In the global arena, China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping delights in cultivating an image of his nation as a peaceful dove, in contrast to the hawkish stance of the United States. To some extent, his efforts have borne fruit. Most recently, China has offered a remarkable proposal to mediate the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians—a conflict that has once again erupted into flames. Historically, the role of mediator in this dispute has been the purview of the United States. Yet, it seems that the status quo may no longer be tenable.
China enjoys amicable relations with both the Palestinians and Israel. While the Palestinians are likely to welcome Chinese mediation in the absence of alternatives, Israel’s receptiveness is far less certain. The current Israeli administration, steered by Prime Minister Netanyahu, leans further to the right than any previous government and displays scant inclination towards concessions to the Palestinians. Rather, several ministers, themselves residents of internationally illegal settlements on Palestinian territory, advocate annexing the Israeli-occupied West Bank—a move that would likely scuttle any Chinese mediation efforts.
On Monday, China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang had a call with his Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen, urging Israel to “take steps to resume peace negotiations” and affirming China’s readiness to facilitate the process. Israel’s Foreign Ministry acknowledged the conversation but remained silent on the subject of peace talks.
Qin also conferred with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, but the specifics of their exchange remain undisclosed, save for China’s recommendation of the time-honored two-state solution, which would grant the Palestinians a sovereign state in the West Bank. This proposal has lingered since 1947, yet its successful implementation remains elusive. At present, the prospect of a two-state solution seems more remote than ever. Israel persists in relegating Palestinians to ever-shrinking territories, with over 600,000 Jewish settlers inhabiting the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is also under Israeli occupation. Given these conditions, it is difficult to envision Israel’s withdrawal, enabling the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
Israel’s apprehensions about accepting Chinese mediation likely stem from the potential for irking its long-standing ally, the United States. Recent months have seen a surge in tensions between Washington and Israel over the latter’s assertive policies toward the Palestinians. Additionally, the U.S. has cautioned Israel to tread carefully in its technological collaborations with China, warning of the perils of dependency and threats to national security. Voices within Israel have similarly raised concerns over the implications of fostering close ties with China.
Last month, Beijing demonstrated a surprising prowess in negotiating a pact to reinstate diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia—a feat achieved in the absence of serious competition from the U.S., which was precluded from participating due to its adversarial relationship with Iran.
However, China’s diplomatic endeavors are not infallible. In February, Beijing released a so-called position paper on the war in Ukraine, which, while refraining from condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine, called for a ceasefire and talks between the belligerent parties. This vaguely articulated Chinese initiative has yet to yield any tangible results.
China’s recent proposals are part of its broader Global Security Initiative (GSI), an amorphous plan to foster peaceful coexistence among nations and advance global harmony. A cornerstone of this approach is the notion that one state’s security should not come at the expense of another’s, with no explicit emphasis on protecting individual rights within nations.
China’s state news agency, Xinhua, directly connected its offer to mediate in the Middle East to the GSI, highlighting China’s ambitions to expand its international influence. The focus of this expansion is not directed at the U.S., Europe, Japan, or Australia but rather at nations that harbor reservations about the United States and its allies.
China contends that the United States is, in fact, the hidden instigator of global conflicts, be it in Ukraine or through its increasingly overt support for Taiwan. Recently, China found an ally in this position in the newly-elected Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who urged the U.S. to cease “encouraging” the war in Ukraine during his state visit to China.
By advancing the GSI and offering mediation in international disputes, China seeks to portray itself as a level-headed, impartial actor that refrains from military intervention in conflicts involving third countries—a departure from U.S. tactics. Through the GSI, Beijing aims to reshape the world order so that other nations resist actions that undermine China’s global interests.
While this approach may fail to sway most U.S. allies, it has resonated in other regions. For Europe and the U.S., the conflict in Ukraine is a matter of upholding the international rule of law and respect for national sovereignty. However, for many other countries, the war is little more than a skirmish between Russian and American interests, a fray they would rather avoid. By positioning itself as a balanced, non-aggressive alternative, China successfully appeals to those nations seeking to remain unentangled in the global power struggles that often characterize U.S.-Russia relations.