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Understanding China’s Position on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

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Understanding China’s Position on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Beijing is contrasting its approach with Washington’s in a bid to win favor from the Gulf states – while still treading cautiously.

Understanding China’s Position on the Israel-Palestine Conflict
Credit: Depositphotos

China’s relations with Palestine, which are intertwined with its overall Middle East policy, have deep historical roots. China officially recognized Palestine in 1988, but bilateral relations started in 1965. That year, the Palestine Liberation Organization opened a representative office in China, which was converted to embassy level in 1974. 

During these years, Palestinian leaders, especially Yasser Arafat, were hosted in China, and during the visits, China clearly stated that it supported Palestine’s struggle. Mao Zedong himself described Israel as one of the bases of imperialism in the region, comparing it to Taiwan. As a result of this policy, between 1960 and 1970, at a time when China itself was struggling with widespread poverty, China provided aid to the Palestine Liberation Organization that amounted to $5 million, including military support. 

Today, China does not have such a sharp Palestine policy opposing Israel. However, the policies in favor of Palestine, brought about by this historical background, continue. China, which advocates a two-state solution, argues that the Palestinian people are fighting for national rights and that this should be supported to the end. 

In a sign of Chinese support, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas visited Beijing in June, becoming the first Arab leader to visit China this year. During the visit, it was announced that a strategic partnership had been established between China and Palestine. 

In the opening speech of the Arab States-China Summit held in Saudi Arabia in December last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a direct statement of support for Palestine. In his speech, Xi stated that China supports an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. 

Despite these policies, Beijing carefully avoids confronting Israel directly. Israel is one of the countries in the Middle East where China has made serious investments. Many of these investments are related to the Belt and Road Initiative. These included agreements to improve data centers with energy and telecom providers, such as the agreement between Huawei and Israel’s Zing Energy. Apart from this, many agreements worth millions of dollars, such as the $300 million agreement between the Israeli ColorChip company with Chinese companies, determine the mutual dependence of the two countries.

China, which supports Palestine internationally, has still been able to manage diplomacy with Israel and maintain its commercial relations. This is all the more impressive considering that Israel has faced increasing pressure from the United States, its security guarantor, to scale back engagement with China.

However, recent events have required China to balance its Middle East policy by choosing its steps more carefully.

How Does China View Current Events?

China’s Middle East policy is generally based on the BRI and financial investments and the preservation of these investments through diplomacy. For this reason, Chinese foreign policy strives to establish more diplomacy and mediation in the crises in the Middle East. The latest example of this was the resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran after seven years, under the mediation of China. 

However, China’s attitude differed in the period following Hamas’ attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7. China condemned the attack but did not accuse Hamas of being a terrorist organization, much to Israel’s chagrin. That was in sharp contrast to the United States and its allies, which specifically condemned Hamas for a terrorist attack and offered full support to Israel.

In the statement made immediately after Hamas’ attacks, China called on the parties to reduce the tension as soon as possible, and reiterated the proposal for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and a two-state solution to solve the problem. 

Neither Xi nor Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the Middle East in the period following the attacks on October 7. China, which took a balanced position compared to the U.S. in the first stage of the conflict, continued its pro-Palestinian attitude in the ensuing days, as Israel’s invasion of Gaza began. 

On October 19, Xi directly expressed his support for an independent Palestine. In a meeting with Egypt’s prime minister, Xi said that the “fundamental way out of the recurring Palestinian-Israeli conflicts is to implement the two-state solution, establish an independent State of Palestine, and achieve peaceful coexistence between Palestine and Israel.”

Days before, on October 15, in a meeting with his Russian and Iranian counterparts, the Chinese foreign minister said, “We will support the struggle of the Palestinian people for their national rights.”

Regional Reflections of Global Polarization

The Israel and Palestine issue, which has flared up again with current events, has once again shown how the power struggle between the United States and China is reflected in the Middle East. 

Russia and Iran are seen to take a common stance with China on many developments in the Middle East, including the Israel-Palestine issue. Stating that they will work together for a two-state solution, China and Russia have affirmed that they share the same attitude on the Palestine issue. In addition to Russia, China has repeatedly engaged with Iran, one of the countries that has expanded China’s influence in the Middle East, on the current conflict in Gaza. 

This alliance has also manifested itself at the United Nations level. China and Russia vetoed a U.S. draft resolution emphasizing Israel’s right to self-defense and demanding that Iran cease arms support to radical groups. China and Russia have also vocally pushed for a ceasefire declaration, knowing the United States will veto any such proposal due to its support for Israel’s war on Hamas.

China wants to continue its recently increased cooperation with the Gulf countries by taking advantage of the Palestine issue. Beijing aims to strengthen anti-U.S. attitudes in the region by including Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq in its ongoing cooperation with Iran and Russia. For this reason, Wang made an important statement that Islamic countries should have a single voice on the Palestine issue and that unity and coordination should be strengthened. Thus, China aimed to highlight the anti-Israel policies of Arab countries, whose societies are sensitive about the Palestine issue, and the synergies with Iran’s position on the conflict. Beijing also hopes to capitalize on the crisis to raise discontent against the U.S. policy in the Middle East, which is based on Washington’s unconditional support for Israel.

However, it is still to be determined how well countries such as Saudi Arabia, which is trying to find a balance between the United States and China, will serve China’s purpose. Although Chinese investments in the Gulf countries are increasing year by year, security ties with the U.S. remain strong. It is not possible for the Gulf countries to make sharp anti-U.S. decisions in severe crises in the Middle East.

Over the long term, China wants to create this polarization through political discourse established through diplomatic contacts without bringing it to the surface. It should not be forgotten that China is pursuing a policy in the Middle East that is developed and strengthened through commercial and diplomatic relations without directly confronting the United States. In that sense, China is treading cautiously rather than adopting an aggressive policy. For example, China has avoided outright condemnation of Israel for civilian casualties in Gaza, with its official position paper speaking of “heavy civilian casualties and a serious humanitarian disaster” without attributing blame to either Israel or Hamas.

That said, the current convergence involving China, Iran, and Russia has been reflected in many recent crises. It should not be overlooked that one of the visible examples of this is the Palestine issue.