisis, energy and commercial concerns will continue to dominate China’s interaction with the Middle East in the foreseeable future . Yet as China’s economic clout grows, Beijing is also keen on leveraging its economic power to enhance its diplomatic influence on the international stage. To bolster its great-power aspirations and its position in the Middle East—a region where it played a peripheral role throughout the Cold War—Beijing’s diplomacy is forging closer relations with key players in the region and, in doing so, is challenging the status quo.
China’s efforts to engage the region in recent years have been welcomed with open arms on both the state and popular levels. Regional governments, for instance, look to China as a potential check on what they see as unrestrained American dominance in the region, a feeling shared by many staunch U.S. allies (China Brief, October 24, 2008; China Brief, May 24, 2006). Furthermore, public sentiment in the region tends to be harshly critical of many aspects of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. China’s growing inroads into the Middle East, therefore, are also viewed in a positive light, as many Arabs and Muslims see China as a brotherly state (China Brief, May 18, 2007). Geopolitical considerations and cultural affinities, however, are not sufficient to explain the emerging China factor in Middle Eastern affairs. China’s successful engagement strategy also derives from the general lack of enmity between China and Arab countries on key global issues and its effective use of soft power in its dealings with Arab partners (China Brief, May 18, 2007).
China’s historic role in supporting Third World revolutionary movements and anti-colonial struggles in the Middle East and Africa, to include its advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians during the Cold War until the present, has also led many in the region to see China as a potential partner that can help further the Palestinian national cause . It was not until 1992 that China and Israel established formal diplomatic ties, ties that have since flourished despite Beijing’s previous characterization of Israel as an imperial aggressor acting at the behest of the United States . Nevertheless, widespread popular opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East coupled with feelings of nostalgia for a return of the revolutionary China of old, Arab and Muslim proponents of a greater role for China in Middle East politics see China’s rise as a positive trend, especially as it relates to the question of Palestine .
Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East is often imbued with a discourse that emphasizes themes of mutual respect and “South-South” cooperation and unity. As a developing country that has charted its own path toward progress and modernization and a country that is free of the colonial taint of competing powers in the region, China is quick to point out that it remains committed to championing the causes of the developing world, to include the struggle for Palestinian self-determination (China Brief, May 18, 2007). Chinese leaders, for instance, conduct official diplomatic visits to the “State of Palestine” as opposed to the “Palestinian Territories” or the “West Bank/Gaza,” labels typically used by the United States and other countries in official venues. China’s reference to “Palestine” is a symbolic but nevertheless important distinction; China’s reference to “Palestine” acknowledges Palestinian national identity and, by extension, the territorial claims of the Palestinians (Xinhua News Agency, January 10).
While always taking into account the significance of public diplomacy and perceptions, Chinese leaders treat bilateral exchanges with their Palestinian counterparts as major diplomatic events on par with other high-level state-to-state visits. In November 2008, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas exchanged warm congratulations to mark the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the Palestinians. Hu mentioned that “China has always been a staunch supporter of the rightful cause of the Palestinians and the Mideast peace process;” Abbas reciprocated by thanking China for “being a supporter of the rightful cause of the Palestinians” (Xinhua News Agency, November 20, 2008). In a further attempt to showcase its image as an advocate for the Palestinian cause and its willingness to engage with Palestinians on its own terms, Beijing ignored U.S. and Israeli opposition and welcomed Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas representative who served as Palestinian foreign minister, during the June 2006 China-Arab Cooperation Forum in Beijing (Xinhua News Agency, May 18, 2006). The United States and Israel consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization. In contrast, China acknowledged the legitimacy of Hamas’ role as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people following the group’s victory in the January 2006 parliamentary elections. A statement by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao clarified Beijing’s position regarding Hamas in light of U.S. and Israeli opposition to China’s dealings with the organization: “We believe that the Palestinian government is legally elected by the people there and it should be respected” (China Daily, June 2, 2006).
China on the Gaza Crisis
China’s reaction to Israel’s December 2008 invasion of Gaza and the resulting humanitarian crisis provides insight into some of the reasons underlying China’s popularity in the Middle East when it comes to the question of Palestine. In a January 16 speech during an emergency meeting of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, China’s deputy permanent representative to the UN Liu Zhenmin stated:
“China is seriously concerned over the escalation of Israel-Palestine conflicts and is deeply worried about the worsening humanitarian situation” and that “China condemns any violence against civilians and is shocked and indignant at Israel’s attacks on UN schools, rescue vehicles, and a UN compound. China demands that Israel ensure the safety of UN personnel and other rescue personnel, urges Israel to immediately stop its military operations and withdraw its troops, open all cross-border checkpoints into Gaza, and guarantee uninterrupted delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza; Palestinian armed factions must immediately stop launching rockets” (Xinhua News Agency, January 16).
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China’s harsh criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza, which occurred amid staunch American support for Israel’s actions, is another example of why many Arabs and Muslims are optimistic about China’s potential to challenge the United States, Israel’s main benefactor, and stand by the Palestinians. In this regard, Arab and Muslim proponents of a greater role for China in the Middle East hope that China may one day use its influence at the UN and other international bodies to offset American and, by extension, Israeli influence in the region.
China on Israel’s Occupation and Settlement Policies
China has been a harsh critic of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian land, including Israel’s policy of constructing settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, essentially the land Palestinians and the international community envisage (along with Gaza) to serve as an independent homeland. China has also been a harsh critic of Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza and the ensuing humanitarian costs since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007. While calling on both Israelis and Palestinians to focus their efforts on forging a lasting peace through diplomacy and compromise, China’s Ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Yesui stated, “China is deeply concerned at the grave security and humanitarian situation in Palestine and worried about the recent renewed eruption of violent conflicts in the Gaza Strip and the rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation” (Xinhua News Agency, November 25, 2008). Ambassador Yesui also stated that the “continued construction of settlements by Israel on the West Bank is not only in violation of Israel’s obligations under international law, but is also detrimental to guaranteeing Israel’s own security” (Xinhua News Agency, November 25, 2008).
China on “The Wall”
China regularly chastises Israel for its controversial construction of what Israel refers to as a “separation wall” or “security fence” and Palestinians brand as a “segregation wall” that traverses large swaths of the West Bank. Palestinians and international opponents of Israel’s actions label the construction of the so-called “separation wall” as a ploy aimed at annexing more Palestinian territory prior to a final peace settlement under the guise of securing Israeli territory from attack (Xinhua News Agency, February 24, 2004). In a September 2006 statement during a UN Security Council meeting on the Middle East, China’s foreign minister Li Zhaoxing called on Israel to “dismantle the separation wall,” which China views as an obstacle to peace and stability (PRC Mission to the UN Statement, September 21, 2006). China’s position on Israel’s construction of its “separation wall” reflects the 2004 advisory opinion by the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICJ) that declared the wall to be illegal .
A Balancing Act
On the surface, Beijing’s rhetoric concerning the most critical issues affecting the Palestinians suggests that it is positioning itself as a check on Israeli and, by extension, a check on American power in the Middle East. In reality, an assessment of Chinese behavior suggests that its Palestine policy is driven by pragmatic concerns that are very much in line with the international consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led by the United States. For instance, China supports the principles outlined in the various peace initiatives that have governed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process over the years, such as the 1991 Madrid Conference, 1993 Oslo Accords, 2002 “Road Map,” 2007 Annapolis Conference, among others. China’s vocal support for the Palestinian cause is also tempered with calls for Palestinian militants to renounce all forms of violence and terrorism, a far cry from the rhetoric and behavior reminiscent of China’s revolutionary days (China Daily, May 31, 2006). In this regard, China’s approach to the question of Palestine is more complex and nuanced than its rhetoric would indicate.
China today places a high-premium on its relationship with Israel, a marked shift from the periods of hostility and suspicion that characterized Sino-Israeli ties during the Cold War. Israel also sees China as an important partner, especially in the economic arena: China is Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia and the volume of trade between China and Israel represents the sixth largest in the world (Xinhua News Agency, November 8, 2006). China’s vocal criticism of Israel with respect to the question of Palestine, the most recent criticism occurring during the latest conflict in Gaza, appears to have done little to scuttle one of the world’s most robust trading relationships, and there are no indications that China (or Israel) is interested in seeing this dynamic change. Moreover, China’s close relations with Iran, Syria, and other Israeli rivals in the region also seem to have had a negligible impact on the development of Sino-Israeli ties, especially in the economic realm (China Brief, October 24, 2008). During a September 2007 reception marking the 58th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the Chinese Embassy in Israel, Chinese Ambassador to Israel Zhao Jun underlined the central role of trade in cementing Sino-Israeli relations: “As has been shown, China’s sound and steady economic growth has not only benefited its 1.3 billion people, bus also offered enormous business opportunities to other countries, including and particularly Israel, whose economic structure complement that of China” (Xinhua News Agency, September 24, 2007).
China’s quest for advanced technology, especially defense-related technology and weapons systems, and Israel’s aggressive export efforts in these sectors, underlie Sino-Israeli economic relations. China has found a willing partner in Israel to help further its ambitious efforts to modernize its military and bolster its technological prowess. At the same time, the Sino-Israeli trade in advanced military-related technology and weapons systems has been fraught with controversy, contributing to severe strains in U.S.-Israel relations (China Brief, January 24, 2007) . The United States worries that advanced defense technologies supplied by Israel to China may someday provide China with an advantage against its rivals in Asia, including U.S. allies such as Taiwan, thus further tipping the balance of power in Asia. Advanced technologies and weapons systems supplied by Israel to China also have the potential to be used by China against the United States in a future confrontation between Chinese and American forces. China’s record of proliferating arms and weapons systems also worries U.S. planners, since China may repackage advanced Israeli defense technologies for resale to America’s rivals across the globe. Israel is reported to be China’s second-largest arms supplier (with Russia being the first source). The controversy over Sino-Israeli defense ties is exacerbated considering that the United States remains Israel’s largest supplier of arms (Taipei Times, December 30, 2008).
As China continues to spread its influence across the Middle East, there will be increasing calls among Arabs and Muslims for China to adopt a more assertive posture in its advocacy on behalf of the Palestinian national cause. Despite its revolutionary history and rhetoric, however, China’s soft-power diplomacy and growing economic inroads into the Middle East suggest that it is likely to continue to maintain a balancing act when it comes to the question of Palestine, at least in the foreseeable future. China’s approach in its relationship with Israel also suggests that the further development of Sino-Israeli ties remains a top priority in Beijing, a factor that will profoundly impact Chinese foreign policy in the region. At the same time, as a rising power on the international stage, a major shift in regional (or global) dynamics down the line may prompt China to change course with respect to the Palestine question and its overall approach to the Middle East.
[The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.]
1. Xin Ma, “China’s Energy Strategy in the Middle East,” Middle East Economic Survey, Vol. LI, No. 23, June 9, 2008.
2. For a discussion of China’s anti-imperialist revolutionary credentials with the respect to the Palestinian question, Arab nationalism, and Israel more generally, see John K. Cooley, “China and the Palestinians,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, (Winter 1972), pp. 19-34.
3. For a discussion on the evolution of Israel-China relations, see E. Zev Sufott, “The Crucial Year 1991,” in Jonathan Goldstein, China and Israel, 1948-1998: A Fifty Year Retrospective (Westport: Praeger, 1999), pp. 107-126.
4. Popular opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is also apparent among Muslims outside of the Middle East. See WorldPublicOpinion.org, “Public Opinion in the Islamic World on Terrorism, al Qaeda, and US Policies,” The Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland, February 25, 2009, https://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/feb09/STARTII_Feb09_rpt.pdf. For more recent polling data indicating favorable Arab perceptions of China versus unfavorable opinions of the United States, see “2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll,” Survey of the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland (with Zogby International), March 2008, https://sadat.umd.edu/surveys/2008%20Arab%20Public%20Opinion%20Survey.ppt#1.
5. International Court of Justice, “Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” Press Release, 2004/28, July 9, 2004, https://www.icj-cij.org/docket/index.php?pr=71&code=mwp&p1=3&p2=4&p3=6&case=131&k=5a.
6. Also see P.R. Kumaraswamy, “Israel-China Relations and the Phalcon Controversy,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 12, Iss. 2, (Summer 2005), pp. 93-103; Nuclear Threat Initiative, “China’s Missile Imports and Assistance from Israel,” March 28, 2003, https://www.nti.org/db/china/imisr.htm.