China Tries More Robust Diplomacy in Israel-Palestine Conflict

As the world watched Israel and Hamas battle each other, China waded into the conflict. Its attempt to be a peacemaker was aimed at projecting a bigger profile for itself in the Middle East and to counter the influence of the United States in the Great Power contest. In the end, however, a ceasefire was brokered not by China but Egypt. China’s inability to exert any real sway over Israel and the Palestinians reveals its limited influence beyond mercantilism and its “balancing diplomacy” in the Middle East. Beijing will have to do some serious soul-searching and intellectual mobilization before it can present itself as a credible, and able, mediator in the Middle East peace process.

Vocal and high profile, China’s diplomacy in the latest Israel-Palestine conflict was unprecedented. As the current president of the UN security council, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, personally chaired an emergency meeting on the conflict on May 16. China called for an immediate ceasefire; urgent humanitarian assistance; an obligation on all states, especially the US, to take “effective actions”; and to honor the two-state solution. All very worthy, but run-of-the-mill, exhortations.

More interesting, however, was an invitation by Beijing for Israeli and Palestinian officials to travel to China for talks. For China, this was the most direct role it has ever attempted in the Middle East. Yet, for all that, it was still an initiative very much – too much, in fact – within China’s comfort zone. Beijing has had experience hosting the Taliban and Syrian opposition groups for meetings and consultations over conflicts in their respective regions. It also has hosted meetings between the Myanmar government and ethnic-Burmese rebel groups. And between 2003 and 2007, Beijing chaired the Six-Party Talks over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. But while the invitation was China’s most significant diplomatic outreach beyond its immediate neighborhood, it did not receive the positive response it wanted from both parties concerned.

Some have opined – perhaps rightly – that China’s interest in inserting itself between the warring parties is a sign of Beijing’s increased competition with the US for global leadership, and an attempt to showcase itself as a “responsible stakeholder” – a term favored by Beijing. They argue that China wants to position itself as a “genuine” supporter of a UN-centered multilateralism in the cause of peace and justice. They cite China’s attack against the US for blocking a UN statement three times in one week as an attempt to contrast between the Chinese and American approach to the conflict.

Another factor in China’s intervention is its hope of deepening its influence in the region. China has been primarily an economic, rather than political or military, presence in the area. While it has had a special envoy for the region since 2002, the role, as recounted by a former envoy, Wu Sike, has been to explain China’s position on issues and to take soundings from various regional stakeholders. Now, however, it has upgraded the position with the appointment of former vice foreign minister Zhai Jun, when previous appointees were drawn from the ranks of directors general in the state system. With this change, the Israel-Palestine conflict then offered an opportunity for Beijing to leverage its relationships and assets to increase its presence and involvement in regional diplomacy. Or so it thought.

The problem is, it has not shown any courage to also make fundamental changes in its approach to conflict resolution – and thus to have any chance of delivering substantive results. In the Israel-Palestine conflict, Beijing has not proposed anything concrete to address the fundamental differences between the two sides. Instead, its campaign is laden with slogans about the virtues of peace.

This is understandable. In any military conflict, China can be expected to call for two things: a ceasefire followed by negotiations, both of these being process-oriented rather than result-oriented. China sees its mandate to be one of outreach to warring parties, offering “understanding” of their perspectives. It organizes meetings and provides logistical support, including covering costs. It “facilitates.” It doesn’t mediate, set agendas or provide guarantees; it rarely attempts persuasion.

Such, then, was its offer to Israel and the Palestinians. And thus, too, its continued support for a two-state solution because it is the favored outcome of the UN security council, despite the skepticism of many experts.

China has been able to take the cost-free approach because it is not the primary security provider in the region. The US preeminence in regional security has sheltered China from the impact of any major regional conflict, enabling it to develop balanced ties with opposite parties in the region, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is unlikely to abandon this “neutral” position, whereby it protects its interests by hedging against all sides. Anything that compromises China’s flexibility of position, freedom of action or neutrality is viewed as intrinsically against its interests.

This is thus the dilemma for China and its new ambitions in the Middle East. While it wants to leverage itself into greater prominence as a counterforce to the US, to be the “moral alternative” to American power, the ontological nature of its diplomacy prevents it from doing the very things necessary to achieve such a goal. Parties in the region need to realize the tension between the role China wants to play and its ability to do so.

Free-form talks are not going to lead to a settled peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians – or indeed anyone. If China wants to be a peacemaker in the Middle East or elsewhere, it needs to make intellectual investments in any dialogue it facilitates.

Yun Sun is director of the China program and co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC.