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Foreign Policy

Shifting Needs, Shifting Visions: China-US Divergence on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

Mar 15 , 2019

As with many international issues, China and the US are taking increasing opposing positions on the future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Trump administration is growing more hawkish on Israel, making a show of ramping up its support since taking office. Trump has formally relocated the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognized the city as Israel’s capital. In September 2018, the White House said it would shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) offices in Washington, D.C., following their refusal to agree to US moderated negotiations with Israel.  Leaders in the Arab world criticized the Trump administration for what they see as biased and politically motivated proposals that would disproportionately benefit Israel. In addition, the Trump administration cut US$ 10 million in aid designated to promote conflict resolution as well US $65 million in support for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNWRA).  

Meanwhile, China has visibly increased its economic connections to the Arab world. Trade expansion has fostered a change in political rhetoric with respect to the Arab states, particularly Palestine. These policy shifts are driven in part by new energy market realities. As the US recedes in the oil market due to the so-called “shale revolution,” China must look to new markets to fulfill its expanding oil needs. At present, Chinese oil importers are rejecting American oil out of fear that it will soon be included in tariff lists in the ever–expanding US–China trade war. Oil imports from the US completely stalled in August, 2018, in comparison with 300,000 barrels per day in June and July 2018.

As China pursues its economic interests in the Middle East, a shift in the Trump administration’s rhetoric is much more clearly explained as a populist appeal to his conservative base. While Jared Kushner remains tasked with the unenviable role of solving one of the thorniest conflicts in the Middle East, Trump is free to make promises that he will likely be unable to fulfill. Trump is likely to remain stymied on solutions, China will be relatively unencumbered in crafting an approach to the Middle East that maximizes its interests and minimizes its long-term obligations.

China’s priorities in the Middle East 

Uncertainty injected into the energy market by new and potential American tariffs has pushed China closer to the Middle East to meet its energy needs.  Specifically, China is most interested in securing oil resources from Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, among others. On 9 July 2018, President Xi Jinping promised $20 billion in loans to the Middle East, in addition to approximately US $106 million of development aid. This pledge included US $15 million earmarked for Palestine. Xi indicated that the promised loans would fund “economic reconstruction,” and “industrial revival,” with a focus on oil and gas.  

The connection between Middle East pro-oil rhetoric and China’s diplomatic decisions on Palestine are seen in Beijing’s increased explicit support for a two-state solution and a Palestinian state. During a July 24, 2018 UN Security Council debate on the Middle East, the Chinese ambassador to the UN Ma Zhaoxu stated that a two-state solution is the fundamental way to resolve conflicts between Palestine and Israel. Ma stressed that concrete actions should be taken to implement Security Council resolution 2334, cease all settlement activities on the occupied territory and the demolition of Palestinian houses and property.” China also supports the establishment of an independent and fully sovereign state of Palestine, based on 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. China has also chosen to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to Palestine through UNWRA, and will make an additional contribution of US$2 million in addition to current pledges to complete negotiations with Palestine on a Free Trade Agreement. 

What explains this uptick in pro–Palestine rhetoric? The most fundamental answer is that it is a component of China’s Middle East strategy. At its core this strategy focuses on areas of cooperation that will produce concrete accomplishments while avoiding areas that might cause friction, including issues of human rights or efforts to promote democracy. To this point, Beijing’s seemingly non–ideological respect for sovereignty has played well in the Middle East, because repressive governments readily appreciate the value of cooperating with partners that are vocal about concrete areas of cooperation and remain silent on human rights abuses or political repression. In this strategy, increasing vocal support for Palestine is an easy choice: China can give a nominal amount of aid and express support in multilateral institutions in order to ingratiate itself to a region that it doesn’t fully understand. 

China’s treatment of its own Muslim population impacts relations with a number of countries particularly Turkey, which shares cultural and ethnic affiliation with Chinese Uyghurs. As China intensifies its repressive policies in Xinjiang, finding the moral high ground in its Middle East relationships becomes more imperative. UN human rights observers have estimated that 1 million Chinese Muslims are currently being held in a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy,” alongside expanded security and surveillance, including armed police checkpoints, re-education centers and mass DNA collection. 

Next steps on Palestine

China has maneuvered far more deftly than the US to make short term gains in the Middle East via its involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. By building goodwill on Palestine, expanding Middle East trade, and offering a no-strings partnership that allows diplomatic engagement without demanding linkage to awkward political or ethical questions, China has established a high-return, low-risk strategy in a precarious region. As an approach that also diverts attention from scrutinizing China’s human rights choices, Beijing is likely to continue with this strategy. 

The Trump administration has indicated that its peace plan will be released in February, a prospect that seems unlikely, given the complicity of other US priorities in the region and Kushner’s choice of negotiating partner. Kushner has used Saudi crown prince Muhammed bin Salman as a key ally in connection with the Palestinians, a strategy significantly complicated by the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. While these efforts have faced delays, Trump distracts with inundations to the news cycle. The net result of these efforts is a stalled American policy with few consequences but also few returns.

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