On June 22, 2016, Abbas Zaki, a leading Palestinian diplomat and Fatah’s representative to China, declared his support for Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea. In an official statement, Zaki criticized the Philippines’ use of international legal institutions to arbitrate the South China Sea dispute and accused China’s critics of attempting to militarize the South China Sea.
Zaki’s fervent support for Beijing’s position on the South China Sea dispute and praise for China’s “peaceful coexistence principle” reveals the depth of camaraderie between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and China. The PA’s positive perceptions of Chinese foreign policy are deeply rooted in history.
China has been a leading supporter of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) since the PLO’s creation in 1964. In recent months, China has also made its support for Palestinian self-determination more pronounced. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s stronger pro-Palestinian stance also suggests that Beijing is interested in expanding its diplomatic involvement in the Middle East.
China and the PLO: A Five Decade Long Alliance
China’s alliance with the PLO dates back to the mid-1960s, when Beijing suspended its unofficial diplomatic relations with Israel and expressed its support for Palestinian self-determination. In 1965, Mao Zedong told members of a PLO delegation visiting China that Israel was a “base of imperialism in Asia.” To defeat “American imperialism,” Mao encouraged Palestinian nationalists to engage in armed struggle.
Initially, PLO supporters did not embrace Mao’s rhetoric. The PLO’s founding leader, Ahmad Shukeiri disdained the Chinese communist system. According to Hebrew University of Jerusalem Professor Yitzshak Shichor, the PLO leadership wanted to focus on revolutionary training and indoctrination rather than armed struggle.
Beijing’s staunch support for the Palestinian cause also strained China’s relations with the Arab world. Many anti-communist Arab leaders believed that China’s support for the PLO was part of Beijing’s broader objective of competing with the United States and USSR for hegemony in the Middle East.
During the 1970s, Palestinian nationalists supported Maoist revolutionary ideology in greater numbers and PLO leader Yasser Arafat accepted military support from Beijing. China established a PLO embassy in Beijing in 1974 and strongly supported a 1975 United Nations (UN) resolution equating Zionism with racism. After a decade-long hiatus in diplomatic relations under Deng Xiaoping, China reaffirmed its commitment to the Palestinian cause by diplomatically recognizing the self-declared independent state of Palestine in 1988.
In recent years, Chinese support for the PLO and Fatah has taken two main forms. First, China has used its status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to promote Palestinian self-determination motions in the UN and condemn the Israeli occupation. China supported Palestine’s bid to become a UN non-member observer state in 2012. It has also pressured Israel to unconditionally implement UN resolutions demanding Jerusalem’s withdrawal from the Palestinian territories. Chinese policymakers have described Israeli settlement constructions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a “violation of international law.”
Second, China has rhetorically emphasized the need for a diplomatic solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. In order to further this end, China has attempted to increase Hamas’ international legitimacy as a political actor. China has refused to label Hamas as a terrorist organization, and welcomed Hamas’ foreign minister to Beijing in June 2006 as the elected representative of the people of the Gaza Strip.
Even though Hamas is the PLO’s leading rival faction in Palestine, senior Fatah leaders have praised Chinese diplomatic overtures toward Hamas. If Hamas gains greater international recognition, Palestine’s ability to present a united front in future negotiations with Israel increases. Therefore, China’s support for the Palestinian cause has bolstered the PLO’s international status and to a limited degree, countered the United States’ support for Israel.
The Rationale Behind China’s Firm Support for Palestinian Self-Determination
Even though China has maintained a close alliance with the PLO for decades, its support for the Palestinian cause has rarely moved beyond rhetorical solidarity and small-scale diplomatic engagement with Palestinian leaders. However, recent actions by Chinese policymakers suggest that Beijing might be planning to escalate its involvement on the PA’s behalf.
In January 2016, during his visit to Egypt, Xi Jinping called on the Arab League to “maintain the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people.” Xi unequivocally stated that China desires the creation of an independent Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. He also urged the Arab League to play a leading role in restarting peace negotiations with Israel on Palestine’s status. As Xi’s Egypt trip occurred simultaneously with a spike in tensions resulting from Palestinian stabbings of Israelis, China’s calls for multilateral action on the Israel-Palestine conflict resonated powerfully in the Arab world.
Xi’s statement has been codified as foreign policy doctrine through China’s publication of its first-ever Arab policy paper in early 2016. China’s escalated financial investment in the Palestinian Authority in areas like solar energy and infrastructure reveal Beijing’s commitment to ensuring that Palestine is an economically viable state.
China’s willingness to become a major stakeholder in Palestine’s future is closely linked to its desire to expand its geopolitical influence in the Arab world. Through its trade relationships with Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, and Iran, China has bolstered its influence in the Middle East. Yet these economic ties have not transferred into a marked expansion in China’s power projection capacity in the Arab world. By engaging the Arab League on the Palestinian issue, China hopes to foster alliances with Arab countries. Should this strategy succeed, Beijing could emerge as a viable counterweight to U.S. influence in the Middle East.
China’s closer ties with Fatah also reflect the shifting power balance in its alliance with Israel. After Western countries imposed an arms embargo on China in response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Beijing strengthened its military cooperation with Israel. By the early 1990s, Israel established itself as the second largest foreign arms exporter to China after Russia. In exchange for receiving missiles, laser systems, and air defense technology; China softened its long-standing antagonism toward Israel.
Israel’s desire to expand its trade links with the Asia-Pacific region increased China’s importance as a trade partner for Israel. China’s economic importance to Israel has grown at a time when Beijing is undergoing a rapid military modernization and has much more sophisticated military technology than it possessed in the 1990s. China’s perception of Israel occupying a dependent role in their bilateral partnership has allowed Beijing to assert its support for Palestinian self-determination with little risk of backlash from Jerusalem.
China’s strengthening ties with the Palestinian Authority, encapsulated by Fatah’s emphatic support for Beijing’s South China Sea claims, could herald a shift toward a more proactive Chinese foreign policy in the Arab world. Should China transition toward direct involvement in conflict resolution negotiations, the prospect of a settlement on PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ terms will increase. Despite observable shifts in China’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, it remains to be seen whether Beijing will ultimately convert its pro-Palestinian rhetoric into concrete policies and abandon its relatively cautious stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.