Against the backdrop of clashes between the Israeli police and Palestinians in East Jerusalem, militants in the Gaza Strip began firing rockets into Israel on the evening of 10 May, local time. By midnight, over 150 rockets had been fired. Israel soon retaliated, marking the latest round of the Gaza-Israel conflict which had largely lain dormant in the last few years. A ceasefire was only effected at 2 am on 21 May.
China’s official stance and public sentiments on the latest conflict are noteworthy. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on several occasions. He expressed that the situation escalated because “there has not been a just solution to the Palestinian question” for a long time. He added that the Middle East peace process has “deviated from its original track” in recent years and “the Palestinian right to build an independent state has been continuously violated”.
A biased position
Without mincing his words, Wang said, “The Palestine-Israel issue has been on the agenda of the UN for more than 70 years. Generations of Palestinians have waited, year after year, for the restoration of their legitimate national right, which still remains elusive. Justice is already running late, but it must not be forever absent… China supports the early establishment of an independent state of Palestine that enjoys full sovereignty on the basis of the 1967 borders and with east Jerusalem as its capital.” He also said, “China will double down on our efforts to promote peace talks and earnestly perform our duty as the Council President. We reaffirm our invitation to Palestinian and Israeli peace advocates to continue their dialogue in China, and welcome representatives of the two sides to come to China for direct negotiations.”
At China’s foreign ministry regular press conferences, spokespersons have repeatedly criticised the US for preventing the UN Security Council from speaking about the Palestinian issue. They said that while the US and other Western countries have attacked China on the “Xinjiang Muslim issue”, the West has not paid attention to the Muslims who are suffering in Palestine. In the words of Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, this shows that the US is only concerned with “its own interests”, and that its position is “dictated by its closeness with relevant sides”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that the US “should know that the lives of Palestinian Muslims are equally precious”. Wang also urged Israel to “exercise restraint, earnestly observe relevant UN resolutions, stop the demolition of Palestinian homes and the eviction of Palestinian people, discontinue its settlement expansion, put an end to violence, threats and provocations against Muslims, and maintain and respect the historical status quo of the holy sites in Jerusalem”.
Chinese state media Xinhua News Agency has followed the recent Gaza-Israel conflict closely. Following the air strikes on the night of 10 May, headlines of Xinhua news reports on the morning of 11 May read: “20 Palestinians Dead in Gaza Strip Following Israeli Airstrikes”, “Palestine Launched Rockets in Retaliation Over Israel’s Airstrikes in Gaza Strip”, and “Death Toll Risen to 23 in Gaza Following Continuous Airstrikes from Israel”.
Over the next few days, Xinhua published the following reports: “Palestinian Girl Gives Account of Israeli Airstrikes”, “Protracted Palestinian-Israeli Conflict — People in Europe and the US Speak Up for Palestine”, “Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Caused the Heartbreaking Death of 58 Palestinian Children”, and so on. The headlines of these reports are indicative of China’s position leaning towards Palestine in this conflict.
...as the recent conflict is between Gaza militants and Israel, it cannot be simply regarded as a Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Actually, whether it was during the post-WWII period when national liberation movements were on the rise or in the present, China has maintained the same stance towards the Palestine issue — to uphold the rights of the Palestinian people in accordance with the relevant UN resolutions. But after various developments, the previous UN resolutions no longer hold water in resolving the Palestine issue, thwarting China’s approaches. Based on China’s response to the recent Gaza-Israel conflict, there is still much room for improvement in its handling of the Palestine issue or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
A disadvantage to bring in the Xinjiang issue
Firstly, as the recent conflict is between Gaza militants and Israel, it cannot be simply regarded as a Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah (or “State of Palestine”) controlled-West Bank have been divided for over a decade. Despite the mediation efforts of Egypt and other Arab countries, Hamas and Fatah have not made peace until today. That is why Fatah leaders did not give this conflict timely and sufficient attention and support.
In fact, some posit that Gaza militants took the initiative to launch rockets into Israel because of the upcoming domestic elections in Palestine. Moreover, whether within the “State of Palestine” or in Arab or Muslim countries, there are divergent views on Hamas, which is widely regarded as a terrorist organisation by the West. Thus, the recent Gaza-Israel conflict is not a Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the traditional sense.
...the Chinese foreign ministry is dancing to the US’s tune by voluntarily speaking about domestic and foreign “Muslim” issues as a whole.
Secondly, the Chinese foreign ministry tends to mention the Palestinian issue in the same breath as the Xinjiang issue stirred up by the West when calling out the hypocrisy of the US and others in protecting human rights. This approach is questionable.
Observably, the US and other Western powers are actively creating a so-called “Muslim issue” in Xinjiang. But, the Chinese foreign ministry is dancing to the US’s tune by voluntarily speaking about domestic and foreign “Muslim” issues as a whole. Interestingly, during the recent Gaza-Israel conflict, China’s controversial television pundit Sima Nan received a lot of praise from the Muslim community because he posted a series of videos attacking the Jews and Israel. Some Chinese Muslim scholars even think that he is the real expert on Palestine-Israel issues in China.
Conversely, when some Chinese scholars offered tempered views from a third-party perspective, they were criticised by Chinese Muslims. Of note is the way Chinese public opinion is becoming increasingly split on the Palestine-Israel issue. China must be alert and not fall into the trap of “Muslim topics” set by the US and other countries.
China’s actual influence on both Palestine and Israel is quite limited...
Thirdly, China needs to adjust and balance its stance on the Palestine-Israel situation. While presiding over the UN Security Council’s emergency meeting on the Palestine-Israel situation held on 16 May, Wang urged Israel to “exercise restraint” and said that China was ”a sincere friend of the Palestinian people”. How would Wang’s remarks make Israel feel? After the recent Gaza-Israel conflict, China’s image would certainly take a nosedive in Israel. At least in the short term, China will face stronger anger from Israel. Today, the political landscape in the Middle East has vastly changed. China needs to re-evaluate its Middle East policy urgently.
Actual influence in Israel-Palestine issue minimal
Lastly, China’s actual influence on both Palestine and Israel is quite limited, and it can only do what it can. While Wang and other foreign ministry spokespersons have repeatedly expressed that China actively supports the peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and welcomes representatives from both sides to come to China to negotiate, China’s influence over Gaza is far less than that of Egypt or Iran. Furthermore, its influence over the West Bank is far less than that of some Arab countries, and its influence over Israel is far less than that of the US.
To make matters worse, amid the recent Gaza-Israel conflict, China has repeatedly criticised the US and showed great support for Palestine. This implies that Israel will further reject China as a neutral mediator, which makes it even more difficult for China to play a role in the issue of peace between Palestine and Israel.
Simply put, while China has been calling for a ceasefire and progress in the Palestine-Israel peace process amid the recent Gaza-Israel conflict, results have been mediocre. Its bias towards Palestine has not only drawn the ire of Israel but has not won it further goodwill among Palestine and Arab countries. This is because they already see it as a given that China will support Palestine.
By mentioning the Palestine issue in the same breath as the Xinjiang issue, China is also letting on that it has not adequately thought through certain policies. Numerous media have said that some of China’s behaviour in the recent Gaza-Israel conflict stems from its competition with the US. But as pointed out by Tuvia Gering, a China research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, some of China’s criticisms against the US seem like the most vicious attacks on Israel. This is obviously a disadvantageous move for China.
Facing a region with such complex international relations like the Middle East, China must not only have short-term thinking, but also possess long-term strategies. At a time when major power relations and the Middle East situation have changed drastically, China urgently needs to pay attention to the timely updating and development of its Middle East policy.
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