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China’s criticism of America’s ‘piecemeal crisis management’ in Palestine is based on international law

June 6, 2023 at 11:25 am

Geng Shuang China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations speaks during the Security Council’s meeting on June 2, 2023 in New York City [John Lamparski/Getty Images]

Remarks on 24 May by China’s Ambassador to the UN on the situation in Occupied Palestine were impeccable in terms of their consistency with international law. Compared with the position of the US, which perceives the UN and the Security Council in particular as a vehicle to defend Israeli interests, the Chinese political discourse reflects a legal stance based on a deep understanding of the realities on the ground.

Articulating Beijing’s thinking during a Security Council “Briefing on the Situation in the Middle East, including the Palestine Question”, Ambassador Geng Shuang did not mince his words. He spoke forcefully about the “irreplaceable” need for a “comprehensive and just solution” that is based on ending Israel’s “provocations” in Jerusalem and respect for the right of “Muslim worshippers” as well as the “custodianship of Jordan” in the occupied city’s holy sites.

Widening the context of the reasons behind the latest violence in Palestine, and the 9 May Israeli attack on Gaza, Geng went on to state a position that both Tel Aviv and Washington find totally objectionable. He condemned unapologetically the “illegal expansion of [Israeli Jewish] settlements” in Occupied Palestine and Israel’s “unilateral action”, urging Tel Aviv to “immediately halt” all of its illegal activities. The Chinese ambassador then proceeded to discuss issues that have been relatively ignored, including “the plight of the Palestinian refugees”.

Israel launches airstrikes in Lebanon, Gaza - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Israel launches airstrikes in Lebanon, Gaza – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

In doing so, Geng has enunciated his country’s political vision regarding a just solution in Palestine, one that is predicated on ending the Israeli occupation, halting Tel Aviv’s expansionist policies, and respecting the rights of the Palestinian people.

Is this a new position, though?

While it is true that China’s policies on Palestine and Israel have historically been consistent with international law, in recent years it has attempted to tailor a more “balanced” position, one that does not impede growing trade with Israel, particularly in the area of advanced microchip technology.

However, Chinese-Israeli affinity was motivated by more than trade. Since its official launch, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has served as the cornerstone of Beijing’s global outlook. The massive project involves nearly 150 countries and aims to connect Asia with Europe and Africa via land and maritime networks. Due to its location on the Mediterranean Sea, Israel’s strategic importance to China which, for years, has been keen on gaining access to Israeli ports, has thus doubled. Predictably, such ambitions have been of great concern to Washington, whose naval vessels often dock in the port city of Haifa.

Washington has repeatedly cautioned Tel Aviv against its growing close relationship with Beijing. The then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went as far as warning Israel in March 2019 that, until Tel Aviv re-evaluates its cooperation with China, America could reduce “intelligence sharing and co-location of security facilities.”

READ: China calls on Israel to ‘stop encroaching’ on Palestinian land

Appreciating fully China’s current and potential global power, Israel has laboured to find a balance that would allow it to maintain its “special relationship” with the US, while financially and strategically benefiting from its closeness to Beijing. Israel’s balancing act has encouraged China to translate its growing economic relationship with the Middle East into a political and diplomatic investment as well.

For example, in 2017, China put into motion a peace plan — formulated initially in 2013 — called the Four-Point Proposal. The plan offered Chinese mediation as a substitute for US bias and, ultimately, the failed “peace process”. The Palestinian leadership welcomed China’s involvement, while Israel refused to engage, causing embarrassment to a government that insists on respect and recognition of its rising importance in every arena.

If balancing acts in geopolitics were possible back then, the Russia-Ukraine war has brought it all to a sudden end. The new geopolitical reality can be expressed in the words of former Italian diplomat Stefano Stefanini. The former ambassador to NATO wrote in an article in La Stampa that the “international balancing act is over” and “there are no safety nets.” Ironically, Stefanini made this point in reference to Italy’s need to choose between the West and China. The same logic can also be applied to Israel and China.

Soon after China succeeded in brokering a landmark deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran on 6 April, it again floated the idea of mediating between Palestine and Israel. China’s new Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, reportedly consulted with both sides on “steps to resume peace talks”. Yet again, the Palestinians accepted while Israel ignored the subject.

This partly explains China’s frustration with Israel, and also with the US. As China’s former ambassador to Washington (2021-23), Qin must be familiar with the inherent US bias towards Israel. This was expressed succinctly by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying during the latest Israeli war on Gaza: “The United States should realise that the lives of Palestinian Muslims are equally precious,” he said on 14 May.

A simple analysis of China’s language regarding the situation in Palestine clarifies that Beijing sees a direct link between the US and the continued conflict; or at the very least the failure to find a just solution. This assertion can also be gleaned from Ambassador Geng’s most recent Security Council remarks, where he criticised “piecemeal crisis management”, a direct reference to US diplomacy in the Middle East, while offering a Chinese alternative based on a “comprehensive and just solution”.

Equally important is that the Chinese position seems to be linked intrinsically to that of Arab countries. The more that Palestine takes centre stage in Arab political discourse, the greater emphasis the issue receives in China’s foreign policy agenda.

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In the recent Arab Summit held in Jeddah, Arab governments agreed to prioritise Palestine as the central Arab cause. Allies with great and growing economic interests in the region, such as China, took notice immediately.

All of this must not suggest that China will be severing its ties with Israel. However, it certainly indicates that Beijing remains committed to its principled stance on Palestine, as it has been over the decades.

The relationship between China and Israel will soon face the litmus test of US pressure and ultimatums. Considering Washington’s unparalleled importance to Israel on the one hand, and the Arab-Muslim world’s significance to China on the other, the future is easy to foresee. Nevertheless, judging by China’s political discourse on Palestine — situated solidly within international and humanitarian law — it seems that Beijing has already decided what to do.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.