China’s peace initiative for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, announced on July 31, 2017, attracted attention even though it did not include new ideas or prospects for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks. Neither was starting such a peace initiative a sufficient reason for attention since this is certainly not the first time that China has presented one.
Every now and then China comes up with a diplomatic proposal to resolve the conflicts of the Greater Middle East. In 2014, China made a five-point proposal to end the Gaza armed conflict raging that year and in 2012 Beijing produced a four-point proposal to end the Syrian civil war. As for the wide-ranging Israeli-Palestinian conflict specifically, the last Chinese proposal was in 2013.
Dealing with various conflicts, those proposals are not identical and their emphases have changed over time. Still, all share three characteristics: they do not contain innovative ideas; they do not reflect Chinese willingness to invest significant resources in the resolution of these conflicts; and no one has taken them seriously. So what’s new about the July 2017 initiative and what does it tell us about China’s views and intentions concerning the region?
Three major differences exist between the latest four-point proposal and that of 2013 to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First, the new proposal is much more vague and less detailed than the last. For instance, it omits Palestinian demands to establish an independent Palestinian state that enjoys full sovereignty, as well acknowledging Israel’s right to exist while addressing its legitimate security concerns.
Instead, the proposal makes a general call to advance the two-state solution. Second, the current proposal replaces the polemic tone that characterized the earlier ones with one more constructive and amicable. Instead of the 2013 proposal’s demand that the international community take “an objective and fair position” – a subtle but clear criticism of the United States’ mediation, now China suggests coordinating “international efforts to put forward peace-promoting measures.”
Finally, the 2017 proposal is the first to be made in the context of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) vision. This vision has unprecedentedly advanced China’s interest in the Middle East, and its stake in regional stability has grown significantly. Concomitantly, OBOR provides China with unprecedented means to influence regional processes in ways that it finds acceptable under its “business first” approach to the Middle East. As for similarities, both proposals are finely balanced in their requirements from the involved parties.
What does this all mean? In an attempt to clarify the intentions behind the vague 2017 proposal, two alternative explanations can be suggested. The first might be that getting ever more invested in, and becoming more familiar with, the Middle East, China for the first time is trying to play an active and constructive role. To that end it is opting for a highly constructive approach that tries to launch negotiations with as few obstacles as possible, while addressing Israeli concerns over China’s traditional pro-Arab approach. Concurrently it replaces its polemic tone against the United States with a collaborative spirit, and uses OBOR-related means to promote dialogue. China’s suggestion during the visit in mid-July of the Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to launch a “China-Palestine-Israel tripartite dialogue mechanism” can be seen as a part of it.
The alternative explanation is that nothing has really changed, and the proposal’s disregard of the conflict’s basic factors may show a lack of interest to delve into the conflict’s details. According to this line of explanation, with Abbas on his official visit having asked his hosts to apply greater pressure on Israel, and facing fierce American criticism over its limited assistance in the North Korean crisis, by such a proposal China might be maneuvering for some diplomatic leeway. It supposedly reflects Beijing’s willingness to share the burden of international stabilization, show its support for the Palestinian cause, and demonstrate OBOR’s potential to promote peace and development.
As there is no hard evidence that China has in practice stepped up its effort in the area of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the latter explanation seems more plausible. While there is nothing surprising about it, it is noteworthy that such behavior contradicts recent assessments – both in China and abroad – that the OBOR initiative and China’s growing economic involvement in the Middle East will change its decades-long policy of avoiding involvement in the region’s politics. As Beijing regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a major destabilizing factor in the region, OBOR provides it with clear motivation, and equips it with economic-political tools, to promote its resolution. But as the 2017 proposal shows, the OBOR initiative may also provide China with new means to present a façade of diplomatic activism while adhering to existing policies of minimal involvement. Such an approach has served China well over the past several decades, but it is questionable whether it enables it to achieve its OBOR-related goals in the region.
Dr. Yoram Evron is a Lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Haifa. His article “China’s Diplomatic Initiatives in the Middle East: The Quest for a Great Power Role in the Region,” was published in International Relations 31:2 (2017).