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China's Middle East Dilemma: Israel or Palestine?

 
 

As a key state along China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Israel’s unique geographic location, stable political and social order, as well as advanced technology are vital for China’s successful economic involvement in the Middle East. At the same time, however, given the importance of establishing China’s image in international society, especially among Arab states, China has to support Palestine’s efforts for independence and statehood. Whenever Israel-Palestine tensions flare, China has to walk on eggshells to avoid offending either side.

In a recent incident that shocked the Chinese public, Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu declared his intent to limit diplomatic relations with China and other states that supported UN Security Council Resolution No. 2334, which denounced Israeli settlements in “Palestinian territory… including East Jerusalem.” As a permanent member state of the UN Security Council, China approved the resolution. Resolution 2334 was heavily criticized by both the Israeli government and many Israel political analysts. Their major concern was that the resolution was unbalanced and did not distinguish between the Western Wall and Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Many Israelis believed the resolution rewards Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ efforts to apply international pressure to Israel and thus makes Abbas less willing to participate in direct talks with the state.

The Israeli Embassy in China (where a new ambassador arrived at the beginning of 2017) lost no time in reassuring the Chinese media that cooperation between China and Israel would not be affected by Netanyahu’s decision. Despite this, the Chinese public was disappointed by Netanyahu’s remarks. For quite a long time, the Chinese public has viewed Israel as a reliable partner, cemented by historical friendship. There is a general impression in China that the steps taken by Chinese people in Shanghai to help Jewish immigrants from Germany in the 1930s are remembered by every Israeli. Some Chinese articles have even called Israel “the only reliable friend for China.”

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This high praise aside, China’s perceptions of Israel are mixed and complicated. On the one hand, China views Israel as a close friend of the United States, even as a satellite-state for Washington in Middle Eastern politics. The special relationship between the United States and Israel hampered diplomatic normalization between China and Israel until 1992. On the other hand, China, especially during recent years, increasingly views Israel as a reliable source of economic and technology cooperation (although some conservative Chinese Muslims have their own objections to this). China also views Israel as an important bridge to help connect China and Western states.

The progress of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road initiative” has also promoted cooperation between China and Israel. Israel, which enjoys the reputation of a “start-up nation,” has been viewed by China as a model for “economic transformation.” When it comes to infrastructure projects in the Middle East, Israel’s reliable and stable economic and social environment is attractive to China’s construction companies. Meanwhile, the religious sites in Israel attract Chinese tourists. Numerous deals and agreements have been signed between China and Israel and Netanyahu is scheduled to visit China in early 2017.

However, there are still factors that limit the closer relations between China and Israel. On the one hand, China has to take Palestine’s concerns into consideration. The normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Israel only occurred in 1992, when the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations were progressing. As an increasingly important power that lacks a direct military presence in Middle East, China needs “soft power” in Arab states. When the Israeli government, led by a right-wing coalition, delays peace negotiation with Palestine, when Jewish settlements expands endlessly in the West Bank, China has to stand up for Palestine to preserve a good image among Arab and Muslim states located along the “One Belt One Road” route.

On the other hand, although Israel realizes China’s growing involvement in the Middle East and the increasing economic opportunities that provides, most Israelis know little about China. While many Chinese people (and the Israel Consulate in Shanghai) view Shanghai as the symbol of “Chinese-Jewish Friendship” given the fact that the city provided asylum for many German Jews during World War II, in the long run the city played only a marginal role in Jewish and Israeli history. Meanwhile, Israel is strongly influenced by (and also influences) the United States and Europe, while China is still a minor player in the international discourse system. There are even many influential Israeli scholars who challenge China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative by comparing it with Saudi Arabia’s efforts to finance Wahhabism around the world. Most Israeli political experts do not understand or trust China, worrying that China’s growth may disturb the existing U.S.- and Europe-centered international system and ultimately threaten Israel’s national interests and survival.

For China, pragmatic interests and the “One Belt, One Road” initiative necessitate increasingly closer cooperation with Israel. Yet China’s moral philosophy and the necessity of strengthening its “soft power” in Arab states also push Beijing to support and help Palestine in the international arena. Given the tense and irreconcilable relationship between Israel and Palestine, China needs to more carefully maintain its “neutral” role and avoid excessive support for either side.

Wang Jin is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Political Science, University Haifa, Israel.

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