‘No safety nets’ — China, Israel and Palestine in the new global Cold War
Remarks by China’s UN Ambassador Geng Shuang on the situation in Occupied Palestine on May 24 were impeccable, in terms of their consistency with international law.
Compared to the US position, which perceives the UN, and particularly the Security Council, as a battleground to defend Israeli interests, the Chinese political discourse reflects a legal stance based on a deep understanding of the realities on the ground.
Articulating the Chinese thinking during a UNSC “Briefing on the Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestine Question,” Geng did not mince his words. He spoke forcefully about the “irreplaceable” need for a “comprehensive and just solution,” based on ending Israel’s “provocations” in Jerusalem and respect for the right of “Muslim worshipers” as well as the “custodianship of Jordan” in the city’s holy sites.
Widening the context of the reasons behind the latest violence in Palestine, and the May 9 Israeli war on Gaza, Geng went on to state a position that both Tel Aviv and Washington find utterly objectionable. He unapologetically condemned the “illegal expansion of (Israeli Jewish) settlements” in Occupied Palestine and Israel’s “unilateral action,” urging Tel Aviv to “immediately halt” all its illegal activities.
Geng proceeded to discuss issues that have been relatively ignored, including “the plight of the Palestinian refugees.”
In doing so, Geng has enunciated his country’s political vision regarding a just solution in Palestine, one that is predicated on ending the Israeli occupation, halting Tel Aviv’s expansionist policies, and respecting the rights of the Palestinian people.
But is this position new?
While it is true that China’s policies on Palestine and Israel have historically been consistent with international law, China, in recent years, has attempted to tailor a more “balanced” position, one that does not impede growing Israeli-Chinese trade, particularly in the area of advanced microchips technology.
However, the China-Israel affinity was motivated by more than mere trade.
Beijing sees a direct link between the US and the continued conflict in Palestine, or the failure to find a just solution
Since its official launch, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has served as the cornerstone of Beijing’s global outlook. The massive project involves nearly 150 countries and aims to connect Asia with Europe and Africa via land and maritime networks.
Due to its location on the Mediterranean Sea, Israel’s strategic importance to China — which for years has been keen on gaining access to Israeli seaports — has doubled.
Such ambitions have been of great concern to Washington, whose naval vessels often dock at the Haifa Port.
Washington has repeatedly cautioned Tel Aviv against its growing proximity to Beijing. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went as far as warning Israel in March 2019 that until Tel Aviv re-evaluated its cooperation with China, the US could reduce “intelligence sharing and co-location of security facilities.”
Fully appreciating the current, but also the potential global power of China, Israel labored to find a balance that would allow it to maintain its “special relationship” with the US, while financially and strategically benefiting from its closeness to China.
Israel’s balancing act encouraged China to translate its growing economic prowess in the Middle East into a political and diplomatic investment as well. For example, in 2017, China put into motion a peace plan — initially formulated in 2013 — called the Four-Point Proposal. The plan offered Chinese mediation as a substitution for US bias and, ultimately, failed “peace process.”
The Palestinian leadership welcomed China’s involvement, while Israel refused to engage, causing an embarrassment to a government that insists on respect and recognition of its rising importance in every arena.
If balancing acts in geopolitics were possible back then, the Russia-Ukraine war brought it all to a sudden end. The new geopolitical reality can be expressed in the words of a former Italian diplomat, Stefano Stefanini. Italy’s former ambassador to NATO wrote in an article in La Stampa that the “international balancing act is over” and “there are no safety nets.”
Ironically, Stefanini made this reference to Italy’s need to choose between the West and China. The same logic can also be applied to Israel and China.
Soon after China succeeded in striking a landmark deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran on April 6, it again floated the idea of brokering peace between Palestine and Israel. China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang reportedly consulted with both sides on “steps to resume peace talks.” Again, the Palestinians accepted while Israel ignored the subject.
This partly explains China’s frustration with Israel, and also with the US. As China’s former ambassador to Washington (2021-23), Qin must be familiar with the inherent US bias toward Israel. This knowledge was expressed by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hua Chunying, during the latest Israeli war on Gaza.
“The United States should realize that the lives of Palestinian Muslims are equally precious,” Hua said on May 14.
A simple discourse analysis of the Chinese language regarding the situation in Palestine clarifies that Beijing sees a direct link between the US and the continued conflict, or the failure to find a just solution.
This assertion can also be gleaned from ambassador Geng’s most recent UNSC remarks, where he criticized “piecemeal crisis management,” a direct reference to US diplomacy in the region, offering a Chinese alternative that is based on a “comprehensive and just solution.”
Equally important is that the Chinese position seems to be intrinsically linked to that of Arab countries. The more Palestine takes center stage in Arab political discourse, the greater emphasis the issue receives in China’s foreign policy agenda.
In the recent Arab Summit held in Jeddah, Arab governments agreed to prioritize Palestine as the central Arab cause. Allies, such as China, with great and growing economic interests in the region, immediately took notice.
All of this must not suggest that China will be severing its ties with Israel, but it certainly indicates that China remains committed to its principled stance on Palestine, as it has over the decades.
Soon, the relationship between China and Israel will face the litmus test of US pressures and ultimatums. Considering Washington’s unparalleled importance to Israel, on the one hand, and the Arab-Muslim world’s significance to China on the other, the future is easy to foresee.
Judging by China’s political discourse on Palestine — situated within international and humanitarian laws — it seems that China has already made its choice.
- Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud