China and the Palestine Question

China and the Palestine Question
From Revolutionary Solidarity to Rhetorical Support

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Mahmoud Abbas - Xi Jinping meeting in China

 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (5 R) meets with President of China Xi Jinping (5 L) during his official visit in Beijing.

18 July 2017
Palestinian Presidency / Handout

Sino–Palestinian relations have undergone various shifts since their establishment in the 1960s. Initially, China aligned itself closely with the Palestinian cause but distanced itself in the 1970s and then realigned itself in the 1980s and 1990s. However, that alignment has been largely rhetorical; China has provided little practical support for Palestinian objectives, for reasons that include China’s wider regional and global concerns, its growing ties with Israel, and the decline of the Oslo process.

China’s Position during the Mandate and until the Establishment of the PLO

China's engagement with Palestine and the Palestinian issue began in the first half of the twentieth century with broad sympathy for the Zionist project. The Jewish community in China, although small, were enthusiastic Zionists and provided donations and investments to help construct a national home in Palestine. The Nationalist regime provided further backing, through diplomatic support for the Balfour Declaration. Underpinning this position were comparisons made by Chinese intellectuals between the persecution faced by Jews in Europe and persecution of the Chinese under Japanese rule. By contrast, Chinese knowledge about and response toward the wider issues at stake, including intercommunal rivalry and conflict in the 1920s and 1930s, was somewhat thinner and viewed largely through the lens of great power dynamics and its impact on British rule.

While the Nationalists abstained on the UN votes that led to Israel’s creation, they did recognize Israel and authorized an Israeli consulate. After the communist victory in October 1949 and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Israel’s attempts to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing were rebuffed. Beijing framed its approach toward the Arab–Israeli conflict through its wider engagement with the Arab world, most particularly with nationalist, “Arab socialist” regimes like the Baathists and in Iraq and Syria and Gamal Nasser in Egypt (who claimed to speak on the Palestinians’ behalf).

China’s Limited Assistance to the PLO in the 1960s and early 1970s

The formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964 marked a more direct relationship between China and the Palestinians. The PLO leader, Ahmad al-Shuqairi, visited Beijing in 1965. China became the first non-Arab state to recognize the PLO, but it was more cautious to Shuqairi’s request to provide it with material support. Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was worried about the PLO's lack of territory where it could receive material and undertake training; he was also concerned about host Arab governments’ support for such aid.

The 1967 Arab–Israeli war had a significant impact on China's approach to the conflict and the Palestinians. Beijing was not a member of the United Nations at the time and it condemned Resolution 242, which enshrined the principle of land for peace. For Beijing, the resolution did little more than establish a state of “no war, no peace” while benefiting only the superpowers.

Within the region, the 1967 war weakened Arab leaders like Nasser and increased the space for more autonomous Palestinian entities like Fatah to operate. Fatah’s use of insurgency and cross-border raids from Jordan resonated in Beijing, whose leadership saw parallels with their own past guerrilla struggle against the Nationalists in the 1940s. Beijing became more receptive to PLO requests for assistance, and between the late 1960s and mid–1970s China provided around $5 million in military and financial aid—an important but not sufficient contribution.

During this period, China’s principal contacts with the PLO was the Fatah leadership. This reflected both Fatah’s dominant position within the PLO, following its takeover of the organization in 1969, and China’s often-stated principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its partners. Consequently, Beijing gave minimal attention to other more Marxist-oriented Palestinian factions like the DFLP and the PFLP.

China’s Shift to Diplomacy in the 1970s and 1980s

During the 1970s, China's support for the PLO declined. The Soviet Union remained the principal communist power and therefore a greater priority for nationalist liberation movements like the PLO. Additionally, China's détente with the United States (partly to marginalize the Soviet Union) and its membership in the United Nations and permanent seat on the Security Council prompted a re-evaluation of priorities. China moved away from support for militant groups like the Eritrean Liberation Front, the Dhofaris in the Gulf, and the PLO in favor of more diplomatic relations with states in the region. China’s more moderate course contrasted with Yasir Arafat’s more belligerent statements at the UN and the use of violence by some Palestinian groups at the time.

China’s response to peace initiatives was mixed. It welcomed Sadat’s eviction of Soviet advisers from Egypt in 1972 and supported his visit to Jerusalem in 1977. But it took note of Arab anger to the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt and criticized Sadat accordingly while encouraging Arab states to work together. At the same time, China welcomed the effect that Camp David had in diminishing Soviet influence. Meanwhile, on the Palestinian front, the PLO office in Beijing was upgraded to an embassy in 1974 and in 1975 China voted for UN General Assembly Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism. Both actions must be set within the context of the Cold War and China’s rivalry with both the United States and Soviet Union; giving the PLO greater acknowledgment may have been a way of countering the influence of the two superpowers.

In the 1980s, the PLO moved away from the armed struggle and toward a negotiated peace settlement, represented in its 1988 Algiers Declaration. China promoted the Palestinian cause internationally and urged the Reagan administration to open talks with the PLO. Beijing also proposed a UN-sponsored international conference to resolve the differences between Israel and the Arabs in 1984 and again in 1989.

China’s Ties with Israel and Support for the Oslo Accords

China began to develop ties with Israel in the 1980s. They were initially transactional and based on an arms trade in which Israel supplied China with Soviet-made military equipment it had acquired through its wars with Arab armies. Further contact followed, through the establishment of an Israeli consulate in Hong Kong in 1985 and meetings between the two countries’ leaders at the margins of the UN in 1987. In 1991 China abstained on UN General Assembly Resolution 46/86 which overturned Resolution 3379, enabling it to open full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. China was now able to participate in several multilateral working groups associated with the UN-sponsored peace process which followed the Madrid Conference in 1991.

China also reversed its position on Resolution 242 and its successor, Resolution 378. China’s acceptance of the two resolutions made it easier for Beijing to support the Oslo Accords which were signed by Israel and the PLO in September 1993. Along with other states, Oslo became the international community’s point of reference for responding to and resolving the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. However, Oslo has effectively disconnected many states’ understanding and engagement with Israel and the Palestinians from the conflict. It has provided space for China to build bilateral political and economic relations with the two sides that are not bound by its position over the conflict. In practice, this has meant that China’s relations with Israel have flourished relative to Sino-Palestinian ties.

For Israel, economic exchange has surged with China since the 1990s. US concern at China’s rise and potential threat prompted it to dissuade Israel from arms sales to Beijing. While trade in arms had all but disappeared by the 2000s, American concerns persisted even as the nature of Sino–Israeli trade diversified into other sectors. This was largely due to growing Chinese interest and investment in Israel’s hi-tech sector, which can potentially be used for dual civilian and military use. So concerned was Washington at this development that further pressure led to Israel introducing oversight mechanisms to ensure national security was protected in 2019.

Notwithstanding such complications within the Sino–Israeli relationship, the broadening and deepening of relations over the past two decades far surpassed China’s relations with the Palestinians. Economically, trade and investment are magnitudes of order smaller than that between China and Israel. Politically, China remains sympathetic to Palestinian interests but has done little to support them in practice. This was evident when the Oslo process eventually collapsed and the Second Intifada began. China expressed concern over Israel's use of force but also criticized Palestinian suicide bombings. China’s solution was for both parties to cease violence and return to negotiations.

A Hesitant Foreign Policy in the Early 2000s

China’s hands-off approach was similarly apparent when the UN, US, EU, and Russia announced a Quartet in 2002 to coordinate international activity. China did not seek membership but instead announced its own Middle East envoy. But the position was largely symbolic, with the envoys being based in Beijing and making only periodic visits to the region to meet with state-level representatives on the Israeli and Palestinian sides.

As in the earlier period, China’s relations with the Palestinians were largely dominated by its exchanges with the PLO/Fatah leadership and figures like Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, who also doubled as leaders of the PA. That arrangement was briefly challenged when the Islamist party, Hamas, abandoned its opposition to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and won the 2006 elections to form a government. Although the Chinese leadership had reservations about political Islam and had adopted a tight and repressive response toward Muslims at home, including in the predominately Uyghur population in Xinjiang, it sought to separate those concerns from its regional relations in the Middle East. In contrast to the Western countries, which proscribed Hamas and imposed a boycott of the PA under its control, Beijing claimed that Hamas had a mandate and public support and hosted the new Hamas foreign minister, Mahmoud al-Zahar, at the China–Arab Cooperation Forum that year. Israel, however, protested the move; China’s ambassador was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be told that the move threatened to grant Hamas legitimacy and harm China’s relations with Israel and its position as a “responsible actor” in the Middle East. The strength of the Israeli rebuke was sufficient for China to step back from any further involvement with Hamas, reverting to its prior prioritization of the Fatah leadership. This has largely remained the case, even as the occupied territory was split by the fighting between Fatah and Hamas, leading to Fatah control of the West Bank and Hamas control of Gaza in 2007.

China’s limited contact with other Palestinian groups has also been evident in its nonrecognition of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Although the BDS is among the largest and most representative Palestinian movements, it has found difficulty working with and in China. This is partly due to its mode of action, which is to build transnational ties with like-minded groups and with organizations and movements in other countries’ civil societies, but it is also because the Chinese party-state is wary and suspicious of civil society autonomy at home.

Since the 2010s China has become a global power. Xi Jinping became president in 2012 and had adopted a more robust foreign policy. For the Palestinians, that position has remained modest. China did vote with the majority of states at the UN and against Israel to grant Palestine non-member observer state status in 2012, and Xi proposed a Four Point Plan in 2013 which reiterated support for an independent Palestinian state and its co-existence with Israel, with negotiations as the basis to achieve these goals and achieve peace. Despite these moves, however, neither Xi nor other Chinese officials made any moves to restart the peace process. Instead, the plan was superseded by the US Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy in 2013–14.

China’s limited approach has been similarly evident in multilateral forums like the BRICS. China and the other BRICS countries have regularly expressed their support for the two-state solution and criticized Israel for its occupation and settlement building on occupied territory in their annual summit declarations. However, they have not backed up those statements with any collective actions against Israel or in support of the Palestinians.

That reticence was on show during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Again, Beijing condemned Israeli violence but took no action to stop it. However, one notable event was China’s brief reopening of direct communication with Hamas. The special envoy, Wu Sike, met party leader Khalid Mishal in Doha in a bid to secure a ceasefire, but ultimately it was Egyptian efforts rather than Chinese that delivered one.

In 2017 President Abbas visited Beijing. The Chinese leadership revised its Four Point Plan to incorporate reference to the Belt and Road Initiative, a vision to build connectivity across the Eurasian landmass and which had become a prominent feature of Chinese foreign policy. More substantively, Xi proposed to host a seminar to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to find a way forward in the peace process. The two-day “peace symposium” between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations took place in December. However, the Chinese were unable to get the two sides to commit to anything more than a nonbinding resolution which restated many of the principal features of the Oslo process.

China’s Criticism of Trump Administration Initiatives

In 2019–20, the US Trump administration presented its two-part vision for resolving the conflict with its Deal of the Century. China criticized the Trump plan for its perceived bias toward Israel and for bypassing Palestinian aspirations, stressing that any two-state solution needed to be based on the principle of land for peace. China’s stance was welcomed by the Palestinians, who had been one of the 54 signatories to a letter addressed to the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights endorsing China’s “counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures” in Xinjiang in 2019. The letter was a counterweight to an earlier letter which had condemned Beijing. The Palestinians’ reasoning may have been similar to other countries in the Middle East, which were motivated less by concern for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang than about their own self-interest, both in terms of regime survival and economic and development prospects from China.

The Trump initiative was soon overshadowed by the Abraham Accords, which were signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan in August and September 2020. The accords subverted prior assumptions that normalization between Israel and the Arab world would only come about if Israel first resolved its conflict with the Palestinians. China’s initial response, meanwhile, was cautious: it cared less about the accords’ implications for the Palestinians than it feared its potential effect at the regional level, in particular whether Israel and the UAE might use their mutual antipathy toward Iran to destabilize it. If they did, that could have repercussions for substantial Chinese economic interests in the Gulf.

A Hands Off Approach

The secondary consideration of Palestinian interests is also tangibly reflected in China’s piecemeal assistance. Between 2008 and 2022, for instance, China has only provided a modest amount of humanitarian assistance, totaling $11.28 million. Meanwhile China received substantial media attention for its position during the violence between Israel and Palestinians during May–June 2021. However, much of the explanation could be explained away as being mainly procedural, since China occupied the presidency of the UN Security Council at the time.

China’s offer to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians in April 2023 may also be seen as more rhetorical than practical. Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s proposal followed China’s recent hosting of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, where the two announced they would restart diplomatic relations. While the agreement prompted discussion as to whether China was about to become a regional peacemaker, it overlooked the fact that the Iran–Saudi dialogue had been made possible by two years of prior dialogue sponsored by other Arab states. By contrast, there has to date been no prior dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians or subsequent efforts by China to instigate them.

Overall, Sino–Palestinian relations have ebbed and flowed. They have been strongly influenced by Beijing’s shifting priorities and rivalries beyond the Palestinians and their conflict with Israel, to include other regional and global considerations, from the Soviet Union in the past to its relations with the United States, Israel, and countries in the Gulf.

Because of this, the Palestinians do not occupy a central space in Beijing’s calculations in the region. Indeed, whereas Sino–Israeli ties have grown substantially since the 1980s, relations with the Palestinians have remained more partial and secondary. Certainly, the Chinese leadership has long been sympathetic to Palestinian interests over the years and expresses that position regularly, through including support for the two-state solution and calls for an end to Israeli settlement construction, but it has made little effort to back those words up with action. Chinese support for the Palestinians is largely superficial and limited, and this does not seem likely to change in the near future.

Selected Bibliography: 

Behbehani, Hashim. China’s Foreign Policy in the Arab World, 1955–75: Three Case Studies. London: Keegan Paul International, 1981.

Burton, Guy. “China and the Palestinian–Israeli Conflict.” In Jonathan Fulton, ed., The Routledge Handbook on China–Middle East Relations. Abingdon: Routledge, 2021.

Cooley, John. “China and the Palestinians.” Journal of Palestine Studies 1, no.2 (1972): 19–34.

Craig Harris, Lillian. “China’s Relations with the PLO.” Journal of Palestine Studies 7, no.11 (1977): 123–54.

Craig Harris, Lillian. “Myth and Reality in China’s Relationship with the Middle East.” In Thomas Robinson and David Shambaugh, eds., Chinese Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Israeli, Raphael. “The People’s Republic of China and the PLO: From Honeymoon to Conjugal Routine.” In Augustus Richard Norton and Martin Greenberg, eds., The International Relations of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

Olimat, Muhammad. China and the Middle East since World War II: A Bilateral Approach. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014.