China’s diplomatic moves in the Middle East – Implications for Palestine

08 Oct 2023 01:28pm
A Palestinian man stands early on October 8, 2023 in front of the rubble of Gaza City's Al-Watan Tower, which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrikes. - Photo by AFP
A Palestinian man stands early on October 8, 2023 in front of the rubble of Gaza City's Al-Watan Tower, which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrikes. - Photo by AFP

The relationship between China and Israel is convoluted and marked by exogenous factors which are continuously ambiguous.

It has also increased the complexity and dynamics of the relations between the prominent actors in the region, namely Beijing, Israel, Palestine, the United States, and other countries in the Middle East.

China's recent diplomatic moves have also produced a complicated web of international negotiations involving various parties, whereby each actor is pursuing its national interest, often at the expense of clashing over each other, with little momentum and interest for reconciliation at any given level.

The Middle Eastern region has long been known as one of the wealthiest, possessing abundant resources of hydrocarbon reserves and housing the planet's most critical oil and gas basins, albeit under a very constant seismic and unpredictable development, filled with conflicts and significant volatility.

Nevertheless, this has yet to deter major global players, including China, from directing their foreign resources towards engaging with this area and aspiring to become a prominent regional influence.

Additionally, the power vacuum left partially by the United States due to a shift in their interest over energy resources to the Asia-Pacific region meant that China’s interest is even more welcomed within the region, and coupled with their foreign approach that respects certain level of sovereignty and does not seek entirely to interfere with internal domestic affairs – contrasting to that of United States – has enabled it to position even further as a potential new leader with aptitude for a global hegemon against the United States.

The watershed moment for this is undoubtedly the recent diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, an unprecedented development between two perpetual conflicting states that certainly proves China’s adamant pursuit of regional influence and one that catches the eye of many influential leaders who hold stakes within that region, including both Palestine and Israel.

Following this success, China wasted no time and proceeded with its effort to edge over the United States' influence and bolster its image as a regional mediator by focusing on ameliorating tensions within the region further, notably addressing the Palestine-Israel issue.

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During a four-day visit and discussions with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, hosted by President Xi Jinping, China was resolute in its belief that it could facilitate negotiations for all related conflicts in the area.

However, its persistence in calling for Israel to adhere to the 1967 UN resolution of a fully sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital instead of highlighting the need for Israel to cease its crimes of apartheid against the Palestinians indicates that it is not serious in wanting to end the sufferings of the Palestinians.

Thus far, both sides are displaying an optimistic outlook, with Abbas appreciating China's offer to finance several development projects and its pledge to continue supporting the Palestinian cause.

However, in the ensuing days, Netanyahu announced his forthcoming visit to China upon their invitation.

This move signalled Israel's unhappiness with the United States for its perceived lack of support due to Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform and continuous expansion of settlement in the occupied West Bank, which affected the negotiation process for the Saudi normalisation deal led by the United States.

Although Netanyahu postponed the visit indefinitely due to health reasons, the planned visit reaffirms that China's primary concerns do not include ending Israeli crimes of apartheid.

In the broader context of China's foreign policy in the Middle East, their diplomacy model entices a non-interference policy in the domestic political affairs of other countries.

Unlike the United States, China does not impose strict conditions related to human rights improvements as a prerequisite for foreign aid and investment, hence its stance of nurturing relations with Israel, despite the latter’s continuous crimes of apartheid against the Palestinians.

Instead, their approach is centred on principles of sovereignty projection and protection, refraining from meddling in the internal policies of other nations.

China also engages in geoeconomics to exert soft power in the region by nurturing trade and investments in the Middle East, especially in the energy sector.

As of 2021, Saudi Arabia had become China's top source of crude oil imports, accounting for 17 per cent of their total imports. That same year saw China importing 50 per cent of its oil requirements from Middle Eastern countries, namely Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman.

The countries have expressed interest in importing Chinese products, mainly automotive machinery, food products, engineering services, and labour services.

Chinese geoeconomic moves involve utilising economic tools to attain political objectives.

In other words, economic cooperation is not solely driven by financial revenue but also by engaging in geopolitical competition.

Moreover, with the growing discontent among Middle Eastern nations over the United States, China can undoubtedly increase their leverage over time and emerge as an alternative power for more lucrative deals in the Middle Eastern region.

The same model applies to Palestine and Israel, where China sees no reason to end its relationship with Israel despite a long history of support for the Palestinian plight and concern over the expansion of settlements.

Technological, financial and economic benefits are still vital considerations, besides its plan to be involved more significantly in the region and making sure it will still be able to continue to depend on it for its energy needs.

China's recent success in brokering peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia has put pressure on all involved parties in the Palestine-Israel issue.

Israel, whose relationship with the United States is under some threat, sees building amicable ties with China as imperative to avoid becoming further isolated in the region.

Netanyahu, on his part, believes that China can expedite the process for a normalisation deal with Saudi at a more promising pace when compared to the United States, given the previously mentioned rapport momentum between China and Saudi for a deal in diversifying their oil economy.

It also aligns with Netanyahu’s projection of bolstering their relationship in the international arena beyond the Western allies only.

In return, Israel will provide their technological advancement as an economic booster for China, providing many innovative companies that serve China’s larger export market on top of the already grandeur deal of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Despite Israel claiming that the United States remain its primary strategic partner, its response to these developments has been moderate, and many stakeholders on the ground share similar concerns.

Some argue that forging ties with China will inevitably strain the relationship between all parties within the United States, both Republicans and the Democrats, as the issue of China is one of the few remaining tangible subjects that garners unanimous agreement across party lines in Congress.

The United States, having long served as the diplomatic mediator in the region, indeed views the situation as a predicament to its goal of bringing Saudi into the fold as the next signatory of the Abraham Accord.

With the pressure of the upcoming presidential election, Joe Biden may very well acquiesce to the demands by Saudi Arabia for F-35 fighter jets, security assurances, and support for a civil nuclear programme as a prerequisite for normalisation with Israel.

China’s foray into the Middle East and its overall impact on the Palestine-Israel outcome as of now will rely on its capacity to navigate the multifaceted demands of the various regional actors.

Israel is the most obvious one here who seeks the most beneficial outcome from China in this diplomatic endeavour, with their interest spanning across factors such as economic benefits and trade deals.

They will pressure China to put aside its concern for the Palestinian cause and help secure a normalisation deal with Saudi Arabia. Israel will also try to constrain China’s relations with Iran.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia views China as an alternative power that could fulfil their demands of the United States, which could be offset instead by the United States consenting to the initial demand to ensure that the Saudis remain within their influence.

Unfortunately, for the Palestinians, the only string they can hang from in these wide-ranging negotiations and multiplicity is the Chinese commitment to their promise of providing continuous support for the Palestinian plight, which does not mean much at all in the final analysis.

Issued by Mohd Nazari Ismail and Ahmad Hani Hariza

Hashim Sani Centre for Palestine Studies

University of Malaya

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.