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Published: 22:09, December 04, 2023 | Updated: 10:04, December 05, 2023
China, US offer different approaches to achieving lasting peace in Middle East
By Lau Siu-kai
Published:22:09, December 04, 2023 Updated:10:04, December 05, 2023 By Lau Siu-kai

In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis of 1956, the United States replaced Britain and France as the sole hegemon in the Middle East. The Middle East has never achieved lasting peace under US hegemony; and years of war and devastation have plunged many Middle Eastern countries into great economic difficulties.

The bloody conflict between Israel and Hamas, the humanitarian disaster caused by Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, and the tremendous loss of US moral authority in the world for siding with Israel attest to the total bankruptcy of the US’ Middle East policy.

Today, countries around the world, including some of the US’ Western allies, are deeply dissatisfied with the US’ Middle East policy. They have also put forward proposals for achieving lasting peace in the Middle East. Among them, the proposals put forward by President Xi Jinping are the most relevant and farsighted and thus have received positive responses from the international community.

In his remarks at the extraordinary joint meeting of BRICS leaders and leaders of invited BRICS members on the situation in the Middle East with particular reference to Gaza on Nov 21, Xi pointed out that the root cause of the Palestinian-Israeli situation is the fact that the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, their right to exist, and their right of return have long been ignored.

“I have emphasized on many occasions that the only viable way to break the cycle of Palestinian-Israeli conflict lies in the two-state solution, in the restoration of the legitimate national rights of Palestine, and the establishment of an independent State of Palestine. There can be no sustainable peace and security in the Middle East without a just solution to the question of Palestine,” he said. Xi also called for the early convening of an international conference that would be more authoritative in building an international consensus for peace and work toward an early comprehensive and sustainable solution to the question of Palestine.

Xi’s speech indirectly criticizes the US’ long-standing and failed Middle East policy. For a long time, the focus of the US’ Middle East policy has been safeguarding its own security and interests rather than peace in the Middle East and the well-being of the people there. To achieve its goals in the Middle East, the US forms cliques, engages in bloc confrontations, divides the countries, continues to provide weapons or “security guarantees” to its allies, overrelies on military means, despises diplomatic work, and excessively favors Israel.

In particular, it ignores the aspirations of the Palestinians for statehood and regards Iran after the Islamic Revolution as its mortal enemy. In recent years, the US has made weakening China’s influence in the Middle East an important goal. There is no doubt that what the US does in the Middle East, both in terms of its purposes and the means to achieve them, poses severe obstacles to attaining lasting peace in the Middle East.

Even though the US has reduced its dependence on the Middle East because of the development of shale oil in the US in recent years, its Western allies are still highly dependent on the energy supply of the Middle East. During the Cold War, the US proactively courted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran and joined forces with Iran to curb the expansion of Soviet power in the Middle East.

After the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the US used countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, and Egypt to check and balance. What is particularly important is that the US has always used Israel to counteract Islamic countries in the Middle East and safeguard US interests. To eliminate threats to its interests, the US would not hesitate to use force against its Middle Eastern adversaries. In essence, the US’ Middle East policy is highly divisive, intensifying the existing conflicts and differences among the countries in the Middle East.

The Israel-Hamas conflict that broke out in October propelled the question of Palestine, which had been dormant for some time, to the top of the international agenda. The reason why the Palestinian-Israeli issue has not been fundamentally resolved for a long time is that the US has always adopted a passive or even unsupportive attitude toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. During the decades when the US dominated the Middle East, it repeatedly and ostensibly stated that it would promote the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and support the Palestinians in establishing a Palestinian state.

The Camp David Accords of 1978, the Madrid Conference of 1991, and the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, especially the last, had only a short-term impact on maintaining peace in the Middle East, as all of them were oblivious to the demands of the Palestinians to establish their own country. Over the past three decades, the US brokered a series of Abraham Accords that led to reconciliation between Israel and Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan, with no mention of the Palestinian issue. Recently, the US has been more proactive in pushing Saudi Arabia to sign another Abraham Accord with Israel. The primary purpose of the US is to build a bloc composed of Israel and some Sunni Arab countries to confront Iran and pro-Iranian forces in the Middle East. Another purpose is to permanently eliminate the issue of Palestinian national establishment from Middle East politics. Yet another purpose is to weaken China’s influence in the Middle East. However, the result has been precisely the opposite. To bring the Palestinian issue back to international attention, the Palestinian organization Hamas launched a massive attack on Israel on Oct 7, completely upending the political situation in the Middle East, shattering the US’ plan to reshape the political order in the Middle East, and making it difficult for the US to stay away from the Middle East and refocus its strategy on containing China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific region.

Whether the US likes it or not, China will play an essential role in achieving lasting peace in the Middle East. China has good relations with Israel, Palestine, Arab countries and Iran, and enjoys their trust. A peaceful Middle East will benefit China’s security and development, especially considering the region is essential to cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative

Today, the bankrupt Middle East policy of the US over the past few decades is no longer sustainable, and its influence in the region is also evaporating rapidly. Various developments in the past have shown that more Middle Eastern countries and other countries are eager to explore alternative ways to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East. They no longer believe that the US has the ability and sincerity to promote lasting peace. Instead, they increasingly view the US as a stumbling block to lasting peace in the Middle East.

First, Middle Eastern countries are increasingly breaking away from the constraints of the US and seeking to improve relations, reduce friction, and increase cooperation with past rivals. In March, Iran and Saudi Arabia reestablished diplomatic ties, following a deal brokered by China, and began collaboration on economic, trade and security affairs. Improving ties between these two significant countries is critical to attaining lasting peace in the Middle East. Since then, Iran has normalized relations with Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, and other countries. It has also prompted negotiations between Yemen’s Houthi armed forces and Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni government, and helped Syria rejoin the Arab League. By unswervingly supporting Hamas following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, Iran has bolstered its image as the defender of the Palestinians, increasing its popularity across the Middle East.

Second, more Arab countries are strengthening relations with China. In addition to their determination to cooperate with China in economy, trade, finance, science and technology, and security, they also urge China to play a role in promoting lasting peace in the Middle East. At the same time, they are increasingly disappointed with the US and do not believe in its “security guarantees”. In the view of international affairs analysts Maria Fantappie and Vali Nasr, expressed in November in the US magazine Foreign Affairs: “No longer can Washington simply demand that its Arab allies decouple from China and unite behind its leadership to combat Iran”, and “Saudis do not see their interests served by either war with Iran or confrontation with China.”

Two respected academics, Jamsheed K Choksy and Carol EB Choksy, pointed out in the same magazine: “Thanks to 10 years of shifting, confused US foreign policy in the Middle East, Arab nations also feel that they have little choice but to cooperate more closely with Teheran. … By choosing to reconcile with Iran, especially via China, Sunni leaders are stepping back from their hitherto special relationships with Washington.”

Third, the main opinion of the international community, including the US, is that the Palestinian-Israeli issue can no longer be ignored, and a proper solution must be sought. The mainstream opinion of the international community is to use the two-state solution as the only way to achieve permanent peace in the Middle East. The influential American scholar Richard Haass believes that “If and when the dust settles, there will be a need for sustained US diplomacy, to resuscitate a two-state solution.”

It can be argued that only after the successful establishment of a Palestinian state can long-term peaceful coexistence between Israel and Arab countries be possible. Only when the Palestinian issue is no longer a serious issue causing divisions and conflicts among Middle Eastern countries can there be a chance for lasting and substantial improvement in relations among Arab countries and between Arab countries and Iran.

Fourth, the politicians currently in power in Israel, the far-right forces behind them, and the extremist forces in Palestine are opposed to the two-state solution, so it is tough to realize this solution. For this plan to finally progress, the international community’s intervention and the participation of all stakeholders are indispensable. Essential stakeholders include the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the new Middle East political order, the interests and security of all stakeholders must be adequately taken care of.

Whether the US likes it or not, China will play an essential role in achieving lasting peace in the Middle East. China has good relations with Israel, Palestine, Arab countries and Iran, and enjoys their trust. A peaceful Middle East will benefit China’s security and development, especially considering the region is essential to cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative. Since China does not engage in bloc confrontation in the Middle East, it can be the mediator among the warring Middle Eastern countries. Many Middle Eastern countries hope and encourage China to play the role of “peace messenger” in Middle Eastern affairs, mainly because they lack trust in the strategic intentions of the US. China will also feel an inescapable duty to promote world peace as a responsible great power. The international community has extolled the Middle East peace initiative proposed by President Xi Jinping, especially his affirmation of the two-state solution and the international community’s participation in mediation. Based on President Xi’s initiative, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China released on Nov 30 the “Position Paper of the People’s Republic of China on Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict”. The position paper stressed that “The Security Council should help restore the two-state solution. A more broad-based, authoritative, and effective international peace conference led and organized by the UN should be held as soon as possible to formulate a concrete timetable and road map for implementing the two-state solution and facilitate a comprehensive, just, and lasting solution to the question of Palestine.”

Although the Middle East peace plan proposed by China is not easy to implement in the current international situation, this plan is the only one that can achieve lasting peace in the Middle East. As time passes, China’s solution, which embodies “Chinese wisdom”, will have increasing relevance in attaining lasting Middle East peace.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a consultant of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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