China: Middle East Peace Broker?


On Sunday Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will fly into China for a two-day state visit at the invitation of Xi Jinping, even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Shanghai for a trip that will include a meeting with Premier Li Keqiang.

The Palestinian and Israeli leaders’ trips coincide with a renewed push to restart negotiations for a two state solution by Secretary of State John Kerry. Although conditions don’t seem ripe for serious negotiations, Kerry was able to achieve an important diplomatic coup when the Arab League implicitly accepted the necessity of having a land swap agreement as part of a final deal.

Still, if genuine progress is going to be made on the longstanding issue more of the same will not due. If the U.S. is serious about pursuing a two-state solution at this time, it should call on China to join it in leading the effort.

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Currently, the international community is represented in the peace process by the Quartet — the UN, EU, U.S., and Russia. The makeup of this body is increasingly outdated. Moscow’s inclusion, for example, was largely made on the basis that it has traditionally been more of an ally to the Arab states than to Israel. This no longer holds true as Russia has fallen out of favor with the Palestinians and the Arab League over its continued support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

China would be the best replacement for Russia in this equation. Indeed, in many ways China is the perfect complement to the U.S. in the peace process. Just as the U.S. leans towards Israel but continues to have friendly ties with at least half of the Palestinian leadership, China has a budding relationship with Israel but has consistently supported the Palestinians and Arabs in their conflict with Israel.

During Mao’s time the People’s Republic of China was one of the primary backers of Palestinian militant groups. It also opened up an embassy in Palestine shortly after joining the UN and, in 1975, it supported UN Resolution 3379. Although adopting a more moderate stance to the conflict under Deng Xiaoping, China has nonetheless continued to lend diplomatic support to the Palestinians at the UN and elsewhere. For example, it has continued to be critical of controversial Israeli actions like the sinking of the Gaza Flotilla, and next week President Abbas will be on a state visit while Netanyahu will not. Thus, the U.S. support for Israel would be counterbalanced by China’s support for the Palestinians.

Furthermore, China would be able to compensate for one of Washington’s most significant weaknesses in the Middle East process; namely, the fact that it refuses to engage many of the significant actors in the process including Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. As a matter of U.S. law, the Obama administration is unable to interact directly with Hamas or Hezbollah and Congress is unlikely to back down from this point even if the Obama administration itself favored engagement.

China could fill this void. Although there are greater bilateral tensions than is often appreciated, China and the Islamic Republic of Iran continue to have diplomatic relations and the latter’s economic plight could give China added leverage in getting Tehran to sign onto a deal. Moreover, the PRC has maintained ties with Hamas and even invited the leader of the organization to China for the China-Arab Cooperation Forum in 2006.

As is widely understood, achieving a two-state solution will require assuring Israel that its security won’t be unduly jeopardized by the agreement, and building up a Palestinian state and economy before independence.

Just as the U.S. can help advance the peace process by reassuring Israel on security issues, perhaps China’s greatest contribution would be its ability to strengthen the Palestinian economy. Although the West Bank has made great strides in strengthening governance in recent years, it has yet to achieve substantial success economically (partly due to the occupation of course). Moreover, its economic outlook worsened after Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced his resignation, which is making some Western aid donors and investors skeptical about continuing their support.

No country would be better able to help develop the Palestinian economy than China. As it has shown in Africa and elsewhere, China is unmatched in its ability to inject immense sums of aid and investment into unstable countries. Furthermore, Chinese companies have shown a far greater willingness than Western companies to operate in potentially dangerous environments, and thus will be able to provide needed business expertise.

In some ways, China is just better at achieving results. Unlike the West, it has recently developed itself and therefore recognizes the importance of key areas like infrastructure development. Moreover, Chinese investment projects have not suffered from the endless delays that characterize Western aid projects. Indeed, they have often proceeded at a pace that has stunned its more experienced Western counterparts. 

The U.S. should therefore propose that China join it in spearheading the Middle East Peace Process. Not only would this serve U.S. interests by helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but such a gesture would also give China greater confidence that Washington recognizes and accepts its importance on the world stage.

China has at least as strong an interest in accepting such a proposal. Not only is it increasingly dependent on the Middle East for its energy needs, but helping resolve an international security issue as important as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would signal to the world why it should welcome China becoming a leader on the world stage.

Chinese and American leaders have both said they want to create a new type of major power relationship. The Middle East is the perfect place to start.

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