Since April of last year, Xi Jinping and China’s foreign policy apparatus have been touting the Chinese leader’s vision of an alternative to the U.S.-led global security order, dubbed the Global Security Initiative (GSI). While Beijing has incrementally elaborated on Xi’s GSI, it remains an inchoate, fuzzy concept. What is clear is that Beijing wants to be seen as a global force for peace and stability that is capable of resolving international issues that appeared intractable under the U.S.-led security order. And it has repeatedly pointed to the detente it brokered between longtime foes Iran and Saudi Arabia as an example of its peacemaking prowess. As China deepens its involvement in the Middle East and campaigns for the GSI, is it gearing up to take on one of the region’s most vexing challenges, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Smoke rises from a building hit by an Israeli fired rocket in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Hosam Salem/The New York Times)
Smoke rises from a building hit by an Israeli fired rocket in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Hosam Salem/The New York Times)

That is the question many observers raised — and the interest Chinese officials looked to cultivate — ahead of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ visit to Beijing last week. Xi has said on numerous occasions that he wants to work to resolve the conflict. He proposed a four-point plan to Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013. Late last year, Xi met with Abbas during a Saudi-hosted summit and said he would “work for an early, just and durable solution to the Palestinian issue.” Just a few months later, in mid-April, China’s foreign minister held separate calls with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts in which he offered for Beijing to play a mediating role in resumed peace talks.  

China has long publicly supported the Palestinian cause and was one of the first countries to recognize the “state of Palestine.” Beijing also regularly supports the Palestinians in votes at the U.N. Yet, despite China’s consistent position on the conflict, it has never made a serious foray into what many consider the white whale of peacemaking by attempting to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians on final status issues.

Peace for Israelis and Palestinians — or Prestige for Xi?

The reality is that Beijing isn’t about to step into this byzantine conflict and offer an innovative proposal for peace. Indeed, all that really came out of Abbas’ visit in regards to peace with Israel was a renewed commitment from Xi to act as a mediator and a three-point plan that more or less rehashes the basic starting points for any Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

So, what’s Xi’s real motivation here? As Beijing increasingly invests in the Middle East, it seeks to enhance its influence in the region — both for economic and geostrategic reasons — and is looking to build on the momentum of the Saudi-Iran deal. Regional stability is a vital Chinese interest, as Beijing gets over 40 percent of its crude oil imports from the Gulf and is ramping up economic engagement with Arab states. At the 10th Arab-China business conference in mid-June, China made over 30 investment agreements worth $10 billion, including a $5.6 billion deal with the Saudis for a joint electric vehicle venture.  

The Palestinians are a piece of the larger puzzle of Chinese investment in the region, having signed on to China’s signature connectivity project, the Belt and Road Initiative. Abbas and Xi also announced that a joint committee would be formed to “accelerate negotiations on the China-Palestine free trade agreement.” Over the last 20 years, Chinese exports to Palestine increased from $6.15 million in 2000 to $248 million in 2021.

More broadly, this is about Xi looking to enhance his prestige as a global statesman and building the perception that China is a key global player in bringing peace and stability, redolent of the logic behind China’s “peace plan” for Ukraine.

The Biden administration has not prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying a solution is highly unlikely in the current environment, and there is a general sense that the United States is retrenching from the region and focusing on the Indo-Pacific and the war in Ukraine. “Xi is meeting with lots of Arab leaders because he knows they are not happy with the [U.S.] taking a back seat in the region … Abbas has not been invited to see [U.S. President Joe] Biden yet, ” an unnamed Palestinian official told the Guardian.

China wants to fill the diplomatic void as an active power player in the region and establish its bona fides across the Arab world and the Global South, which has long been sympathetic to the Palestinians’ pursuit of an independent state.

Surely, another objective for China with this trip is coverage of its heinous treatment of its minority Muslim Uyghur population, which the United States and other states have determined constitutes a genocide. For its part, China has portrayed its policies in Xinjiang as an effort to tackle domestic extremism. By showing solidarity with the Palestinian cause — an issue of immense importance to the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims — Beijing likely wants to distract from its policy on the Uyghurs. A Palestinian Authority statement released at the end of Abbas’ visit echoed Beijing’s talking points on the issue, noting that China’s policies toward the Uyghurs “are aimed at excising extremism and opposing terrorism and separatism.”

Abbas Tests the Waters

Whether or not China is instrumentalizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for broader foreign policy objectives is largely immaterial to Abbas. The beleaguered octogenarian has waning legitimacy at home and needs friends wherever he can get them. So bringing home a new “strategic partnership agreement,” pledges of Chinese investment, and economic and technological cooperation deals was crucial for the Palestinian leader. It was likely Abbas’ chief objective for the trip.

Beyond the economic benefits, Abbas wants to send a message to the United States that the Palestinians are willing to look elsewhere for a mediator to the conflict. The prospects for peace are bleak right now  amid the current Israeli government’s lurch to the extreme right and Palestinian division and dysfunction. While Israel — and the United States, for that matter — can afford to hold off on peace efforts, the Palestinians cannot and are willing to engage an alternative power.

For Abbas, this visit was also an opportunity to gauge the sincerity of China’s interest and capacity to drive meaningful change for the Palestinians. Moving forward, he could exploit Xi’s campaign to build legitimacy as a broker by pushing Beijing to engage in more serious efforts toward peace.

Given China’s need for Middle East stability, it welcomed the recent U.S.-brokered Arab-Israeli normalization deals, known as the Abraham Accords. For their part, the Palestinians were much less sanguine about the deals, which largely ignored their interests. Abbas would like to see China use its growing clout in the region to shape future normalization agreements with Israel in a way that is more responsive to Palestinian needs. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, that’s unlikely to happen. The United States has also encouraged normalization efforts to be tied in some way to positive developments for the Palestinians, but to no avail.

Much Ado About Nothing

Beyond the pomp and circumstance, Abbas’ visit and Xi’s rhetoric mean very little, if anything, for furthering the prospects for peace — especially given the situation on the ground. Even if China was willing to go after Israeli-Palestinian peace with heretofore unseen gusto, could it bring the parties together?

From the Israeli side, Netanyahu has not offered anything to suggest he sees China as a credible mediator and Beijing has significantly less leverage over Israel than the United States. Although U.S.-Israel relations are in a bit of a rough patch, Israel is unlikely to sign on to a Chinese peace effort absent U.S. approval. Moreover, some observers believe that Beijing quietly sees its relationship with Israel as much more strategically important than its ties to the Palestinians.

In the lead up to Abbas’ trip, several Chinese Middle East scholars pointed to the Saudi-Iran deal as an example of Beijing’s ability to successfully mediate the most difficult of conflicts. But they largely ignore that China was only brought into the talks after many thorny issues had been already negotiated. While the Saudis and Iranians view China as an honest broker, both sides had their own strategic reasons for concluding the agreement in Beijing — and it had little to do with China’s mediation abilities.

If China is able to bring the parties to the table for the first time since 2014 — and that’s an enormous if — it could seriously undermine U.S. standing and credibility in region, as Washington has been the chief mediator of the conflict for decades. But this seems like a distant prospect in the near term, especially with Israel wrapped up in its own domestic political turmoil. Perhaps the Palestinians best hope amid the current stalemate is that U.S.-China competition and Xi’s push to be a purveyor of global security could spur Washington to re-engage on the conflict before Beijing makes a serious run at peace and the prestige that would come with a deal.

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