Can China Play a Role in Mideast Peace?

After hosting Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas earlier this week, and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set to wrap up his own China trip in Beijing tomorrow, the world is speculating about what the back-to-back visits say about China’s diplomatic ambitions in the Middle East. Commentary from Xinhua stresses Beijing’s desire to be a balanced and proactive voice in the stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority:

Western powers have often attempted to settle the impasse but their efforts seem to be of no avail.

The volatile Mideast situation calls for China’s extra leverage and other increased international efforts.

China has sent its special envoy to the Middle East for several times to mediate between various parties. Its follow-up efforts – the invitation of the two leaders to China – take on a deeper significance for a better Palestinian-Israeli relationship.

As a friend with the Palestinians and Israeli alike, China boasts unique advantages in mediating between the two sides.

[…]The world needs China’s real and positive efforts.

More from the Global Times on China’s interest in mediating peace in the Middle East:

According to Hua Liming, the visits reflect the new Chinese leadership’s focus on the situations in the Middle East as well as the growing expectations of countries in the region for China to have a clearer voice and a more constructive influence.

“Both Palestinian and Israeli leaders attach great importance to China’s active and significant influence on the peace progress, ” Hua said.

[…]”The peace situation in the Middle East is of key importance to China,” said An Huihou, former Chinese Ambassador to Egypt.

Despite the balance presented above, another piece from the Global Times notes that popular opinion in China is increasingly turning against Israel.

While state-run publications are focusing largely on China’s lack of bias and desire for peace, The New York Times notes the measured strategy of Beijing’s two-pronged olive branch:

[…T]his was not exactly Camp David by the Forbidden City.

The fact that the visits were timed so the two leaders would not meet — Mr. Abbas left Beijing on Tuesday, and Mr. Netanyahu arrived Wednesday after a swing through Shanghai — signaled that neither they nor Xi Jinping, China’s leader, were ready for actual talks.

[…]China has been careful to take a clear and consistent but not strong stand on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. China has growing trade ties with Israel — the value of their trade relationship has been estimated in official Chinese news reports to be nearly $10 billion a year — but it supports Palestinian statehood and relies on crude oil imports from Iran and Arab nations to meet its energy needs. About half of China’s oil imports come from the Middle East, and that dependency is expected to deepen.

[…]Despite the spotlight on the visits by Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu, China is likely to remain a muted political actor in the Middle East, analysts of the region said. Beijing sees little to gain from being entangled in distant and often seemingly intractable disputes, said Yin Gang, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

TIME’s Jerusalem bureau chief surveys experts on the four-point peace proposal that Xi Jinping unveiled on Monday  to argue that Beijing’s efforts are about posturing, and will have little effect on peace in the Middle East:

“The Chinese are trying to be Europeans. They want to be global actors, and the way to be global actors is to claim that you have something to offer. They have good trade relations with Israel, but there’s a huge gap in terms of understanding the perceptions of the region,” [says Gerald Steinberg, professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University in Israel.]

The reality, Steinberg says, is that no country except the U.S. is trusted enough by both sides to serve as broker to peace talks — especially by Israel, which sees itself as persecuted and misunderstood by a world that does not understand its situation the way Americans do. […]What Xi heralded in Beijing was a four-point prospectus that repeated in broad, general terms the outline of what has already been discussed for nearly a generation: two states, based on 1967 boundaries, achieved through negotiations.

[…]“My own view, and of many of us who deal with China, is China is basically completely mercenary on this,” says Steinberg. “They’re interested in China and what’s good for China.”[…]

As Beijing amps involvement in the Mideast peace process – whether out of sincere concern or political posturing –  Bloomberg reports that the Obama administration is also intensifying its efforts to mediate in the region.

Also see a chapter on Middle Eastern views of China’s rise and Beijing’s historical diplomatic interaction with the Middle East, written by Israeli political science and Asian studies professor Yitzhak Schichor and available via The University of Nottingham’s China Policy Blog. For more on China’s diplomatic interactions and aspirations in the Middle East, see “Is China Pivoting to the Middle East,” or “China Faces Shifting Dynamic in Middle East,” both via CDT.

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