China has made tremendous strides since it adopted the Four Modernizations in 1978 and the theory of peaceful rise in 2003. In a previously published article, Will China Reconsider its “Peaceful Rise” Theory?, we explained a number of major economic, military, scientific and technological transformations that put China in 2021 far ahead of its 2003 status, and that may make it necessary for China to reconsider the theory of peaceful rise. In this article, we shed light on a set of variables that may affect China’s position and its future decision-making towards Palestine and the Arab world. It is part of what the author of these lines has presented at an international conference on China and the Palestine issue held by the Asia Middle East Forum.
China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) jumped from $1.66 trillion in 2003 to $14.72 trillion in 2020, an increase of 887%, and the military expenditures for the same period jumped from $33 billion to $252 billion approximately, an increase of 760%. Also, China’s military budget has exceeded the budgets of Russia, Britain, France and India combined, while its patents jumped from about 32 thousand in 2007 to about 361 thousand in 2019, compared to 167 thousand for the US. This all means, among many other indicators, that China has globally reached a new status, which may influence, in one way or another, its international foreign policy, as well as its policy towards the “Middle East” and the Palestine issue.
Arab and Israeli Determinants:
The first determinant is the development of the Sino-Arab economic relations, with oil and trade exchange being the focus of these relations. The trade between China and the Arab states stood at $36.7 billion in 2004, while in 2019 it reached about $266.4 billion, an increase of 726%. China relies on Arab countries in importing about half of its oil needs. They are also a major partner (13 participating countries) in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which China relies on for the development of its global economy. Accordingly, the Arab region has become a major Chinese economic interest, but the state of weakness, backwardness and fragmentation of the region weakens its strategic weight and undermines its ability to influence Chinese foreign interests.
Second, the weak performance and effectiveness of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at the Palestinian, Arab and international levels; the increasing “miserable” functional role of the Palestinian Authority (PA); Arab fragmentation; internal conflicts of some Arab states; and the increase in the pace of Arab normalization with Israel, have all weakened the ability to effectively influence Chinese policy towards the Palestinian and various Arab issues.
Third, regarding weapons and technology, China’s need for Israel and for the Israeli channel to acquire US-Western weapons and technology has declined. This was one of the important determinants for the development of the Chinese-Israeli relations, especially in the past two decades. The Pentagon and the US Congress have issued reports in late 2004, indicating that Israel is the second largest arms exporter to China after Russia, while European press reported that Israel sold arms to China at $1.250 billion annually with Israeli keenness on hiding this relationship and denying the published reports.
It seems that the US pressure on Israel has contributed to the reduction of arms trade deals between China and Israel, and the latter appears to no longer be an important arms exporter to China. Israel also seems to be taking into account the growing US concerns about its transfer of Western technology, as well as about China’s growing role in the Middle East and strong investments in Israel.
The volume of trade between Israel and China jumped from $2.2 billion in 2004 to about $11.4 billion in 2019, and China jumped from the tenth to the second trade partner of Israel. However, this volume of trade remains very small (only 4.3%) compared to that with the Arab countries. Moreover, the huge technological development that China has witnessed has reduced the vital importance of Israeli relations.
Still, China needs its relationship with Israel to make use of its powerful lobby in the US and the Western world, or at least so as not to antagonize it and impede its interests there.
In any case, the increasing Chinese economic and political influence in the region and its replacement of/ or competition with US influence remain undesirable by Israel. For there are US Western cultural, religious and colonial backgrounds that govern Israeli–US relations, hence more profound than the criteria of Chinese interests.
Fourth, the nature of the China–US relationship is a major determinant of Chinese behavior in the region. For the US concerns over the Chinese rise has become clear, and despite its economic, military and technological superiority, China has made huge strides in narrowing the power gap with it and imposing itself internationally. It is striving to break the US global hegemony and transforming the international environment into a multipolar system. Consequently, the “Chinese danger” and the difficulty to neutralize it has prompted US President Barack Obama in 2011 to shift the focus of attention to the two shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Despite the huge volume of trade between China and the US (about $560 billion in 2020) and their vast network of economic interests, the US gradual withdrawal from the region, the confusion of its policies and the declining confidence in it, even among the Arab official regimes, give China a better opportunity to have more effective political role in the region. This is in case it decides that its theory of peaceful rise has reached its objectives, and that it is time to play a political role in Palestinian affairs and regional issues.
Religious, Cultural, Historical and Interests Accounts:
Fifth, there are no religious, cultural or historical bases for China’s position concerning the Palestine issue or the issues of the region, which makes its position free; unbound by the past or ideology. This is also due to the fact that China does not have colonial history in the Arab region, consequently there are no anti-Chinese positions among the people of the region. The general Chinese sense of anti-colonialism and Western imperialism is also included in these considerations.
Moreover, China is no longer bound by its communist ideology and its support for the downtrodden peoples. It has also retreated from the old strong positions to more quiet traditional ones, avoiding confrontations with international powers. Therefore, “pragmatism” and China’s supreme interests became the bases of its political stances. Consequently, the Chinese policy towards the Palestine issue is a pragmatic policy, consistent with the international position while maintaining a degree of distinctiveness. All within the framework of its traditional commitment to a fully sovereign Palestinian state on the 1967 occupied territories, the adoption of the two-state solution in accordance with “international legitimacy,” not participating in the International Quartet, and maintaining a “cold” relationship with Hamas which will wax and wane according to Hamas’s ability to impose itself in the Palestinian equation and in the region.
A sixth determinant is the Chinese sensitivity towards Islamic religious movements, and the possibilities of their impact on the internal situation in China, where there are the Uyghur Muslims and others, which might also influence the Chinese policy in the region.
Seventh, and finally, there are problems related to the nature of the Chinese political system, its totalitarian communist structure, intertwined with its capitalist economic openness, the effects of globalization, and the social and demographic changes that have occurred in the Chinese society. All of these have brought China into complex overlapping calculations, weakening the influence of ideology and dedicating “pragmatism” and interests. At the same time, they have left China in a crisis of determining future paths that have not been decided yet. This slows down China’s ability to effectively enter international politics, including the Palestine issue and Middle East issues, for it still lacks a new mature international vision for China in this context.
Possible Policy Development… But:
Accordingly, the enormous developments that China has witnessed economically, militarily, scientifically and technologically, allow it in the foreseeable future to impose itself on the international arena and have more effective policies at the international level, at least to defend the wide web of interests it has established in the past years. This is also possible in light of the open competition it has with the US, and since it has become less in need of the US and the West, and more capable of maneuvering, given its growing capabilities on the international scene.
This qualifies China to play a larger and more effective role towards Palestine and the issues of the Middle East. However, it depends largely on China’s desire to reassess the theory of peaceful rise and build a new vision for dealing with the international environment, in addition to its sense of urgency to impose a multipolar international order, with its political and security implications.
In general, the return of the world to a state of mutual checking (tadafu’) and the decline of US global hegemony will give better opportunities for the countries of the world, including the Arab region (and the Palestine issue), to benefit from the margins resulting from the international competition and “mutual checking.” At the same time, however, we should not bet much on the Chinese role in supporting the Palestine issue and the peoples of the region, because China will, for the foreseeable future, remain governed by its pragmatic interests. This calls for the Arab countries (including the active Palestinian forces) to be stronger, further united, more coherent (or more coordinated at least), and utilize more their great potentials to influence and pressure, and manage their interests at the international level.