Brokering a lasting peace in the Middle East is the holy grail of international diplomacy. Many have tried – but all to no avail. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before the Chinese decided to try their own hand at peacemaking in the region as well.
Last week saw China play host to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the first time it has welcomed both leaders simultaneously.
Though the two men did not take up the Chinese offer of a face-to-face meeting, their visits gave Beijing the chance to display its increasing international clout.
Meeting with Netanyahu after Abbas had already left the Chinese capital, Xi Jinping publicly urged the Israeli leader to resume peace talks with the Palestinians.
Earlier in the week Xi also unveiled a four-point proposal for brokering peace in the region.
“To establish an independent state enjoying full sovereignty on the basis of the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital is an inalienable right of the Palestinian people and the key to the settlement of the Palestinian question. At the same time, Israel’s right to exist and its legitimate security concerns should also be fully respected,” Xi said in comments published by the Xinhua News Agency.
Although the contents of the plan were largely unremarkable – simply formalising China’s uncontroversial position on the issue – the announcement marked the first time a Chinese leader had associated himself directly with the resolution of a bitter and longstanding conflict beyond its domestic borders.
“China is shouldering global obligations that are proportionate to its status on the world stage, and the visits by Palestinian and Israeli leaders marked a new milestone for China’s active participation in solving issues in the Middle East,” Xinhua quoted Dong Manyuan, deputy director of the China Institute of International Studies, as saying.
Ma Xiaolin, former director of the Middle East Academy in China, praised Xi for his statement. “No other Chinese leader has put China’s position so clearly. This shows China’s new confidence,” he told WiC.
But Ma and other commentators were quick to caution against seeing China’s new interest as a game- changer.
“China is a long way from the Middle East, and it can’t even reach a good solution to its own regional problems: North Korea, the Diaoyu Islands [known by Japanese as the Senkakus], the Philippines and Vietnam,” Yin Gang, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing told the the New York Times.
“Even if China becomes a superpower with an economy on par with the United States, it still won’t play a major role in the Middle East,” he added.
China and Israel are also enjoying closer economic ties – trade has boomed from $50 million a year two decades ago to $10 billion today, according to Chinese data – but Beijing still saves its warmest words for Palestine.
Nonetheless, statements from the Israeli embassy during Netanyahu’s visit framed his trip as very much focused on bilateral relations.
Additionally, any talks on third countries were more likely to focus on Syria and Iran, both of which Israel considers as enemies but which China has traditionally supported either diplomatically or in terms of technology transfer.
As the Economist put it “Netanyahu was never likely to show more than polite interest in Chinese involvement in the Palestinian issue.”
Israeli academics put it much more bluntly. “The Chinese are trying to be Europeans. They want to be global actors…but there’s a huge gap in terms of understanding the perceptions of the region,” Gerald Steinberg a professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University in Israel told TIME magazine.
“My own view, and the view of many of us who deal with China, is that China is basically completely mercenary on this. They’re interested in China and what’s good for China,” Steinberg added.
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