Why China Could Play a Vital Role in Palestine-Israel talks

If China decides to step up its involvement, it may have the potential to alter the configuration of relationships among the parties involved.

“If China decides to step up its involvement, it may have the potential to alter the configuration of relationships among the parties involved. Muslim nations, whose options are limited due to their reliance on the USA, may consider China as an appealing alternative”.

The Perpetual Conflict and the October 7th Incident

The Palestine-Israel conflict seems to be an endless dispute. Starting with the arrival of Jews facilitated by the British government to Palestine, it caused opposition from the Arab community, which was worried that demographic changes would impact their lives. In 1948, the announcement of the creation of the state of Israel immediately proved this concern, sparking criticism from Arab countries and marking the beginning of the First Arab-Israeli War. The war ended with Israel’s victory, and 750,000 Palestinians had to leave their land. Since then, conflicts have continued to occur. Israel continues to expand its Jewish settlements, while Palestinian is increasingly pushed under constraints and oppression.

On October 7th, 2023, a significant conflict attracted the attention of the global community. The attack perpetrated by Palestinian liberation militants, Hamas, sparked a debate within the international community, with differing opinions emerging among its members. The response by Israel also garnered a range of reactions from different nations. Countries like the US are constructing a narrative that portrays Israel’s actions as a means of self-defense in response to the October 7 attack. While some countries strongly criticized Israel’s response and stated that the attack was not an isolated incident but emerged from the long-standing oppression endured by the Palestinian people.

China is among the nations that have addressed the situation. Some observers have viewed China’s reaction to this conflict as problematic and ambiguous. Beijing at one point stated that all nations have the right to protect themselves. Nevertheless, Israel’s retaliatory strikes were deemed to have exceeded acceptable boundaries and were seen as a collective punishment for certain group deeds. China presents itself as a neutral major power, albeit in opposition to the United States. This strategic move is not surprising given that China has consistently positioned itself as an alternative to the United States when establishing diplomatic ties with nations across different regions. China’s standpoint on this conflict, albeit ambiguous and minor, has the potential to bring forward new dynamics in the ongoing attempts to end the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

China’s Interest in the Region

China’s significant role in global political dynamics is now widely recognized. Substantial economic growth, in combination with increased cooperation across different regions, has positioned itself as the foremost rival to the US in the sectors of economy, military, and geopolitics. China’s presence and impact in the Middle East have also grown significantly in recent years. In the past, the Chinese government and academics did not consider the Middle East as a region. They merely saw it as a region that shared a history of being oppressed by colonialism and imperialism. Nevertheless, China’s desire to broaden its network of collaboration and economic allies has changed its strategy. Beijing has endeavored to enhance its relations with regional organizations through various means. These include organizing the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) in 2004, conducting strategic negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 2010, and implementing the ‘Arab Paper Policy’ in 2016 as a framework for its goals and policies in the Middle East.

China’s engagement in the Middle East is motivated by the objective of safeguarding its energy needs. China is currently expressing concern over the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial passage for one-third of global crude oil transportation. As a response, Beijing has made significant investments in multiple ports along this route, including Khalifa Port, the Port of Fujairah, and Duqm Port. Many perceive this strategy as an active move to control the Strait of Hormuz and safeguard energy resources, similar to their current maneuvers in the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

Besides the energy sector, China is also actively seeking to enhance trade by fostering closer collaboration with Arab nations. The 2020 summit between China and the ministers of GCC countries demonstrated a genuine commitment and concrete steps towards fostering collaboration. Currently, China has the privilege of being the biggest trading partner for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in non-oil-related trade. Meanwhile, the UAE ranks as the second-largest trading partner for China. Simultaneously, China’s diplomatic orientation in the Middle East region has shifted towards prioritizing and promoting free trade deals with GCC countries.

The development of communications technology is another sector that underlies China-Middle East cooperation. Huawei, a Chinese corporation, has successfully secured 5G contracts with GCC countries through the Digital Silk Road framework. The Middle East information and communications sector has a market worth of USD 164 billion annually. The region is projected to have the highest number of 5G service customers by 2025, which makes it an appealing reason for Huawei to make a significant investment. Despite facing resistance from Western countries, which often emphasize concerns about data security and user privacy, Huawei has managed to significantly increase its presence in the Middle East market. The triumph of this Chinese corporation serves as evidence that Beijing has the capability to redefine its image and emerge as a viable alternative collaborator for Middle Eastern nations.

Presume China’s Further Involvement in the Palestine-Israel Talks

               This conflict exhibits a proxy dimension, as it encompasses multiple influential entities from both within and outside the region. The US, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and various other major powers share interconnected interests in the dispute. The complicated nature of the interaction among these different powers is the fundamental reason for the passive attitudes taken by significant Muslim nations, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey, in their response, hence leading to a prolonged resolution of the conflict.

               If China decides to step up its involvement, it may have the potential to alter the configuration of relationships among the parties involved. Muslim nations, whose options are limited due to their reliance on the USA, may consider China as an appealing alternative. The growing collaboration between Arab nations and China has put Beijing as not only a reliable partner but also as a potential ‘guardian’, which could enhance their bargaining power toward the US. Without question, the common identity of being a Muslim nation serves as a strong motivation for Muslim countries to support Palestine. Yet, the influential role of the US, which is traditionally regarded as a benefactor and defender of the region, constrains the actions of Muslim nations, who frequently find themselves restricted to just rhetorical reproach rather than implementing substantive actions.

               Throughout the historical trajectory of the war, Palestine has consistently found itself in a position of vulnerability and disadvantage. Indeed, several analysts perceive this conflict not as a war, but rather as a manifestation of tyranny, given the significant power asymmetry between the two entities. The robust backing of Israel by the US and the European Union, along with the ambiguous stance of Arab nations towards Palestine, intensifies the existing disparity. This circumstance is also the cause for why negotiations are a suboptimal choice.

               If China increases its involvement and becomes a significant participant in the talks, it could prompt the Arab countries to bandwagon and jump on the same boat to increase Palestine’s bargaining power. The recent shift in the stance of European Union members, notably France, towards condemning Israel’s disproportionate military actions, along with the broad support of pro-Palestinian activists worldwide, signifies a perfect moment to encourage more substantial dialogue. China’s capacity to leverage the current momentum and encourage countries that support Palestine will establish an unprecedented axis capable of generating unparalleled outcomes.

               China’s engagement in Palestine-Israel peace talks is reasonable and pragmatic. Failure to address the escalation properly could potentially amplify the conflict and involve significant regional powers. Beijing showed an acute awareness of this possibility and took action by promoting reconciliation between the two biggest Middle Eastern powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. China played an instrumental part in the negotiation process, and on March 10, 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran officially announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. Both countries expressed their commitment to restoring relations and reopening embassies in each other’s territories. The reconciliation emphasizes the importance of respecting state sovereignty and abstaining from meddling in one another’s domestic matters. The resolution between these two influential regional powers is a positive starting point for China in advocating for reconciliation and compromise among Middle Eastern nations.

               China’s unequivocal position in the Palestine-Israel issue will only strengthen its image as a new ally among Muslim nations. The trend has been noticeable since China announced its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project, which involves numerous Muslim countries, especially in the Middle East. China needs the support of Muslim nations to bolster the progress of BRI and secure its energy resources, and Muslim nations need new markets for their oil and gas products. Several Muslim countries, which still have status as developing nations, also require foreign investment to support their construction of infrastructure to achieve long-term economic growth. The reciprocal requests have led to and nurtured a robust partnership, which has steadily expanded in recent years.

               China possesses the ability to actively engage in negotiations between Palestine and Israel. Its strong economic power and political influence, which can compete with countries that support Israel, give Beijing the ability to consolidate Muslim countries. If one wishes to employ a non-coercive strategy via diplomacy, then bargaining power is an indicator that must be present at the negotiating table. It is because equality and the recognition of the rights of all parties make fair solutions possible. Hence, it is crucial to consolidate not only the political willingness but also the political power of Muslim nations. Furthermore, China’s commitment to addressing this conflict could be a defining moment to establish itself as the new patron of Muslim nations around the world.

Yusril Ihza Mahendra
Yusril Ihza Mahendra
Yusril Ihza Mahendra is a master's student at Gadjah Mada University. His research interests cover the issues of regional politics, security, and economic development, as well as political discourse in international relations.