For 50 years, the US superpower has backed Israel against the Palestinians. Now another global power – China – is cautiously getting involved. What will that mean?

China’s President Xi Jin Ping met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when they were both in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in early December for a China-Arab summit. China has diplomatic relations with both Israel and Palestine and it backs a 2 state solution. But it has recently become more openly supportive of the national aspirations of the Palestinian people and critical of some of Israel’s actions. This must be unsettling for Israel’s American patron. Read more.

The idea of China and Palestine signing a “free trade agreement” seems ridiculous from an economic point of view. The Chinese GDP (18 trillion US dollars) is more than 1000 times greater than the Palestinian economy. Trade between the two is minuscule. But the declaration by the two leaders of their intention to sign a free trade agreement as well as a few other cooperation agreements is rich in symbolism.

“No matter how the international and regional situation changes, China always firmly supports the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore the legitimate rights and interests of their nation, and always stands with the Palestinian people.”

Chinese President Xi Jin Ping, Riyad Saudi Arabia, December 9th, 2022

For some time China has been indicating to the world, to the Palestinians, to the Israelis and especially to the Americans, that as a global power, it is serious about taking on responsibilities in the middle east.

One manifestation of this was an audacious offer China made in May 2021 in the midst of Israel’s assault on Gaza. During a virtual meeting of the 15-member UN Security Council, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered to host direct “face to face” meetings between Palestinians and Israel, in Beijing.

He called for an immediate ceasefire between the two sides and for Israel to lift its blockade and siege of Gaza as soon as possible. He also took aim at the US, urging it to “to stop “obstructing” the UN Security Council from taking action on the conflict. He was strongly critical of the Jewish state saying Israel needed to “stop expelling Palestinians from their homes, to stop violence and threats against Muslims, and to respect the status quo of religious sites in Jerusalem.”

The Chinese offer was ignored by Israel and the USA, and was not even mentioned in the western media.

“Over the past two decades, China has assumed a more active role in shaping the outcome of conflicts in the Middle East, notes Jesse Marks of the Middle East Institute. “China has exhibited a degree of flexibility regarding its policy of non-interference in internal affairs, exemplified through a broader series of mediatory efforts in civil wars in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), he continues.

A bit of China/Palestine History

The newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC) recognized the State of Israel in 1949, but during the 1950s and 1960s, the PRC began to support the Arabs and Palestinians in their claims.

The PRC strongly supported Yasser Arafat and even provided military training to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which established a diplomatic office in China in May 1965. After the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, the PRC cut off support for Palestinian military groups and supported the idea of peace negotiations.

In November 15, 1988, the PRC recognized the Palestinian Declaration of Independence despite objections by both Israel and the United States and recognised the new State of Palestine on 20 November 1988. The two established full diplomatic relations by the end of 1989.

Since 1994, China has had an office Office of the People’s Republic of China to the State of Palestine, in Ramallah. The director of the office is accorded ambassadorial ranks in the Chinese foreign service.

Evenhanded… but leaning to one side

Conflicting pressures…

The current Chinese position appears to try to be “even handed” between Israel and Palestine. It recognizes both states and has trading relations with both.

In the 2010’s Prime Minister Netanyahu began to approach China. A few investments followed, including a controversial Chinese investment in the Port of Haifa. But those initiatives were looked on unfavourably in Washington, leaving Netanyahu with a dilemma, according to Ha’aretz.

China appears willing to make trade and investment deals with Israel. It has made trade and investment deals with many MENA nations – particularly looking for natural resources. Maybe it’s interested in the natural gas deposits off of Gaza’s coast.

But at the same time, China continues to criticize Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians, demanding it recognize the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people.

“The international community should prioritize the Palestinian issue on the international agenda, keep to the direction of the two-state solution and facilitate resumption of peace talks on the basis of relevant UN resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative”, said Xi at his meeting with Abbas in December.

“Israel should stop worsening the Palestinian issue with its provocation” – Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang

Since the election of the most right wing and racist government in Israel’s history last November, China has become even more outspoken.

“Israel should stop all incitement and provocation and avoid any unilateral actions that might lead to aggravation of the situation, said Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang at a joint press briefing in Cairo with Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry on January 16.


China’s growing involvement in the Middle East is a reflection of China’s growing economic and political influence around the globe.

That must be making both Israel and the Americans nervous.

For more than 50 years Israel/Palestinian negotiations have been held under the auspices of the United States which has a clear interest in supporting and protecting Israel as a key ally in the region. Few believe that the US could be, or even wants to be, a “neutral” mediator in the conflict. Some have even described the US as “Israel’s lawyer”.

The entry of a significant new global player, especially one with a history of support for anticolonial movements, is bound to change the situation significantly in the coming period.

Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

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  1. I was surpised to learn from your comment, Peter, that “the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC) recognized the State of Israel in 1949”. It prompted a Google search whch showed that it was acrually Chiang’s failing ROC regime which recognized Israel shortly before the Chinese Revolution under Mao gained power. Israel then became the first Middle Eastern country to recognize the PRC in 1950. It wasn’t until 1992 that China formally established diplomatic relations with Israel, although by that time it was firmly in support of the Palestinian cause.

  2. It’s about time for world to step in and help Palestine 🇵🇸.& it’s people however nothing will come of it as Israeli will stop at all cost anything coming in to Palestine even in form of aid..

  3. Sounds like China has finally stepped up and decided it too is a legitimate world power with the ability to tell the world what it likes and doesn’t like. Canada ought to take a bow for encouraging that given our increasingly subservient appreciation of our neighbours to our south under our leadership. Will Biden or Trudeau be the first to heap rhetorical hell on China for taking a stand with the Palestinians?

  4. What guides the Chinese foreign relations is mostly what’s good for China.
    In the decades that preceded 1948 China couldn’t do business with both Israel and the Arab world, so it preferred the later

    After the normalization that came 30 years ago, China became an enthusiastic trade partner of Israel. Most of the major infrastructure projects in Israel, the TLV subway, the Carmel tunnels, the Haifa port were all built by Chinese companies

    China also have a thirst for Israeli tech. As an Israeli working in China for a Chinese company I was surprised by how positively most Chinese view Israel

    I do believe that China will play a bigger role in the future world order, I’m just not convinced that it’s going to benefit the Palestinians

    1. Hey Ahik,
      thanks for your comment. I agree. China will do what it thinks is in China’s interest. It won’t embrace “causes” just because it thinks they are justified. We will see what China’s interest will be.

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