What does China’s ascendance mean for Palestine?

It is not likely that China will offer an alternative to US hegemony regarding Palestine anytime soon. (MaanImages)

George Habash, the late leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), called China Palestine’s “best friend.” Indeed, he was on an official PFLP visit to China when the conflict between Palestinian forces and the Hashemite Kingdom erupted in Jordan in 1970, the events later known as “Black September.”

Habash had good reason to appreciate China’s friendship at the time. According to Dr. Yukiko Miyagi of the UK-based Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW), one characteristic of the People’s Republic’s policy toward the Arab states and political movements in the 1960s was high-profile support for the Palestinian liberation movement.

“It was a matter of both ideology and identity,” says Dr. Miyagi. The newly-formed Communist People’s Republic of China identified with the Palestinian guerrillas and provided them with military aid and training, seeing them as fellow victims of capitalism and imperialism, as well as hoping to steer the Palestinian resistance down a socialist path. China recognized the Palestinian people as a nation in 1964 and was the first state outside the Arab world to give diplomatic recognition to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). It also refused to grant the same recognition to the State of Israel.

However, according to Dr. Miyagi, China’s policy was not entirely altruistic. Even in the revolutionary heat of the 1960s and early 1970s, its support for Palestinian independence was also motivated by its desire to please other Arab countries, in the hope that they would recognize the People’s Republic, rather than Taiwan, as the legitimate Chinese state. As Arab countries outnumbered Israel, they were considered more valuable as allies on the world stage.

Oil imports and peace processes

In the wake of the “Cultural Revolution” and the rapprochement with the US, China’s political and economic strategies shifted in the 1970s. Its support for the Palestinian liberation movement also changed and it began to adopt a more “moderate” approach. Yet, it still refused to grant Israel diplomatic recognition, and in 1978 voted in favor of a United Nations resolution which classed Zionism as a form of racism. The Chinese leadership also criticized the UN’s approach to Palestine, claiming that it unfairly equated the Israeli aggressor and the Palestinian victim. However, this didn’t stop it from opening up informal and secretive contacts with Israel.

This rather ambivalent position has perhaps characterized China’s attitude toward the Palestinian people’s rights ever since. While China maintains support for Palestinian claims to self-determination it has also become a major trading partner with Israel. According to Dr. Miyagi, by the mid-1980s, Israel was the main supplier of high technology, including agricultural equipment and military technology, to China. In addition, China’s geopolitical discourse also started to include positions like “Israel’s right to security.” Yet, at the same time, it called the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut “Hitlerism” and supplied both aid and arms to Palestinian forces in Lebanon. Two years later, China gave the PLO’s delegation to the Beijing embassy status and recognized Yasser Arafat as President, rather than the more commonly used title of Chairman of the PLO.

China as a player in Middle East policy?

China’s public support for the Palestinian cause hit a new low in the early 1990s. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 it became an international pariah in political terms, but it remained a major exporter of consumer goods and importer of oil from the Persian Gulf countries. It abstained from vetoing the UN-authorized and US-led first Gulf War. By 1992, Beijing established diplomatic ties with Israel, without Israel having met any of the preconditions which China had originally demanded. Official visits to and by Beijing were balanced between Palestine and Israel, and China abstained from, rather than supported, a UN motion similar to that of 1978 condemning Zionism as racism. Moreover, Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza were criticized as “harmful to the peace process,” but the PLO was told that it should “respect Israeli security.”

Since the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, and with China’s growing international status, it has become more proactive on the issue of Palestine. The People’s Republic’s first Middle East peace envoy toured both Palestine and Israel in 2002, and Beijing has called for Israel to “unconditionally implement” UN resolutions for it to withdraw from occupied areas, describing settlements as “a violation of Israel’s obligations under international law.” In January 2009, China responded to Israel’s winter invasion of Gaza with its “5 Points for an Immediate Ceasefire.” It has expressed support for the Hamas government, and hosted Hamas’ foreign minister in Beijing in June 2006. However, it also supported the Annapolis conference which excluded Hamas.

China’s official press has also highlighted its aid to Palestine, with official press agencies calling its economic and humanitarian aid “an important expression of China’s support for the Middle East peace process.” Such statements, however, have often been disingenuous about the scale of China’s donations. According to Dr. Miyagi, it gave just $11 million of the $7.4 billion pledged by the international community at the 2007 International Donors’ Conference for Palestine.

To expect larger aid contributions — or more action — likely misinterprets China’s intentions as a global power. Although China’s increasing international stature has been the subject of considerable speculation, specialists on its foreign policy insist that it has few ambitions towards the kind of global interventionist role that the US has played as a superpower. While China has massive economic clout as a state, the everyday wealth of its people is still just a fraction of that of most Americans or Europeans. Rather, according to Dr. Miyagi, China’s priority has become the maintenance of a stable world order which will supply it with uninterrupted raw materials and energy, and continue to buy its products.

If there are actors hoping that China might offer an alternative to US hegemony and pushing the international community into a more just position on Palestine, it is not likely to happen soon — if ever. As Dr. Miyagi points out, Palestine occupies a symbolic position for both China as a former revolutionary state and for China’s Arab economic partners. However, Palestine itself has no oil and only a tiny consumer market to offer. While China may provide balance to the US’s constant pro-Israel positions at the UN and other international arenas, the days of its unequivocal support for Palestinian rights are, it seems, long gone.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer from Manchester, UK. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine and the wider Middle East.