Palestine UN bid: Where does China stand?

China’s vote will fit into its framework of non-intervention, as it seeks to serve its own strategic interests.

Chinese soldiers in Xinjiang
The Tianamen Square events in 1992 forced China to establish formal ties with Israel as a result of isolation [EPA]

In the decades after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China’s main interaction with the Middle East was its support for and cooperation with Arab “revolutionary groups”. Gradually though, public support for the Palestinian liberation movement became the key characteristic of China’s policy towards the Arab world, to the extent that George Habash called China Palestine’s “best friend”.

Beijing’s support for Palestine during this period was a matter of ideology and identity. Perceiving the Palestinian guerrillas/freedom fighters as fellow victims of imperialism and capitalism, the CCP leadership was keen to be identified with the Palestinians and provide them with both military aid and training. China was in fact the first non-Arab state to give diplomatic recognition to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Respectively, it refused to recognise the State of Israel, and in 1978 supported a UN motion classifying Zionism as a “form of racism”. However, China’s support for Palestine had another dimension as well: pleasing other Arab countries so they would recognise the People’s Republic as the “legitimate” Chinese state, not Taiwan.

By the early 1980s, however, China’s Palestine policy had entered a new phase. While it labelled the 1982 incidents at Sabra and Shatila camps as “Hitlerism”, Beijing was also forging covert ties with Tel Aviv. This was the direct result of Deng Xiaoping accession to power and the subsequent pragmatism that he brought to China’s foreign policy establishment. By the mid 1980s, Israel had effectively become Beijing’s main supplier of high technology, and China was now acknowledging “Israel’s right to security and existence”. Finally, events of Tiananmen Square and the resulting isolation of the Chinese state encouraged China to establish formal relations with Israel in 1992.

‘Valuable public diplomacy’

Today, however, it is China’s interest in improving its image in the Muslim world as well as its “long-term desire” to obtain strategic parity with the United States that encourage China to lend its backing to the PA attempt to gain recognition in the UN. Bordering Pakistan and home to 10 million Uighur Muslims, who insist on their distinct, non-Chinese identity, China has serious security concerns along its north western border as evident in recent knife attacks. Officials in Beijing are of the opinion that supporting the Palestinian cause is a “valuable public diplomacy tool” which will not only help China improve its standing amongst Muslims, but will, at a minimum, fend off any potential Arab criticism of Beijing’s unsympathetic attitude towards Uighurs.

Meanwhile, supporting Palestinians can considerably boost China’s approval rating in the Arab world, thereby further encouraging Arab governments to look to China “as a potential check on unrestrained American dominance”. With US popularity at its lowest point on both the state and public levels, and a diminishing Western influence in the horizon, the Palestine UN bid has provided China with a golden opportunity to further expand its soft power in a region that is of immense strategic importance to China’s uninterrupted economic growth, and hence the successful execution of its military modernisation plans.

An ancient civilisation which has managed to construct its own path toward modernity, a country free of the “colonial taint” of other external actors in the region, and a state that does not link trade with democracy, human rights, and political reform, is undoubtedly an attractive partner in the eyes of many regional governments. Supporting Palestinians also helps Beijing to compensate for its loss of credibility caused by its “attitude” towards the Libyan revolution, while safeguarding a privileged access to the future Palestinian market for its enterprises.

Yet, it would be naïve to expect China to take a pivotal role in managing the Arab-Israeli conflict; certainly not unilaterally. Such an expectation ignores the extent and reality of Chinese-Israeli ties, which are of paramount importance to the Middle Kingdom at a time when naval competition between China and India as well as China and the US is set to increase, Beijing’s distrust in Arab regimes’ determination to see an independent Palestinian state, and China’s preference to rely on the United States for the provision and maintenance of regional security in the Middle East. 

‘Regional security arrangements’

Categorising herself as a regional power, China has real reservations with the geopolitical costs of a more assertive posture in the Middle East. Although not entirely content with Washington’s Middle East diplomacy, China has immensely benefited from the US-sponsored regional security arrangements, given that they both tend to have the same broad strategic interests in the region; namely, a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone, anti-terrorism, and energy/maritime security. Above all, it is the US military presence in the region that has enabled Beijing to base its regional policy on promotion of economic and cultural ties, helping her to preserve its image, and increase its popularity, as a power that stays aloof of other countries’ internal affairs.

In fact, the expected US veto and its negative effects on US standing in the region is proving to be a puzzling dilemma for Beijing. Clearly, an American veto will pave the way for a greater Chinese influence in the Middle East in a non-confrontational manner. Yet popular resentment to US dominance could also leave Beijing with no option but to share the financial burden of maintaining regional stability with the US. This will certainly lead to a reduction in Chinese military spending in two regions that are of the greatest strategic importance in the contemporary Chinese strategic vision: Asia Pacific and Central Asia.

Although nervous about the destabilising side-effects of an American veto, China is nevertheless reluctant to invest too much political capital in an issue that has caused unprecedented embarrassment for the “leader of the free world”. It will certainly vote in favour of a Palestinian state, but it will do so within the framework of its balanced approach towards Israel and Palestine until, perhaps, it comes to a clear understanding of the new realities of the post-Arab Awakening Middle East. The Chinese Foreign Ministry is determined to retain its core principles of non-intervention, pragmatism, and support for the status quo. As such, its search for a new strategic guide could become less difficult if Arab politicians are sincere in their claims that the “total submission of previous regimes has led nowhere” and thus it is now time for “a result oriented peace process”. For the time being though, the diplomatic mood in China stays as “remain silent and observe”.

Nima Khorrami Assl is a security analyst at Transnational Crisis Project, London. His areas of interest and expertise include the Middle East, Political Islam and De-radicalisation, China, Caucuses, Energy Security and Geopolitics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.