On May 17, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi put forth a four-point proposal for peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Wang called for “both parties to the conflict to immediately stop military and hostile actions” and said that “Israel must exercise restraint in particular.” He stressed the need for humanitarian aid, the lifting of the blockade of Gaza, and international support for a “two-state solution” that included “a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state… with East Jerusalem as the capital, to achieve the harmonious coexistence of the Arab and Jewish nations and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
Over the last few days, China has also criticized the U.S. response to the violence as a “political farce” after Washington blocked a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and approved a $735 million dollar arms sale to Israel amid Israel’s ongoing assault on civilian centers in Gaza. Beijing has also offered to host a summit that would bring the two sides into direct negotiations.
How seriously should these pronouncements be taken, and how likely are they to lead to a breakthrough in negotiations?
Wang’s comments resurrected the four-point proposal made by Xi Jinping in 2017, which itself was a repackaging of the four-point plan for peace offered by Xi to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2013. While the specific language of these three plans has varied, the content has largely remained the same and has been consistent with China’s stance toward the Israel-Palestine conflict since the early 1990s. Notably, the “plans” are often vague (although perhaps no more so than the usual U.N. resolutions on the subject) and offer nothing substantially new on the topic. In general, all three versions endorse the international consensus that calls for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, condemn human rights violations and aggression on both sides, and call for mediated negotiations. Mohammad al-Sudairi has argued that these calls are all “within the framework of the global consensus and the principles accepted and voiced by the ‘moderate’ Arab camp” and embody what he calls China’s “essentially conservative disposition” toward the conflict.
These earlier attempts all failed to strike a chord with the parties involved. Although Abbas is fond of public trips to China, which he made in 2013 and 2017, Palestinians are unlikely to see the Chinese as a neutral partner due to their close relationship with Israel. According to 2018 data from the World Bank, Israel imported more goods from China than anywhere else, while China is the second-largest importer of Israeli products. Bilateral trade stands at around $15 billion and includes cooperation in infrastructure and high technology. While this is just a drop in the bucket of China’s total trade value, Israel has historically been an important source of military technology that the United States is unwilling to share. According to a report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, as of 2010 “Israel rank[ed] second only to Russia as a weapons system provider to China and as a conduit for sophisticated military technology, followed by France and Germany.”
This relationship has often drawn the ire of the United States, which occasionally pressures Israel to pull out of various deals with China. Most recently, U.S. pressure prevented Israel from selling advanced Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to China. However, despite these occasional bumps, the tendency has been to share rather than withhold technology.
Israel has also been seen as the “research and development (R&D) lab” of China in recent decades in a way that other Middle Eastern countries have not been. China and Israel have hosted many reciprocal business events that facilitate cooperation between Chinese and Israeli firms, usually with Israel providing technology to an established Chinese company. There are also significant R&D ties between businesses in the two nations, which culminated in a general “R&D Cooperation Agreement” between the two nations in 2010, as well as a separate R&D Cooperation Agreement with the municipal government of Shanghai, which provides funding for research and development for any joint projects of Israeli and Chinese companies.
Starting in 2016, Chinese investors became especially interested in online businesses based in Israel’s “Silicon Wadi,” which offers less regulation than its U.S. counterpart. These companies bring advanced technology and experience to these projects, including new R&D to meet needs in China, which local firms then borrow and integrate. While U.S. pressure again sometimes prevents important connections from materializing – most recently by blocking Israel’s use of Chinese telecommunications company Huawei’s 5G technology – the relationship has been steadily trending upwards.
While China has a similar relationship with several Arab states that (at least rhetorically) champion the Palestinian cause, China’s relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other Palestinian organizations are much weaker. China has also been slow to embrace some of the most important positions held by the Arab states and the PLO. For example, in 2010, at the Fourth Ministerial China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Tianjin, China refused to sign a resolution affirming East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, likely under pressure from Israeli lobbyists.
At the same time, despite robust ties with Beijing, Israel has no interest in having China act as a mediator, either. When Xi Jinping offered to mediate a meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013 during an official state visit, Netanyahu unsurprisingly sidestepped the offer in favor of discussing economic issues and China’s relationship with Iran. With the United States providing diplomatic support and vetoing any attempts at even moderate diplomatic pressure, there is little reason for the Israelis to change their stance now.
In short, Wang’s latest four-point plan is simply a rehash of the international consensus, with no real chance of bringing either the Israelis or the Palestinians to the negotiating table. China’s interests in maintaining positive relations with Israel preclude it from offering anything that will truly threaten the status quo or pressuring Israel to accept mediation. Any progress would be contingent on Israel agreeing to allow China to step into the negotiations, a development that Netanyahu has every incentive to avoid. While China’s rhetorical support for the Palestinians is an important part of its strategy of engagement with the Arab world, it only needs to embrace the international consensus to win the support of the Arab states, which are themselves content to make only just enough noise about Palestine to satisfy their own populations.
Chinese support for the Palestinians should thus be understood primarily as a tool of foreign policy. For this reason, one should not expect China to be any more dedicated to the Palestinian cause than the rest of the international community and should have no illusions regarding the Chinese stance toward the Palestinians and Israel. Good relations with the Israelis can offer substantial trade markets and access to commercial and military technology, and maintaining a balance between Israel and the Arab states enhances China’s image as a rising superpower that can be trusted by all sides. The Palestinians can offer none of these things. China pays no real price for offering rhetorical support, so it can effectively have its cake and eat it too.
Like all states, China plays a game without rules and is fundamentally self-interested and pragmatic. Though China is likely to become an increasingly important player in the Middle East over the next few decades, it is not likely that it will take a substantially different approach to the peace process than any established power.