With an unpredictable celebrity running the White House, the Middle East will soon be dealt another wild card: China as a player in the Israel-Palestine peace talks. Like Donald Trump who started the 2016 US presidential race as a 100-to-1 dark horse, China’s potential role in the world’s most protracted territorial dispute has barely registered on the radar of most analysts.

The stars have been aligning for a new player since 2013 when newly installed President Xi Jinping first spoke of his grand vision that would make the Middle East more than just China’s main oil and gas supplier. Despite a still-evolving strategy, his ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative to revive and expand the old Silk Road into a giant economic corridor covering Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe has shown enough progress to be taken seriously. Perversely, Trump’s young Presidency, which has already spiced up Sino-US tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea, North Korea, and numerous trade and economic issues, will likely boost Xi’s involvement in the Middle East. Their different approaches to the war-torn region could open up opportunities for collaboration to help the Israel-Palestine peace process, said Assaf Orion, a senior research fellow and manager of the China Program at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

Conditions for peace

But the region must first have the “conditions for peace”, said the retired Brigadier General in an interview in his office. Orion last served as the head of strategic planning in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) before joining the INSS in 2015.

These “conditions” are currently lacking owing to doubts that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is strong enough to negotiate and implement the terms of any peace agreement. The PA is divided and beholden to powerful factions in the Arab world, including some that do not recognise Israel’s right to exist. The Arab world itself is weak and engrossed with infighting following the Arab Spring of 2010, the collapse of world oil prices in 2014 and the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS). More than weapons and another intifada, Palestine needs investment to grow its economy and provide employment for its mostly young population of 4.4 million living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Another source of unwanted distractions are international meetings such as the January 15 conference in Paris attended by representatives from some 70 countries, said Orion. Predictably, the large unwieldy group failed to produce any breakthrough, concluding with the standard exhortation for Israel and Palestine to live side by side under a two-state solution.

“The conference is all about trying to arrange for a better wedding in the hope that it will lead to a better marriage,” Orion said 10 days before it was held.

“The Middle East is broke and broken. What’s the use of another political convention?”

A region of broken economies

Orion said the region’s governments should instead focus their attention on repairing their “broken” economies, starting with the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed by years of conflict and neglect.

“We should start fixing things. We should fix Gaza, bring in capital, bring in labour, build roads, pipelines, power plants. Life will flow from there,” he said.

But who will risk investing in such a politically volatile and dangerous environment?

China’s entry at this crucial juncture has the potential to disrupt the region’s cycle of violence and give the region’s warring parties new direction. With little substantial involvement in the Middle East’s past conflicts, the Chinese cavalry is riding in with the unique advantage of having the trust and goodwill of the region’s main players in the Arab world, Iran, Palestine and Israel.

“It has little baggage in the region,” said Orion. China itself has expressed interest to take a bigger role in the dispute, with Xi himself unveiling his own four-point plan in 2013 to boost the peace process.

China backed the Palestinian cause almost as soon as it gained independence under Mao Zedong in 1949. An avowed supporter of liberation struggles against colonial rule, Mao’s China earned its pro-Arab credentials mostly on paper as it was too weak and poor to be a significant force in the region’s numerous conflicts. It helped that Mao, right through his death in 1976, was far more pre-occupied with revolution at home and exporting his brand of communism to nearby Asian countries.

Sino-Israel relations are more complicated as the Jewish state aligned with the West from the start while China sided with the Arab world. China’s support was most notably expressed in its denunciation of Israel’s policies at international forums. But, crucially, the two countries have not engaged in conflict with each other, and anti-Semitism is not a part of Chinese culture and history.

Also, China remembers Israel as the first Middle Eastern country and one of the first in the West to recognise its nationhood in 1950. Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who led a left-leaning government, expressed hopes of building relations with the world’s largest communist country even when circumstances kept them on opposite sides of the Cold War.

In today’s context, China’s historical lack of involvement and inexperience in the Middle East suddenly don’t look so disadvantageous.

“Their international politics are less about military forces and conflicts, and more about business. China’s forte and focus is economic growth. It’s exactly what’s needed here in the Middle East,” said Orion.

Nearly three years after the collapse of oil prices, the Islamic world’s cash-strapped mutually sworn enemies, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are both eagerly courting China for investment, and access to its energy markets, the largest in the world. Fed up with rising anti-Semitism in the US and Europe, Israel has begun its own pivot to Asia, with China and India foremost on its mind. In 2015, the three Middle Eastern states signed up with China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that the US regards as a challenger to the western-controlled World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia and most of the Middle East are also supporters of China’s OBOR strategy, sparking hopes that the promise of joint project building might help dampen the urge to go to war.

The Palestinian test

The Palestinian issue will provide a first major test of these hopes. On December 23 last year, the 15-member United Nations Security Council voted 14-0 to condemn Israel’s building of settlements on Palestinian territory as a “flagrant violation under international law”. The 14 who voted for Resolution 2334 included four of the council’s permanent members, China, the UK, Russia and France, and all of its 10 non-permanent members, Angola, Spain, Egypt, Japan, Ukraine, Uruguay, Senegal, New Zealand, Venezuela and Malaysia. The resolution passed after the council’s remaining permanent member, the United States, abstained and refused to use its veto to block the vote.

A furious and humiliated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also Israel’s Foreign Minister, vowed to retaliate against all 15 countries. On Christmas Day, Israel’s Foreign Ministry summoned and reprimanded the Chinese ambassador along with others for their governments’ vote. Netanyahu further threatened not to meet their leaders, including President Xi Jinping, UK’s Prime Minister Teresa May and Ukraine’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman.

His anger didn’t last amid criticisms both from within Israel and outside that he had clearly misread the world’s overwhelming opposition to further building of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. Netanyahu has since met up with UK’s May and has agreed to Groysman’s rescheduled visit to Israel.

Of greatest importance in the context of Israel’s rebalancing of global ties, Netanyahu has confirmed he will be in Beijing in March. He and Xi are expected to jointly headline the China-Israel Innovation Conference to celebrate 25 years of their countries’ diplomatic ties.

Given Israel’s urgency to catch up on lost time with Asia, the impact of Resolution 2334 on Sino-Israel relations “will be brief, if at all,” said Orion. Nothing to see here, he suggests, pointing out that the “Chinese record of voting in resolutions in the UN from Israel’s viewpoint, is pretty consistent.”

For China, these anti-Israel votes are a vital show of its traditional balancing act in the Middle East. But these votes have not stood in the way of booming Sino-Israel ties. Bilateral trade together with cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries have grown rapidly this year and are now at their strongest point ever.

Affirming this trend, exactly a month after the passage of Resolution 2334, senior officials from the two countries were toasting each other at events celebrating 25 years of bilateral ties.

Speaking at one of the events at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Hagai Shagrir, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Northeast Asia department, rattled off a list of bilateral achievements. Trade has grown from US$50 million in 1992, the year when diplomatic ties began, to over US$11 billion last year, making China Israel’s third largest trade partner. The two countries have begun free trade agreement talks that Shagrir believes will boost Israeli exports to China through the reduction of trade barriers and regulations.

“Chinese investments in Israel keep surging. We estimate that about a third of foreign investments in Israeli hi-tech sector comes from mainland China and Hong Kong,” he replied in an email interview.

“Chinese infrastructure companies take part in public infrastructure projects such as Carmel tunnels, the tunneling work of Ako-Carmiel train, Tel-Aviv light railway, Ashdod private port etc.”

China’s Ambassador to Israel, Zhan Yongxin, went beyond exulting state relations and business ties in referring to “more than 1,000 years of exchanges” between the Chinese and Jewish peoples that included mutual support and assistance during “the darkest days of WWII.”

Of the future, he spoke of “expanding exchanges and cooperation, and growing mutual understanding and friendship between our two peoples”.

Orion said the Palestinian economy will benefit from an injection of Chinese investments and infrastructure building.

“Better yet, create a combined, integrated economy with Israel. What we need is to see two people living and working together side by side,” he said. The two-state solution is impossible unless Palestine has strong political institutions and a stable growing economy.

“Israel wants a reliable partner on the Palestinian side,” said Orion, alluding to China. “This is unchartered territory and it holds untapped potential.”

The Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator, Saeb Erikat, seems to agree. In an  interview with Chinese news agency Xinhua, he described China as a country with “remarkable political weight that has always supported the Palestinian legal rights.”

Such sentiments along with the growing Chinese presence in the region will fuel hopes for a possible breakthrough in the search for peace between Israel and Palestine, and its Arab backers.

China’s quagmire?

Stripped of the feel-good spin that the entire Middle East welcomes China, Xi Jinping is aware his government faces enormous risks as it deepens engagement with the region. China’s avowed balancing act and willingness to “splash the cash” are no guarantee that it will remain popular with everyone or that its OBOR vision will succeed.

Indeed, China is still counting the massive financial and strategic losses incurred by Xi’s predecessor who launched into the Middle East and North Africa without fully understanding the regions’ murky politics. This includes the rush to invest in Libya before the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, paying too much for stakes in Iraq’s oilfields prior to the global oil price collapse and ISIS’s emergence, and making elaborate plans to turn Bashar Assad’s Syria into a regional hub for Chinese influence before the country’s disintegration into civil war. China must now weigh the cost of helping its long-time ally, Iran, rebuild its sanctions-hit economy against the possibility of provoking a collective backlash from Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West. Eventually, China must also decide if it wants to maintain ties with Hamas and Hezbollah that Israel and the US consider to be terrorist organisations.

The complications — and losses — will mount as China has little choice but to push deeper into the Middle East. Its dependence on Arab oil and gas supplies continues to rise, while the OBOR initiative means its investment and the number of Chinese workers in the region will increase.

“The Chinese government will be under greater pressure to protect its investments and citizens (in the Middle East),” said Orion.

But there’s also a more urgent, if less stated, reason for Beijing to link up with the Arab world and Israel: security. ISIS’s emergence and the recent surge in secessionist and terror activities in China’s western frontier with links to radical groups in Central Asia and the Middle East are becoming a real and immediate threat to the country’s political stability. Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslim militias have expanded their goals from fighting for secession from China to supporting and linking up with Islamic terror groups in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Given these imperatives and pressures, China will be more motivated than ever to help bring peace to the Middle East, with the Israel-Palestine conflict being one of the most critical challenges.

For now, the Xi government’s focus on building ties with Israel is mostly economic and cultural in nature, but the INSS, which advises the government, supports the idea of China’s increased involvement in the Palestinian issue. The INSS’s China Program is headed by Orion’s boss, the influential retired major general Matan Vilnai who stepped down as Israel’s ambassador to China last December.

Will the Trump administration see China’s entry into the Israel-Palestine issue as a threat to its dominant position in the Middle East?

Orion doesn’t think so, as China is not interested — nor does it know how — to take on political or military roles, preferring to leave those to the US. China would rather focus on building infrastructure and supporting economic development that are in more in keeping with its OBOR vision. He sees China and the US complementing and supporting, rather than competing against, each other in the Palestinian peace process.

“The Middle East offers the greatest potential for China and the US to cooperate,” he said.

Instead, Orion identifies Russia, along with the Syrian civil war, as the more immediate threat as President Vladimir Putin’s relationship with the Trump administration remains shrouded in mystery. The other parties will be forced to choose sides if the US and Russia go into conflict with each other. China is allied with Russia. Both support the Assad regime in Syria as does Iran, which continues to threaten Israel.

The rosy scenario of China and the US working together to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict could also be derailed if Trump and Xi intensify their quarrels over Taiwan, the South China Sea and North Korea along with trade and economic issues.

When the Balfour Declaration was signed nearly a century ago, it helped launch an unlikely campaign that ultimately led to the creation of Israel in 1948. The November 2, 1917 document also created a legacy of disputes and conflicts between Israel and Palestine that has since drawn in almost every major power in the world. Except China. Its wild card entry into the fray might provide the missing ingredients to finally help settle the conflict. Or, add to the already combustible mix of competing interests and expand the conflicts of the Middle East into Asia.

Weng Hoong Ng