By Jianli Yang
China’s diplomatic stance toward the recent armed conflict between Israel and Hamas has been prominent. At an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council when China chaired it, Foreign Minister Wang Yi put forward a four-point proposal that stressed the urgent need for a ceasefire to stop the violence. It also called on both sides to restart peace talks based on the two-state solution, and to establish a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Wang criticized, without naming names, the United States for favoring Israel and blocking the Security Council from issuing a statement condemning it.
Wang Yi said that he would welcome direct talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in China, making a play for the international spotlight and the moral high ground as a peacemaker. From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, China has always supported Palestine, channeling anti-colonial and anti-American clichés with the apparent aim to bring Arab states to China’s side against the US.
This tendency took a grotesque form in a May 18 official Chinese CGTN broadcast, when host Zheng Junfeng deployed classic antisemitic rhetoric, claiming America’s support for Israel resulted from being manipulated by Jews. “Some people believe that US pro-Israeli policy is traceable to the influence of wealthy Jews in the US and the Jewish lobby on US foreign policy makers,” he intoned, continuing that “Jews dominate finance and internet sectors. So do they have the powerful lobbies some say? Possible.” Israeli officials denounced the broadcast.
Nonetheless, Beijing aspires to be the new, responsible superpower that can fairly mediate the emotionally charged conflict and offer the Middle East stability, consistent with its aim to be the leader of the “rules-based international order.” While its reflexive biases hamper this ambition, China may also be a bit late to the table.
China’s Interests in Middle East Peace
The official media’s explanation for this focus on the Middle East is that China is morally compelled to seek justice. Wang Yi did talk about “humanity” and “international justice” at the emergency meeting of the Security Council, but sympathy and humanitarian principles do not typically motivate the regime. During the conflict in Syria, where about half a million civilians have died, China supported the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad and, along with Russia, vetoed UN aid to Syria when the Assad regime could not control it.
Beijing appears to have used its presidency of the Security Council to divert attention from the Chinese Communist Party’s policies in Xinjiang, which increasingly more governments have concluded amounts to genocide. However, given that most Arab Muslim states have remained silent about Xinjiang, China has no need for damage control among them. Indeed, China has allied with the Islamic Republic of Iran despite Beijing’s unprecedented repression of its own Islamic citizens. For these Muslim states, water is thicker than blood.
During its UNSC presidency, China made addressing tensions in the Middle East a top priority and suggested that China’s engagement would not end with its presidential term, alluding to a long-term strategy. Wang Yi said that China “will continue to step up our efforts to pursue peace and promote talks,” offering a negotiating table for direct talks between the two sides in China. The approach seems to run counter to China’s traditional approach, which has been to focus on developing its economic influence in the Middle East rather than becoming a “security provider” for the region. The traditional strategy extended China no further than working with the international community to help Palestinians and Israelis reach consensus, while avoiding direct involvement in mediation, as the United States has done. China followed this approach because it lacked the strength to intervene directly in Palestinian-Israeli affairs and because Beijing understood the risks of offending one or even both sides, and of failing to resolve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. Thus, while Beijing supported the Palestinians, it maintained friendly relations with Israel and did not want to intervene too much or damage its relationship with either side.
But a newly confident China now evidently seeks to demonstrate its leadership ability by resolving complex international disputes and conflicts. China is generally considered to be the second most powerful country in the world after the US, so remaining on the sidelines on difficult international issues without trying to resolve them will make the international community, and especially developing countries that want to rely on China, question Beijing’s leadership. China sees taking more responsibility for conflict resolution as a path toward international prestige and respect. As a result, Beijing has increased its involvement in regional and global hotspots. For example, after the military coup in Burma, Beijing actively intervened to find a solution. Beijing wants to show the world that, unlike the US mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—which it claims deviates from justice and unconditionally favors Israel—its approach is based on UN resolutions; stands for peace, justice, and historical correctness; and practices what Wang Yi called “true multilateralism.” Thus, China highlights the difference between its handling of international issues and the US and competes with Washington for global leadership.
Aside from these putatively altruistic motives, Beijing’s other, and not overtly stated, purpose is to use the Palestinian-Israeli crisis to plow deeper into the Middle East and safeguard China’s vital interests, including energy security and promoting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). If Beijing’s interest in the Middle East had been mainly economic, now its leaders want to show Beijing’s political influence through the Israeli-Palestinian crisis to consolidate and expand China’s presence. Behind the manifestation of political influence are its economic interests.
Understanding this point requires looking beyond the Middle East to a broader perspective, namely the geopolitical relations of Asia and Europe. Considering China’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the context of Wang Yi’s March trip to six Middle Eastern countries, the 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement between China and Iran, and Wang Yi’s statement that various Afghan factions could send members to Beijing for dialogue, Beijing’s desire to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an isolated idea. It shows that China’s Middle Eastern ambitions are an important part of its overall Asia-Europe strategy.
Projecting Power from Heartland to World Island
About 100 years ago, British geo-strategist Sir Halford Mackinder proposed the “world island” and “heartland” theory, which classified world powers into land and sea powers. Dutch-American Nicholas Spykman, a founder of the realist school of international relations, later put forward the “fringe theory,” which argued that whoever unified or integrated the fringes of the eastern and western ends of Eurasia could become a world power on the Eurasian continent, and eventually challenge the United States.
In terms of these theories, China is a land power state, while the United States is a sea power state. History points to the victory of sea power states over land power states, as sea power is more conducive to promoting trade and technological development than land transportation. The United States, with its maritime advantage, has mastered the world’s chokepoints, canals, and routes, and thus its economic and security lifelines. But the prerequisite for the victory of sea power is that sea trade is more developed than land trade. With the development of technology, today’s land-based rail transport is superior to sea transport in terms of speed, capacity. and cost, which makes it possible for the economic center to return to land-based powers, and for Asia and Europe to truly become a world island, like America.
When Mackinder proposed the world island theory, railroads had already developed greatly in Western Europe, so he believed that when Eurasia was covered by a dense railroad network, it would be connected into one whole. If a strong continental country dominated the heartland at this time, it would dominate Eurasia, and thus the world. But Central Asia and the Middle East are still relatively undeveloped; efficient railroads are few. But with rail transport equal to or superior to sea transport, Eurasia can be made whole.
The Russian Eurasianism movement, which has strong fascist tendencies, has long dreamed of uniting Asia and Europe ideologically; China’s approach to domination is economic. At the eastern periphery of Spykman’s Eurasia, China could combine land and sea power to build the main center of world power if it could get its hands on the “world island.” In the past, China was unable to do this because of poverty, but now it is feasible. China’s Belt and Road Initiative aims to link China and Europe and to allow Chinese goods to flow through the European continent. Today China and Europe are each other’s first and second-largest trading partners. If China controls the world island through trade and economic power, it will threaten the global interests of the United States.
When implementing this geostrategy, China’s weak link is the Middle East, which has long been in turmoil, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been seen as the key node in the Middle East. If the region cannot become peaceful, it threatens the connection between China and Europe. Then Asia and Europe cannot be connected as a whole, and China cannot gain control of the world island.
China believes that if it can mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its reputation in Muslim-majority countries will improve. Even if the mediation is not successful, China’s efforts to provide “justice” for Palestine will bring support for the BRI and guarantee China’s energy security, the thinking goes. But this approach may well be antiquated. As demonstrated by the Abraham Accords negotiated by the Trump administration, Arab states are forging peace with Israel, bypassing the conflict with the Palestinians, and establishing mutually beneficial diplomatic and economic relations. The Middle East may indeed be more hospitable to China’s transportation network and global domination dreams, thanks to America’s peacemaking efforts.
Peace in the Middle East does not depend on ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although China could contribute by encouraging Iran to stop providing missiles to terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But if China wants to help bring peace and stability to the region, there are many ways it could do so. It could ensure more humanitarian aid reaches displaced and starving Syrians and Yemenis. More broadly, it could promote civil and political rights for citizens of its authoritarian friends. If China wants to be a hero in the eyes of the world, it could stand for liberty, at home and abroad. That would be more effective than cynical peacemaker grandstanding.
on June 10, 2021