China and the Palestinians: ‘Strategic Partnership’ or a Message to the West?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

By Middle East Policy

East Asian power not committing to intervene in the region’s most intractable issue, expert says. 

The “strategic partnership” forged during Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s visit to Beijing does not signal China’s commitment to seeking a permanent solution in the Occupied Territories, a scholar tells Middle East Policy, but it further demonstrates the country’s interest in expanding its role in the region. 

“The purpose of [the three-day] visit to China is to boost Beijing’s global standing, not to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” said Oqab Jabali, a faculty member at An-Najah National University in Nablus who has analyzed practices of resistance in the West Bank for the quarterly journal.  

China and the Palestinian Authority have long maintained diplomatic ties. Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the meeting with a strong statement of support, telling Abbas, “We have always firmly supported the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore their legitimate national rights.” 

Jabali noted that Beijing’s history of backing the Palestinians is driven in part by “longstanding principles of respecting sovereignty, advocating for self-determination, and opposing foreign intervention.” However, while expanding its regional efforts could offer benefits, it carries a degree of risk for the Chinese, the scholar argued. 

“China’s explicit support for the 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state could harm relations with Israel, which has historically been an important economic and technological partner,” he said.  

There are other motivations, some of them material, for China’s growing involvement in places like the Occupied Territories, he argued, including developing its economic interests and counterbalancing the West’s historical dominance. For his part, Abbas said he was interested in financing and technical support for development. 

“Through economic investments and trade partnerships, China has steadily increased its presence and influence in the Middle East,” Jabali said in an email interview. The country “relies heavily on the Middle East for energy and natural resources. By intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, China hopes to protect its economic interests in the region and ensure the stability of its energy imports.” 

The scholar added, “By actively participating in this long-running conflict, China can challenge the influence of the US and other Western powers in the Middle East and establish itself as a global power capable of shaping events,” especially amid the growing perception of American retrenchment from the region. 

These considerations also factored into China’s role in the recent normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which a Middle East Policy contributor analyzed in May.  

While China’s support for Palestinian nationalism “may be consistent with Arab states’ and the international consensus on a two-state solution, it may also elicit criticism and pushback from other regional actors,” such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have been working to improve their relationships with Israel and with whom China has strong economic ties.  

Israel also may not appreciate the robust support for Palestinians. Jabali noted, however, that the two have maintained “pragmatic economic ties” as China considers Israel “an important economic partner, particularly in areas such as technology.” 

The two countries “have historically kept their political differences separate from their economic relations,” Jabali added. “While there may be difficulties and stresses in China-Israel relations as a result of China’s involvement in the conflict, economic interests may continue to drive their cooperation.” 

Beijing’s public offer to mediate a dialogue is its fourth such proposal in a decade. Xi put forward a three-part plan aimed at solving the conflict, for which negotiations have been stalled since 2014. The blueprint included 

  • the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital;  

  • a rise in development aid and humanitarian assistance from the international community; and 

  • the hosting of a peace conference that would respect the historical status of the holy sites in Jerusalem and avoid provocative words and actions. 

Jabali argued that while the success of a partnership between China and the Palestinian Authority depends on a number of dynamic factors, the support of a superpower is unequivocally positive. He identified the most important components of the relationship as political support, economic development, capacity building, and mediation and conflict resolution.  

Asked which components of China’s engagement with the Palestinians would most benefit people on the ground, Jabali said that Beijing could “play a constructive role in promoting dialogue, facilitating negotiations, and bridging gaps,” while “help[ing] to stabilize and grow the Palestinian economy, improve the overall quality of life, and increase the viability of an independent Palestinian state.” 

You can read Jabali’s article, “Popular Resistance against Israeli Territorial Expropriation: Beita as a Model,” in Middle East Policy, available through Wiley

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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