For those accustomed to the themes of Sino-Arab diplomacy, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on January 21 was predictable enough. It might not have attracted much attention at all if not for Xi’s statement that “China firmly supports the Middle East peace process and supports the establishment of a State of Palestine enjoying full sovereignty on the basis of the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
This unequivocal position on East Jerusalem—at odds with the Israeli government’s insistence that Jerusalem is the “eternal and undivided” capital of Israel and with the US willingness to put Jerusalem’s status up for negotiation—was accorded considerable coverage in the Israeli press. In Arab social media, meanwhile, President Xi’s words met with some surprise as they appeared to indicate a shift in China’s position toward avid support for Palestine. Few noted, however, that the Chinese stance on this issue had already been spelled out in the “Arab white paper” issued on January 13, a week before Xi left on the tour of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran during which he gave his speech.
Unacknowledged, moreover, is the fact that this posture has been the de facto official position of the Chinese government for the last two decades or so, although it has only become truly evident over the last few years. Arguably, the emergence of this view can be traced to changes in the conceptualization of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as early as the 1970s. During the Cultural Revolution, Beijing supported Palestinian independence in all of historical Palestine. An interesting piece of propaganda from 1971, entitled “The Palestinian People Must Triumph,” captures this sentiment, depicting Israel as a “dagger” thrust into the heart of the Arab nation. This revolutionary Maoist solidarity was gradually shelved in favor of a discourse of peaceful resolution of the conflict that would accommodate some Israeli demands. This development was largely informed by China’s détente with the United States and the West after 1971, which included burgeoning, if covert, arms deals with Israel, as well as the perceived need for a peaceful international environment for the purpose of Chinese economic development.
This shift did not mean that the Palestinians were left by the wayside. The PLO continued to be identified in the Chinese political lexicon as “old friends” (lao pengyou), and its political initiatives regularly gained support from Beijing, as the prompt Chinese recognition of Palestinian statehood following the PLO’s declaration of same in 1988 suggests. Underlying this support was a lingering solidarity with the Palestinians (which continues to manifest itself in some circles of the Chinese political establishment), as well as more instrumental calculations that saw Chinese backing for Palestine as necessary for the maintenance of strong ties with the Arab world. Indeed, up to the present, China continues to leverage its legacy of support for the Palestinian struggle (balesitan douzheng) in its diplomatic engagement with the region. Every November, for instance, a reception for the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People is held in Beijing. During the 2014 iteration, President Xi “sent a congratulations letter…a rare show of China’s increased attention to the Palestinian cause,” and as Chen Yiyi notes, “a sign no Arab country in the Middle East would miss.”
The trend toward Beijing’s embrace of the emerging global consensus behind a two-state solution continued with the establishment of formal diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992 and the 1993 Oslo accords (pursued by the “old friends” themselves). In official pronouncements, the Chinese government emphasized that Jerusalem’s status was one issue among others to be resolved by talks between the two sides. The 2000s saw the evolution of a more pronounced Chinese support for East Jerusalem’s designation as the Palestinian capital. Such a view, from the Chinese perspective, was embedded in the “land for peace” principles drawing upon UN Resolution 242, the Arab peace plan announced in 2002 and reiterated in 2007, and the “road map” to a two-state solution proposed by President George W. Bush in 2002.
More critical to the evolution, however, has been China’s declining ability to maintain its traditional ambiguity regarding the specifics of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved. The changing discourse about China’s global role, as well its increasing trade with the Arab world ($132 billion by 2010) and tighter relationship with Israel, were suggestive of various tensions and contradictions that at some point would force China’s hand.
These tensions became obvious during the Fourth Ministerial China-Arab States Cooperation Forum held in Tianjin, China in 2010. A disagreement erupted between Arab and Chinese officials over a resolution affirming East Jerusalem’s status as the capital of Palestine. At the last minute, the Chinese side resisted signing the statement—and it is unclear why. Some speculated that the move was driven by a preoccupation with Iran in Sino-Arab discussions over the preceding years that had effectively sidelined the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This interpretation is unlikely: China has appointed three successive “special peace envoys”—Wang Shijie (2002-2006), Sun Bigan (2006-2009) and Wu Sike (2009-present), and been vocal in its support for the peace process sponsored by the Quartet of the US, UN, European Union and Russia. Rather, it is probable that China’s stronger ties with Israel, and sustained pro-Israel advocacy targeting Chinese academic and policymaking circles, were the important factors.
Over the last decade, as the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) has grown in the West, both the Israeli government and Jewish American advocacy groups have devoted more attention to capturing the narrative in China (deemed to be largely pro-Palestinian) and pursuing what can be understood as an “Asian option.” As a result, there is now perhaps greater sensitivity in Beijing to the Israeli stance that “Jerusalem is the eternal and undivided capital of Israel,” evincing the desire characteristic of Chinese diplomacy not to antagonize anyone. It is worth noting that in 2014 the Chinese Foreign Ministry published an official translation of The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West and the Future of the Holy City, by Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the UN and an adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, which argues for the above position. Interestingly, one source of mine, a Chinese scholar, suggests that recent complaints lodged by Arab officials have led to the suspension of this project.
Nonetheless, the collective Arab dismay at China’s refusal to sign the 2010 resolution highlighted to the Chinese government that it would need to articulate its policy on East Jerusalem to avoid hurting its political and economic projects in the Middle East. The calculus became clearer still with the ascension of Xi Jinping to the presidency in 2012. Xi has since made the One Road One Belt project—a complex of railways, pipelines, trade pacts and other links stretching from Southeast Asia to Europe through the Middle East—the centerpiece of his economic and geopolitical strategy. The economic schemes have their own rationale—independent of other aspects of Sino-Arab relations—but China recognizes that its soft power in the Middle East has suffered following the 2009 riots in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang province, where Muslim Uighurs are a substantial part of the population. Beijing probably felt, moreover, that asserting East Jerusalem’s status as future capital of Palestine did not constitute a major departure for Chinese diplomacy and its call for an equitable solution—it was already embedded in the various principles laid out above. Moreover, it would not hurt Sino-Israeli relations substantially (which, in any case, were held together by strong investment and technological linkages).
It is unclear whether the Chinese government eventually signed the resolution floated at the 2010 forum (its publication online suggests the answer is yes), but in any case the Fifth and Sixth Ministerials in 2012 and 2014 issued far more forceful resolutions asserting East Jerusalem’s status as the future capital of Palestine. At the latter meeting, in fact, President Xi previewed his comments at the Arab League, stating, “China supports an independent state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital on the basis of the 1967 border, and China hopes it enjoys full rights as a sovereign state.” The question of East Jerusalem has also become part of the Chinese peacemaking formula, as Xi’s “four-point plan,” revealed in 2013, indicates. Beijing has even criticized foreign political figures—such as Mitt Romney, during his presidential bid in 2012—who opted to ignore Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem.
In that sense, the stance outlined in the January 13 “Arab white paper” is nothing new, but rather a reflection of China’s more pronounced subscription to the global consensus on how to resolve the conflict, on the one hand, and its cost-benefit analysis of how to balance its relations with the various parties of the Middle East, on the other. China’s embrace of this particular stance on East Jerusalem was a product of a gradual—and, in some respects, inevitable—process spanning well over two decades where several factors have come to play. If anything, its late adoption in Chinese diplomatic language—and only within the framework of the global consensus and the principles accepted and voiced by the “moderate” Arab camp—is indicative of the country’s essentially conservative disposition when it comes to resolving sensitive and divisive international questions such as that of East Jerusalem’s status.