May 2021

China looks at the Mediterranean Region
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An outbreak of violence in the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict commenced on May 10, 2021, although disturbances took place earlier, and continued until a ceasefire came into effect on May 21. The timing of this event is quite interesting. On the one hand, Chinese experts have been discussing for a while about the declining centrality of Palestinian issues in the Middle East. On the other hand, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, declared that China wanted to push for a “comprehensive review” of the Palestinian issue at the Security Council of the United Nations during his trip to the region in March. Hence, it is extremely interesting to see how Chinese observers are reacting to this new outbreak of violence.

Short-term political considerations are the cause of violence, as well as what brought it to an end. Wang Zesheng, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), and Wang Jin, a professor at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies at Northwest University, pointed out that the moves made by the Israeli government and military have to be seen as Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to slow down the formation of a new government without him, as well as to put pressure on the Biden administration to take a clear pro-Israel position. [1] According to Ma Xiaolin, an expert at Zhejiang International Studies University (ZISU), the ceasefire is also the result of similar calculations. [2] On the one hand, Netanyahu wanted to show strength and not a larger conflict in the region. On the other hand, Hamas needs to show its leadership vis-à-vis its challengers and critics while also lacking any real means to oppose the Israeli military. Therefore, both sides were quick to reach an agreement.

Ding Long, a professor at the Institute of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), told to Xinhua that the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “corrects” the trend of marginalization of the Palestinian issue in regional politics. [3] However, its long-term impact on the region is unlikely to be significant. To a large extent this is because the United States has no interest in and cannot solve that problem, told Shanghai Institute of International Studies’ Li Weijian and CIIS’ Dong Manyuan to China News. [4] According to them, though it is true that Biden has promised and, to some extent, acted to change the Middle East policy of the previous administration, the United States’ goal is to stabilize the region so that it can withdraw more orderly. If the Americans wanted to solve the Palestinian problem, declared Li Weijian, they “could do a much better job.” Moreover, American policymakers are under pressure at home to show support to Israel because, according to Sun Degang, of the power of the “Israel lobby” described a long time ago by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. [5] Common values, strategic and economic interests play a key role in keeping the relations between the United States and Israel insulated from regional turbulence and changes within the White House.

That said, Chinese observers are also noticing important changes in the region. In particular, it is the signals coming from Riyad that are particularly welcome in China. Ma Xiaolin and SISU’s Bao Chengzhang are particularly positive about how Saudi Arabia has been moving vis-à-vis Iran, Qatar, and Yemen as result of the changing American attitude toward that country. [6] According to them, that country can play a crucial role in easing regional tensions and re-orient the efforts of many countries toward the common fight against terrorism, as well as find new compromises to solve regional problems.  Niu Song, another scholar at SISU, further elaborates on these changes by pointing out that, essentially, these are the positive effects of the United States decreasing its involvement in the region. [7] The scope of the improvements of the situation will depend on how much the United States will be willing to limit its interventions in the region. At the same time, the growing and the easing of regional tensions is a cyclical phenomenon. Hence, there is always the possibility that things will change for the worse.

Against this background, Wang Jin wrote an article for China.com, calling for China to play a “constructive role” mediating between Israel and the Palestinians and their supporters. [8] According to him, that remains the “root cause” of the problems in the region, and it is time for China to leverage its image of impartiality and the positive attitude that many regional players have toward it in order to contribute to deal with that thorny problem. This is a point also made by ZISU’s Li Xinggang, who also emphasized the difference between Russia and China: while the former intervened in Syria and expanded its influence in the region because of its substantial interests there, the former has far fewer and less important interests. [9] This is why China should be seen as an honest broker. However, neither Wang nor Li specify what China should do in order to play such an important role.

[1] Yu Xiaoyuan, Kuài píng |bā yǐ zhànhuǒ zàiqǐ, huò yǐngxiǎng dàguó zhōngdōng zhànlüè 快评|巴以战火再起,或影响大国中东战略 [Quick take |The fire between Israel and the Palestinians rages again, shaping the Middle East strategy of great power], The Paper, May 14, 2021, link.

[2] Wang Jian, Shang Hao, and Xiong Sihao, Bā yǐ chōngtú shēngjí duì zhōngdōng júshì yǐngxiǎng jǐhé 巴以冲突升级对中东局势影响几何 [How does the escalation of the fight between Israel and the Palestinians influence the Middle East?], Xinhua, May 18, 2021, link.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Liu Danyi, Bā yǐ chōngtú gāng píngxí, měi guówùqīng bù línkěn wèihé xùnsù dào fǎng zhōngdōng? 巴以冲突刚平息,美国务卿布林肯为何迅速到访中东?[Why did the American Secretary of State visit the Middle East immediately after the end of the clashes between Israel and the Palestinians?], China News, May 35, 2021, link.

[5] Sun Degang, Měi mǐngǎn shíqí xiàng yǐ jūn shòu, měi yǐ dàodǐ yǒu shà tèshū guānxì? 美敏感时期向以军售,美以到底有啥特殊关系?[Selling weapons to Israel at such a sensitive time, why does the United States have this special relationship?], Xinhua, May 19, 2021, link.

[6] Sun Tianlang and Gao Wencheng, Shātè lián fā wàijiāo zhuǎnxiàng xìnhào yǒu hé kaoliang 沙特连发外交转向信号有何考量 [Why is Saudi Arabia sending diplomatic signals?], Xinhua, May 2, 2021, link.

[7] Niu Song, Dàguó guānxì huǎnhé cuī dòng zhōngdōng júshì zhuǎnbiàn 大国关系缓和催动中东局势转变 [The easing of the relations among great powers promotes change in the Middle East], Workers' Daily, May 14, 2021, link.

[8] Wang Jin, Bā yǐ wèntí jí xū zhōngguó fāhuī jiànshè xìng zuòyòng 巴以问题亟需中国发挥建设性作用 [The Israeli-Palestinian issue urgently needs China to play a constructive role], China.com, May 19, 2021, link.

[9] Běijīng zài zhōngdōng “zhànlüè zhǔdòng” lìng yǒu suǒ tú? Géjú dīle北京在中东“战略主动”另有所图?格局低了 [Does China’s “proactive strategy” in the Middle East have second objectives? Saying that is short-sighted], DW News, May 31, 2021, link.

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Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
Published with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation pursuant to art. 23-bis of Presidential Decree 18/1967. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
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