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Palestinians welcome China’s new Middle East role, but it is not mediation they need

Aug 15,2023 - Last updated at Aug 15,2023

It is feasible for China to continue playing an important role in mediating Middle East conflicts. In fact, it already has. In the case of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, however, mediation is hardly the issue.

Even before Beijing successfully managed to achieve reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran last April, Chinese diplomacy has shown exceptional maturity.

For many years, China has been perceived to be an outsider to global affairs, supposedly contending itself to economic expansion or to regional economic integration.

Former US president Donald Trump forced, or rather, accelerated China’s global outreach when, in 2018, he launched an unprecedented trade war on the powerful Asian country.

Trump’s plan backfired. Not only did Washington fail to dissuade Beijing from bowing to American diktats, it also inspired what became known as China’s wolf diplomacy, a self-assertive Chinese approach to foreign policy.

From an American, or Western, viewpoint, the new tactic was perceived to be hostile and aggressive.

But from a Chinese perspective, the new policy was necessitated by the relentless war launched against China by successive US administrations, along with their Western allies.

The Russia-Ukraine war, however, accentuated China's role in international conflicts and diplomacy. Though Beijing’s “12-point peace proposal” last March failed to impress the West and was superficially welcomed by Moscow, the proposal highlighted an important shift.

The fact that China found it necessary to develop an elaborate political position as a potential mediator conveyed that China is no longer content with playing the role of the supporting actor in international forums.

China’s diplomacy was dismissed by many, especially in Western media and politics, as a non-starter, if at all serious or even well-intentioned.

Merely three weeks later, the Chinese-brokered Iran-Saudi agreement took place.

Major political actors in the region, including Washington, appeared to be taken by surprise. The Chinese success story was juxtaposed by many journalists in the Global South, to Washington's conflict-prone, dead-end diplomacy in the Middle East.

Buoyed by its success, China ventured further into new diplomatic territories, offering to mediate between Israel and Palestine. The Palestinians welcomed a Chinese role; the Israelis were disinterested.

The Chinese government is aware of the near impossibility of engaging both Palestinians and Israelis in genuine peace talks. Though Palestinians are desperate to escape or, at least, balance out Washington’s hegemony, it is not in Israel’s interest to abandon its greatest political benefactor, financier and military backer — the United States.

Though China and Israel have developed relatively strong economic and, for China, strategic ties, in recent years, Beijing’s geopolitical worth for Tel Aviv is simply incomparable to that of Washington.

It would also make little sense for Tel Aviv to grant Beijing any political leverage at a time of geopolitical transitions, especially because China has historically supported the Palestinian people's struggle for freedom.

Indeed, for decades, China served as a vanguard for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and, later, the State of Palestine at the United Nations, insisting on the respect and implementation of international laws relevant to ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Unsurprisingly, China recognised the PLO’s political status in 1965 and the State of Palestine in 1988. Now, China is pushing for full Palestinian membership in the international body.

The Chinese position was fundamental to Beijing’s strategic alliances in the Global South in previous decades.

The economic growth of China and its integration into a Western-centric economic system, starting in 1978, progressively weakened China’s trade and political relevance in the Global South.

This process, however, is being reversed, not only because of Washington's trade war, and the hesitance of Western countries to join Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, but because of the US-led Western sanctions on Moscow. The Western economic war on Russia is an urgent reminder to China that it cannot fully rely on Western markets and financial systems.

China’s slow drift from a Western-centric economic system is being coupled with a whole new approach to foreign policy — ‘wolf diplomacy’ in the West, and a gentler, kinder approach in the Global South. 

Even before former foreign minister of China, Qin Gang phoned his Palestinian and Israeli counterparts, offering mediation, China had already introduced a peace initiative known as the four-point proposal.

The proposal highlighted China’s readiness to move past its role as a trade partner into that of a political actor on the global stage.

For China, this was not only a matter of prestige, as various Muslim and Arab countries, along with Israel, are critical parties in the ambitious BRI project.

In recent months, however, China’s interest in being a peace mediator increased exponentially, especially amid the near total absence of Washington, the self-proclaimed ‘honest peace broker.’

China has also shown a willingness to mediate between rival Palestinian groups. That, too, ushers in an evolution in China’s approach to Palestinian politics. However, it will not be easy.

The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) financial well-being, and political future, is largely linked to Washington and other Western capitals. Though Palestinian officials, the like of Foreign Minister Riyad Al Maliki, are threatening to “turn to China” due to the PA’s “disappointment” in Washington, such a shift will not be permitted, if not by Washington, then by Tel Aviv itself.

The visit in June by PA President Mahmoud Abbas to Beijing, although touted by the PA-run media as an earth-shattering event, will not be a game changer. True, it highlights China’s growing interests in Palestine, but it is unlikely to be followed by substantive action on the part of the Palestinian leadership.

Palestinians need China, as they need other powerful players in the Global South, but it is not mediation that they desperately require. Mediations do not end military occupations or dismantle apartheid regimes. Instead, Palestinians need solidarity.

The major changes underway in the world’s geopolitical map, and the rising importance of the Global South present Palestinians with unique opportunities to break away from US-Western hegemony and to reconnect with Palestine’s true strategic depth in Asia, Africa, South America, and the rest of the world.

For this to occur, Palestinians must present their cause as one united front, not as political fragments and factions. Only then, emerging powers can view Palestine as a serious geopolitical asset in a vastly changing world.

 

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books. His latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is “Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak Out”. His other books include “My Father was a Freedom Fighter” and “The Last Earth’. Baroud is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Centre for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA). His website is www.ramzybaroud.net

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