This week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Beijing for a three-day visit with top Chinese officials, including Chairman Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang. The visit enabled Xi to upgrade bilateral relations with Palestine to a strategic partnership, and to publicly renew his attempt to have China mediate between Israel and Palestine. While Xi seeks to capitalize on his positive momentum after having facilitated a detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, questions remain as to whether China has the leverage to make a substantive difference in the more entrenched conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Al Jazeera reported on how both Xi and Abbas described their friendship and cooperation:
“We are good friends and partners,” Xi told Abbas at the start of their meeting. “We have always firmly supported the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore their legitimate national rights.”
[…] A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies in the establishment of an “independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital”, Xi was quoted as saying by Chinese state media – reiterating a 1967 UN Security Council resolution that Israel rejects.
Abbas said his administration was “looking forward to strengthening cooperation with China” and securing investment.
“We especially appreciate the Chinese side’s commitment to financing a number of development projects presented by Palestine. We wish the speedy dispatch of technical delegations to implement these projects,” Abbas said. [Source]
Among other outcomes, both sides vowed to promote negotiations on free trade agreements and enhance exchanges in culture, education, and media. They also discussed ways to mobilize support for Palestine to obtain full membership at the U.N. In Tracking People’s Daily, Manoj Kewalramani provided excerpts from the joint statement, which includes extensive rhetoric affirming CCP narratives around Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and human rights:
“The two sides will continue to firmly support each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests and major concerns. Palestine firmly adheres to the one-China principle, supports China in safeguarding national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, and resolutely opposes any force interfering in China’s internal affairs; the Palestinian side reaffirms that the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory. It resolutely opposes any form of ‘Taiwan independence’ and reaffirms that it will not conduct any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, and supports all efforts made by the China government to achieve national reunification. The Palestinian side firmly supports China’s position on Hong Kong-related issues, supports China’s efforts to safeguard national security under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, firmly believes that Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs, and strongly condemns the illegal acts of external forces interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs; the Palestinian side reiterated that Xinjiang-related issues are not fundamentally human rights issues, but rather about countering violent terrorism, de-radicalization and anti-separatism. Palestine resolutely opposes interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Xinjiang-related issues.”
[…] “The two sides will […] jointly oppose hegemonism and power politics, and promote the construction of a new type of international relations. The two sides support the promotion of the common values of peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy and freedom, respect the people of all countries’ independent choice of democratic development path and social and political system suited to their national conditions, and resolutely oppose the politicisation and instrumentalization of human rights issues and any country’s interference in other countries’ internal affairs under the pretext of democracy and human rights.” [Source]
At the China-Global South Project, Mideast editor Jony Essa highlighted the opportunities for the Palestinian side as a result of the visit:
Abbas is sending a message to the American administration through this visit, saying that the Palestinian side is seriously looking for an alternative to play the role of mediator in the conflict. Consequently, any possibility of conducting peace talks between the two parties under Chinese auspices affects American hegemony in the Middle East.
Secondly, through this visit, Abbas will be able to test the reality of the Chinese desire and its ability to bring about a positive change in favor of the Palestinians in the conflict. Although the visit serves China’s interests first and foremost, as it seeks to gain international acceptance and consensus for it as a responsible, benevolent, and alternative superpower to the United States, it is also a Palestinian opportunity. [Source]
For the Chinese side, Xi’s support for Palestine provided China with positive PR among Arab and Muslim audiences, as Assaf Orion, a China expert from the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, told Axios: “It costs nothing to the Chinese who even floated a proposal to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. This is all part of China’s efforts to develop an independent policy in the region and promote its global initiative at the expense of the U.S.” At The New York Times, Vivian Wang described how Abbas’ visit was largely about signaling China’s intention to play a bigger role in the Middle East:
Mr. Xi’s meeting with Mr. Abbas was less about moving toward a resolution of the conflict than about demonstrating China’s intention to be a greater presence in the Middle East going forward, analysts said.
“China should be and will be quite cautious — so many superpowers squandered their resources, time, energy” in protracted conflicts in the region, said Da Wei, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “But I do think China wants to be more proactive in areas like the Middle East.”
He continued, “We can say this is a learning process for China: China is learning to be a major power in that region, or a power in the world. And if you want to play a role on the world stage, obviously, the Middle East is one of the regions.” [Source]
Chinese officials and analysts expressed confidence in China’s ability to play this mediation role. Speaking to his visiting Palestinian counterpart in Beijing, Foreign Minister Qin Gang offered to provide “Chinese wisdom” in the service of peace talks. Ding Long, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University’s Middle East Institute, claimed that “China is the most qualified, expected and trusted international mediator on the Palestine-Israel issue.” In Discourse Power, Tuvia Gering shared excerpts from several Chinese figures who praised China’s role and denigrated that of the U.S.:
“In sharp contrast to the United States, which has been biased in favor of Israel and has not played a significant role in promoting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, China has been relentless in its efforts to resolve the Middle East conflict.”
[…] “According to [the director of the Chinese-Arab Research Institute at Ningxia University] Li Shaoxian, the historic reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing has raised international expectations for China to play an active role in mediating peace, facilitating talks, and addressing the world’s most pressing challenges [lit. “hot-spots” 热点]. Beijing has the potential to become the new starting point for future Palestinian-Israeli relations 新起点.” [Source]
However, China’s success is far from guaranteed. As Shannon Tiezzi wrote in The Diplomat, “Based on recent actions by the Israeli government, the dream of an independent Palestine within the borders drawn in 1967 looks to be a non-starter. That may be why China is hosting Abbas, not Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” James Shotter and Yuan Yang at The Financial Times described the significant obstacles complicating China’s dreams of mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since 2014. The prospect of a deal has been rendered increasingly unlikely by the continuing expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the election last year of the most right-wing government in Israeli history, in which ultranationalist settlers hold important roles.
Hopes of a resolution to the conflict have also been undermined by feuding between the two main Palestinian factions: Abbas’s Fatah, which dominates the PA, which exercises limited control in parts of the West Bank, and Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip. The two have been at loggerheads since fighting a brief civil war in 2007.
Palestinian analysts said that the hostility between the leaderships of the two Palestinian factions would be hard to overcome. And China’s less cosy relationship with Israel meant its ability to resolve the broader conflict was limited. [Source]