As the country emerged as an economic powerhouse with global commercial interests, it has gradually become impossible to avoid gaining a deep insight into the political processes that affect Chinese interests in the region. Yet it still felt the need to tiptoe when it comes to MENA’s political intricacies. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was no exception to this approach, indeed it can be argued it was adhered to with even more zeal. The general sense in Beijing was that there was not much that it could do to make a difference where others constantly and consistently failed. It therefore came as quite a surprise when last month the Chinese president Xi Jinping outlined a four-point proposal to bring peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
This can’t be explained without considering the immense economic interests China has in the MENA region; its $900 billion Belt and Road Initiative alone makes China into an even more key player across the region. This extremely ambitious project aims to create a trade and infrastructure network, reviving the ancient Silk Road, connecting China with Europe via Central Asia and the Middle East. Moreover, China imports more than half of its oil from the MENA region, and in the first 15 years of this millennium the Sino-Middle East trade volume increased 17 times over from $18 billion to $312 billion, making China the region’s largest trading partner. Therefore, political as much as economic stability across the MENA region became paramount to Chinese national interest.
To be sure, the peace proposal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not China’s first diplomatic venture into a major conflict in hard core Middle Eastern affairs in recent years. Five years ago China introduced a six-point plan to stop the war in Syria, which didn’t come to fruition. However, entering into the century-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, immersing itself into what many in the international community have already given up on, is risky for China if it is genuinely ready to put its credibility on the line.
The plan was first outlined during a visit by the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to Beijing. It proved to be more than just a gesture of goodwill for the visiting Palestinian leader. Later in the month, the Chinese ambassador to the UN, Liu Jieyi, urged the international community to “respond positively to the proposals made by China…” The main novelty in the proposal is not in its details but the identity of the proposer. Nevertheless, there are still certain nuances that are worth attention. It should also indicate to Israel that having close trade and even military strategic relations with China is not permission to procrastinate, or worse to actively harm the chances of a comprehensive and just solution to its conflict with the Palestinians.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese peace plan proposes a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state. Moreover, it sends a clear message that Jewish settlement activity is a major obstacle for peace, and the Green Line is and should serve as the benchmark for any future peace agreement. Any swap of land should be by consent and not by using the asymmetry of this conflict for the stronger to dictate the territorial arrangement between the two protagonists.
Xi Jinping’s peace plan for the Middle East has merit, but China is unlikely to sacrifice its economic and security ties to Israel.
If all of this sounds familiar, the emphasis on international effort, which implies an end to the US-led process, is broader in its international scope and more in line with Palestinian wishes than the Israeli ones. China has already taken an active role in supporting UN Security Resolution 2334, back in December of last year, which condemned the Jewish settlement activity in the occupied West Bank as a fundamental hurdle to peace. This is now reflected, together with a call for both sides to prevent violence against civilians in the new proposals.
If these elements in the peace plan are clear, the rest requires elaboration. It indicates a clear sense of urgency in the resumption of peace talks within an international framework. However, without a clear timeframe and a clear outline of deadlines and targets, the chances of any progress are slim. The main question is whether China is ready to invest considerable political capital and, in the absence of leadership on this issue from any other source, to take a leading role?
China is traditionally cautious when it comes to regional conflicts, and it clearly understands that playing a central role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires it to exert its influence; especially on Israel, which possesses the main playing cards. The growing diplomatic, economic and security closeness between China and Israel enhances Beijing’s leverage in playing a central role in any peace process. However, it is doubtful whether in its calculus between becoming a major peace broker in this stubborn conflict and straining relations with Israel, China would choose the former over the latter.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg