China's UN call for end to Palestinian-Israeli conflict reflects recent diplomatic success

Beijing's wish to play a bigger role in Middle East politics faces challenge from traditional US monopoly

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi addresses a high-level UN Security Council meeting on the conflict between Israel and Hamas in New York. EPA
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In a bid to build on its recent diplomatic successes in the Middle East, China has called on the UN Security Council to come up with a timetable and road map for a two-state solution that would lead to a “comprehensive, just and lasting” settlement of the Palestinian issue.

Earlier this year, China persuaded rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran to normalise relations after years of tension, a feat that signalled Beijing's emergence as a potential diplomatic powerhouse with broad economic interests it is eager to protect and expand.

“China has for years been keen to translate its economic might into political power on an international level,” said Hasan Al Momani, director of the international relations and regional studies department at the University of Jordan.

Beijing's stepped-up diplomatic efforts to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict come at a time when the US is perceived across much of the Arab world to be blatantly biased in favour of Israel – its closest Middle East ally – refusing to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and aiding its military operations in Gaza.

It appears to be also designed to fill the vacuum created by Washington, which has for the last several years sought to disengage from Middle East politics, showing little or no interest in actively pursuing a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

To many, Washington also appears to lack a well-defined Middle East policy.

China’s proposal to end the conflict was laid out in a paper released by the Chinese Foreign Ministry as Beijing took over the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council.

The 15-member council needs to intensify diplomatic mediation, relaunch the two-state solution and convene a “more authoritative and effective” international peace conference as soon as possible, the paper said.

It urged the council to heed the general call of the international community for a “comprehensive ceasefire” to stop the fighting in Gaza, where more than 15,000 Palestinians have been killed in seven weeks of relentless Israeli bombardment triggered by a deadly rampage in southern Israel on October 7 by Hamas militants who killed 1,200 people and took 240 hostages.

China’s interest in assuming a more active diplomatic role in the Middle East did not happen overnight, according to Ali Al Garroush, director of Arab affairs at the Cairo-based Arab League.

He said Beijing appointed a Middle East envoy as far back as 2002 and called for an international peace conference to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in September this year.

Encouraged by its success in mediating the Saudi-Iranian deal in March, he explained, China has stepped up its diplomatic contacts to stop the Gaza war.

It aims to be seen as a peacemaker and has been urging both sides to exercise restraint, welcoming the truce that has been in force since November 24.

“Aspiring for a role as a mediator offers China an opportunity to show itself as a global power willing to contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East,” Mr Al Garroush told The National.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who led a high-level Security Council meeting on the Gaza conflict on Wednesday in New York, called for a lasting truce in the battered Gaza Strip and warned against the conflict spilling over into the wider region.

“Peace cannot be limited and the ceasefire cannot have an expiration date,” China's official Xinhua news agency quoted Mr Wang as saying.

“Once the window of opportunity is open, it should not be closed, and once the fire has been extinguished, it cannot be rekindled.”

However, China will face great difficulty in attempting to take up the peacemaking role traditionally played by the US in the region.

Washington’s strong ties and generous aid to Israel make it the only outside party with enough leverage to influence its policies.

“China has been driven to become more engaged, which is very important, especially in the context of a postwar Gaza,” said Prof Al Momani of the University of Jordan.

“But at the end of the day there is a western, especially American monopoly of the political and diplomatic efforts to end the Gaza war.”

Still, an active Chinese Middle East role offers the Palestinians an extra source of support for their aspiration for an independent state of their own in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The room of manoeuvre for the Palestinians may be broadening,” Hazem Ayyad, a Jordanian researcher specialising in Palestinian affairs, told The National.

“China is free of the sensitivities the United States and Europe have toward Hamas. Of course, China has its own interests but sometimes they intersect with Palestinian interests.”

Updated: November 30, 2023, 5:59 PM