Thursday, 16 April 2009


China's Palestine Policy

Jamestown China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 5 March 4, 2009

Category: China Brief, Foreign Policy, China and the
Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Home Page

By: Chris Zambelis

The geopolitics of China's rise and its implications for
the Arab world and wider Middle East is a topic for serious
debate. Currently, China's Middle East strategy revolves
around shoring up its energy security and tapping consumer
markets and investment opportunities for Chinese
businesses. Given China's status as the world's fastest
growing energy consumer and third-largest net importer of
oil coupled with the global financial crisis, energy and
commercial concerns will continue to dominate China's
interaction with the Middle East in the foreseeable future
[1]. Yet as China's economic clout grows, Beijing is also
keen on leveraging its economic power to enhance its
diplomatic influence on the international stage. To bolster
its great-power aspirations and its position in the Middle
East-a region where it played a peripheral role throughout
the Cold War-Beijing's diplomacy is forging closer
relations with key players in the region and, in doing so,
is challenging the status quo.

China's efforts to engage the region in recent years have
been welcomed with open arms on both the state and popular
levels. Regional governments, for instance, look to China
as a potential check on what they see as unrestrained
American dominance in the region, a feeling shared by many
staunch U.S. allies (China Brief, October 24, 2008; China
Brief, May 24, 2006). Furthermore, public sentiment in the
region tends to be harshly critical of many aspects of U.S.
foreign policy in the Middle East. China's growing inroads
into the Middle East, therefore, are also viewed in a
positive light, as many Arabs and Muslims see China as a
brotherly state (China Brief, May 18, 2007). Geopolitical
considerations and cultural affinities, however, are not
sufficient to explain the emerging China factor in Middle
Eastern affairs. China's successful engagement strategy
also derives from the general lack of enmity between China
and Arab countries on key global issues and its effective
use of soft power in its dealings with Arab partners (China
Brief, May 18, 2007).

China's historic role in supporting Third World
revolutionary movements and anti-colonial struggles in the
Middle East and Africa, to include its advocacy on behalf
of the Palestinians during the Cold War until the present,
has also led many in the region to see China as a potential
partner that can help further the Palestinian national
cause [2]. It was not until 1992 that China and Israel
established formal diplomatic ties, ties that have since
flourished despite Beijing's previous characterization of
Israel as an imperial aggressor acting at the behest of the
United States [3]. Nevertheless, widespread popular
opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East
coupled with feelings of nostalgia for a return of the
revolutionary China of old, Arab and Muslim proponents of a
greater role for China in Middle East politics see China's
rise as a positive trend, especially as it relates to the
question of Palestine [4].

Chinese-Palestinian Diplomacy

Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East is often imbued with a
discourse that emphasizes themes of mutual respect and
"South-South" cooperation and unity. As a developing
country that has charted its own path toward progress and
modernization and a country that is free of the colonial
taint of competing powers in the region, China is quick to
point out that it remains committed to championing the
causes of the developing world, to include the struggle for
Palestinian self-determination (China Brief, May 18, 2007).
Chinese leaders, for instance, conduct official diplomatic
visits to the "State of Palestine" as opposed to the
"Palestinian Territories" or the "West Bank/Gaza," labels
typically used by the United States and other countries in
official venues. China's reference to "Palestine" is a
symbolic but nevertheless important distinction; China's
reference to "Palestine" acknowledges Palestinian national
identity and, by extension, the territorial claims of the
Palestinians (Xinhua News Agency, January 10).

While always taking into account the significance of public
diplomacy and perceptions, Chinese leaders treat bilateral
exchanges with their Palestinian counterparts as major
diplomatic events on par with other high-level
state-to-state visits. In November 2008, Chinese President
Hu Jintao and Palestinian National Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas exchanged warm congratulations to mark the
occasion of the 20th anniversary of the formal
establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the
Palestinians. Hu mentioned that "China has always been a
staunch supporter of the rightful cause of the Palestinians
and the Mideast peace process;" Abbas reciprocated by
thanking China for "being a supporter of the rightful cause
of the Palestinians" (Xinhua News Agency, November 20,
2008). In a further attempt to showcase its image as an
advocate for the Palestinian cause and its willingness to
engage with Palestinians on its own terms, Beijing ignored
U.S. and Israeli opposition and welcomed Mahmoud al-Zahar,
a senior Hamas representative who served as Palestinian
foreign minister, during the June 2006 China-Arab
Cooperation Forum in Beijing (Xinhua News Agency, May 18,
2006). The United States and Israel consider Hamas to be a
terrorist organization. In contrast, China acknowledged the
legitimacy of Hamas' role as a legitimate representative of
the Palestinian people following the group's victory in the
January 2006 parliamentary elections. A statement by
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao clarified
Beijing's position regarding Hamas in light of U.S. and
Israeli opposition to China's dealings with the
organization: "We believe that the Palestinian government
is legally elected by the people there and it should be
respected" (China Daily, June 2, 2006).

China on the Gaza Crisis

China's reaction to Israel's December 2008 invasion of Gaza
and the resulting humanitarian crisis provides insight into
some of the reasons underlying China's popularity in the
Middle East when it comes to the question of Palestine. In
a January 16 speech during an emergency meeting of the
United Nations (UN) General Assembly, China's deputy
permanent representative to the UN Liu Zhenmin stated:

"China is seriously concerned over the escalation of
Israel-Palestine conflicts and is deeply worried about the
worsening humanitarian situation" and that "China condemns
any violence against civilians and is shocked and indignant
at Israel's attacks on UN schools, rescue vehicles, and a
UN compound. China demands that Israel ensure the safety of
UN personnel and other rescue personnel, urges Israel to
immediately stop its military operations and withdraw its
troops, open all cross-border checkpoints into Gaza, and
guarantee uninterrupted delivery of humanitarian aid into
Gaza; Palestinian armed factions must immediately stop
launching rockets" (Xinhua News Agency, January 16).

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China's
harsh criticism of Israel's actions in Gaza, which occurred
amid staunch American support for Israel's actions, is
another example of why many Arabs and Muslims are
optimistic about China's potential to challenge the United
States, Israel's main benefactor, and stand by the
Palestinians. In this regard, Arab and Muslim proponents of
a greater role for China in the Middle East hope that China
may one day use its influence at the UN and other
international bodies to offset American and, by extension,
Israeli influence in the region.

China on Israel's Occupation and Settlement Policies

China has been a harsh critic of Israel's continued
occupation of Palestinian land, including Israel's policy
of constructing settlements in the West Bank and East
Jerusalem, essentially the land Palestinians and the
international community envisage (along with Gaza) to serve
as an independent homeland. China has also been a harsh
critic of Israel's economic blockade of Gaza and the
ensuing humanitarian costs since Hamas took control of the
territory in 2007. While calling on both Israelis and
Palestinians to focus their efforts on forging a lasting
peace through diplomacy and compromise, China's Ambassador
to the United Nations Zhang Yesui stated, "China is deeply
concerned at the grave security and humanitarian situation
in Palestine and worried about the recent renewed eruption
of violent conflicts in the Gaza Strip and the rapid
deterioration of the humanitarian situation" (Xinhua News
Agency, November 25, 2008). Ambassador Yesui also stated
that the "continued construction of settlements by Israel
on the West Bank is not only in violation of Israel's
obligations under international law, but is also
detrimental to guaranteeing Israel's own security" (Xinhua
News Agency, November 25, 2008).

China on "The Wall"

China regularly chastises Israel for its controversial
construction of what Israel refers to as a "separation
wall" or "security fence" and Palestinians brand as a
"segregation wall" that traverses large swaths of the West
Bank. Palestinians and international opponents of Israel's
actions label the construction of the so-called "separation
wall" as a ploy aimed at annexing more Palestinian
territory prior to a final peace settlement under the guise
of securing Israeli territory from attack (Xinhua News
Agency, February 24, 2004). In a September 2006 statement
during a UN Security Council meeting on the Middle East,
China's foreign minister Li Zhaoxing called on Israel to
"dismantle the separation wall," which China views as an
obstacle to peace and stability (PRC Mission to the UN
Statement, September 21, 2006). China's position on
Israel's construction of its "separation wall" reflects the
2004 advisory opinion by the International Criminal Court
of Justice (ICJ) that declared the wall to be illegal [5].

A Balancing Act

On the surface, Beijing's rhetoric concerning the most
critical issues affecting the Palestinians suggests that it
is positioning itself as a check on Israeli and, by
extension, a check on American power in the Middle East. In
reality, an assessment of Chinese behavior suggests that
its Palestine policy is driven by pragmatic concerns that
are very much in line with the international consensus on
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led by the United States.
For instance, China supports the principles outlined in the
various peace initiatives that have governed the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process over the years, such as
the 1991 Madrid Conference, 1993 Oslo Accords, 2002 "Road
Map," 2007 Annapolis Conference, among others. China's
vocal support for the Palestinian cause is also tempered
with calls for Palestinian militants to renounce all forms
of violence and terrorism, a far cry from the rhetoric and
behavior reminiscent of China's revolutionary days (China
Daily, May 31, 2006). In this regard, China's approach to
the question of Palestine is more complex and nuanced than
its rhetoric would indicate.

Sino-Israeli Ties

China today places a high-premium on its relationship with
Israel, a marked shift from the periods of hostility and
suspicion that characterized Sino-Israeli ties during the
Cold War. Israel also sees China as an important partner,
especially in the economic arena: China is Israel's largest
trading partner in Asia and the volume of trade between
China and Israel represents the sixth largest in the world
(Xinhua News Agency, November 8, 2006). China's vocal
criticism of Israel with respect to the question of
Palestine, the most recent criticism occurring during the
latest conflict in Gaza, appears to have done little to
scuttle one of the world's most robust trading
relationships, and there are no indications that China (or
Israel) is interested in seeing this dynamic change.
Moreover, China's close relations with Iran, Syria, and
other Israeli rivals in the region also seem to have had a
negligible impact on the development of Sino-Israeli ties,
especially in the economic realm (China Brief, October 24,
2008). During a September 2007 reception marking the 58th
anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of
China (PRC) at the Chinese Embassy in Israel, Chinese
Ambassador to Israel Zhao Jun underlined the central role
of trade in cementing Sino-Israeli relations: "As has been
shown, China's sound and steady economic growth has not
only benefited its 1.3 billion people, bus also offered
enormous business opportunities to other countries,
including and particularly Israel, whose economic structure
complement that of China" (Xinhua News Agency, September
24, 2007).

China's quest for advanced technology, especially
defense-related technology and weapons systems, and
Israel's aggressive export efforts in these sectors,
underlie Sino-Israeli economic relations. China has found a
willing partner in Israel to help further its ambitious
efforts to modernize its military and bolster its
technological prowess. At the same time, the Sino-Israeli
trade in advanced military-related technology and weapons
systems has been fraught with controversy, contributing to
severe strains in U.S.-Israel relations (China Brief,
January 24, 2007) [6]. The United States worries that
advanced defense technologies supplied by Israel to China
may someday provide China with an advantage against its
rivals in Asia, including U.S. allies such as Taiwan, thus
further tipping the balance of power in Asia. Advanced
technologies and weapons systems supplied by Israel to
China also have the potential to be used by China against
the United States in a future confrontation between Chinese
and American forces. China's record of proliferating arms
and weapons systems also worries U.S. planners, since China
may repackage advanced Israeli defense technologies for
resale to America's rivals across the globe. Israel is
reported to be China's second-largest arms supplier (with
Russia being the first source). The controversy over
Sino-Israeli defense ties is exacerbated considering that
the United States remains Israel's largest supplier of arms
(Taipei Times, December 30, 2008).


As China continues to spread its influence across the
Middle East, there will be increasing calls among Arabs and
Muslims for China to adopt a more assertive posture in its
advocacy on behalf of the Palestinian national cause.
Despite its revolutionary history and rhetoric, however,
China's soft-power diplomacy and growing economic inroads
into the Middle East suggest that it is likely to continue
to maintain a balancing act when it comes to the question
of Palestine, at least in the foreseeable future. China's
approach in its relationship with Israel also suggests that
the further development of Sino-Israeli ties remains a top
priority in Beijing, a factor that will profoundly impact
Chinese foreign policy in the region. At the same time, as
a rising power on the international stage, a major shift in
regional (or global) dynamics down the line may prompt
China to change course with respect to the Palestine
question and its overall approach to the Middle East.

[The opinions expressed here are the author's alone and do
not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global,


1. Xin Ma, "China's Energy Strategy in the Middle East,"
Middle East Economic Survey, Vol. LI, No. 23, June 9, 2008.
2. For a discussion of China's anti-imperialist
revolutionary credentials with the respect to the
Palestinian question, Arab nationalism, and Israel more
generally, see John K. Cooley, "China and the
Palestinians," Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2,
(Winter 1972), pp. 19-34. 3. For a discussion on the
evolution of Israel-China relations, see E. Zev Sufott,
"The Crucial Year 1991," in Jonathan Goldstein, China and
Israel, 1948-1998: A Fifty Year Retrospective (Westport:
Praeger, 1999), pp. 107-126. 4. Popular opposition to U.S.
foreign policy in the Middle East is also apparent among
Muslims outside of the Middle East. See, "Public Opinion in the Islamic
World on Terrorism, al Qaeda, and US Policies," The Program
on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland,
February 25, 2009,
For more recent polling data indicating favorable Arab
perceptions of China versus unfavorable opinions of the
United States, see "2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll,"
Survey of the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development
at the University of Maryland (with Zogby International),
March 2008,
5. International Court of Justice, "Legal Consequences of
the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian
Territory," Press Release, 2004/28, July 9, 2004, 6. Also see P.R.
Kumaraswamy, "Israel-China Relations and the Phalcon
Controversy," Middle East Policy, Vol. 12, Iss. 2, (Summer
2005), pp. 93-103; Nuclear Threat Initiative, "China's
Missile Imports and Assistance from Israel," March 28,

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