The Belt and Road Comes to Doha: Arab Scholars Uneasy About Growing Chinese-Israeli Ties, Frustrated with Position on Syria


China has learned the hard way that imperialism can be costly. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Qing dynasty was repeatedly humiliated by the West, climaxing with the free flow of opium to Chinese markets. It’s a far cry from today: while Arab countries remain subject to foreign interventions, China is now a growing world power in its own right, capable of projecting its power across the seas albeit, as speaker Manochehr Dorraj described it “not in the same fashion of gunboat diplomacy and politics of subjugation” which Arabs have grown used to from the West. Yet this history of imperialism continues to cast a shadow over China’s relations in the Middle East, said Chinese academic Degang Sun. Here, China is an adamant defender of equilibrium and stability across world borders. Sun was speaking at “The Arab World and China: Future Prospects of Relations with a Rising Power”, hosted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies on May 21-22, 2016 in Doha. The observation has relevance to two of the most pressing topics discussed at the meeting: China’s roles in the Arab-Israeli and Syrian conflicts.

During the discussions, speakers revisited some of the pivotal moments of the evolving relationship between the People’s Republic of China and post-colonial Arab governments. These bonds seemed particularly promising when Nasserist Egypt led Arab recognition of the PRC in the 1950s. Beijing reciprocated by becoming, in 1964, the first non-Arab state to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization (then effectively an organ of a Cairo-dominated Arab League). Yet many speakers were pessimistic about continued Chinese support for the Palestinian cause. According to Ezzat Shahrour, a Palestinian media commentator resident in China for three decades, the Chinese public is increasingly likely not only to support the Israeli point of view, but also to be racist against Palestinian victims of Israeli violence. Shahrour cited waves of Chinese social media users who were baying for the blood of Palestinian victims of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza. The experience shook him so much that he conducted an online survey of Chinese public opinion.

With 9,000 responses, Shahrour concluded that 54% of Chinese hold the Palestinians responsible for the prolonging of the Middle East conflict and the failure to achieve peace with Israel. This was, he suggested, a trend in mainland China which stood in complete contrast to the situation in Chinese territories such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, where freedom of the press led to increased sympathy for the Palestinian point of view. In the mainland, says Shahrour, “4- and 5-star hotels block Al Jazeera, and Arab operated Chinese language websites are blocked”.

While media censorship of the may have led to a sea change in public attitudes towards the Palestinian cause, the Israelis were also more than happy to fill the void. Israel’s position as a supplier of military technology to China has become increasingly important since the 1990s, following the formalization of Chinese-Israeli diplomatic ties—this followed formal diplomatic ties between Israel and a number of Arab states. This was the main theme of another speaker, ACRPS researcher Mahmoud Muhareb, who addressed China’s burgeoning relations with Israel, especially in terms of high technology and advanced weaponry. Said Muhareb, Israel had come to play the peculiar role of being a conduit of American military and satellite technology to China. Irrespective of Chinese-Israeli relations, Beijing’s former ambassador to Doha, Gao Youzhen, made it very clear that “the position of the PRC on the Palestine-Israel conflict has remained stable throughout history, it has remained the same”.

Somehow, concern for stability and a historical antipathy for Western imperialism, the twin pillars of Beijing’s foreign policy, seemed at odds with the views of many of the Arab commentators when it came to Syria. One explanation of the Chinese approach to the Syrian conflict was provided by US-based academic I-wei Jennifer Chang, who described the commitment to stability as the major driver of Chinese policy in Syria: at first, this meant complete antagonism to Western efforts to intervene in Syria, followed by a period when China accepted the idea of a negotiated political solution; and finally the imperative to freeze ISIL in its tracks which presently ensures Beijing’s commitment to Assad. Elaborating on Beijing’s unwillingness to accept Western-backed regime change in Damascus, Wu Bingbing, quipped “let’s look at what happened when regime change took place in Iraq, things didn’t really work out there”. Yet the shortcomings of this approach were brought up by Syrian academic opposition Burhan Ghalioun, offering that “By looking at the situation from the prism of geopolitics and international relations, China is prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people; it is part of the problem not the solution”.