The coinciding visits to Beijing of the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian Authority president this week speak to China's growing interests in the Middle East.
Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have been in China this week, highlighting China’s desire to play a greater role in Middle East diplomacy.
A statement last week from the Chinese Foreign Ministry offering to facilitate talks between the two visitors caused a flurry of international speculation that Beijing was claiming a direct role in Middle East peacemaking. But such a meeting was never in the cards; Mr. Abbas left Beijing before Mr. Netanyahu arrived in the capital from Shanghai.
And few observers here have any illusions about the limits to China’s clout in the conflict-torn region.
“In the Far East we are No. 1,” says Yin Gang, one of the country’s most prominent Middle East experts. “In the Middle East we are No. 12.”
President Xi Jinping did break new ground, though, by proposing a four-point plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Though there was “nothing new” in the plan, says Ma Xiaolin, an independent observer of China’s policy in the Middle East, the most important thing was that Mr. Xi offered it at all.
“This was the first time that a Chinese president has set out the principles of our Middle East policy,” points out Mr. Ma, a former Middle East correspondent for the state-run news agency Xinhua.
Beijing has long supported the Palestinians in international forums such as the United Nations, and the Chinese “peace plan” maintained that tradition. Xi urged Israel to halt settlement activities in occupied land and to lift its economic blockade on Gaza.
But China enjoys increasingly close economic ties with Israel; trade has boomed from $50 million a year two decades ago to $10 billion today, according to Chinese figures.
“China wants to keep a neutral position” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, says Dr. Yin.
“China has unique conditions to make contributions for the Mid-East peace,” argued an editorial in Tuesday’s issue of the online edition of the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper. “China has maintained good ties with all of the countries and has a good reputation in this region.”
The article reinforced the message of an editorial on Monday in the same paper, proclaiming that “as its comprehensive national strength grows, China will play a more active and constructive role in international affairs.”
The Middle East, though, currently offers limited opportunities for such diplomatic ambitions, cautions Ma.
For a start, China has not been ready to put its money where its mouth is. Beijing contributes a paltry amount to the Palestinian Authority budget compared to major donors such as the United States and the European Union. Where Japan built an airport in Gaza, China built one primary school.
Nor is China a member of the “quartet,” made up of the US, the EU, Russia, and the UN, which has been leading international efforts for more than a decade to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Third, Israel would be reluctant to see China playing a greater role in the region, given Beijing’s traditional backing for Palestinian positions, says Ma. “China is not capable of becoming a key player,” he adds.
But while China may be “outside the core system for solving the Middle East problem,” argues Yin, “we are not total outsiders.”
Though Beijing had practically no economic interests in the region 20 years ago, China is now the largest importer of Middle East oil in the world, he points out. “China wants a stable Middle East so we must do something about it,” Yin argues. “China has to play a bigger role.”
Chinese analysts say Beijing has no intention of undermining US efforts to broker peace, let alone trying to step into Washington’s shoes.
But Beijing has stood against Washington for the past two years over what to do about the Syrian civil war. Three times China has joined Russia in vetoing Western-backed UN Security Council resolutions designed to put pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
On the other hand, China has also used its influence to mediate an end to conflicts that Western powers could do nothing about. It was quiet shuttle diplomacy by Chinese officials that recently helped resolve a 16-month dispute between Sudan and South Sudan over oil revenue-sharing, and restarted the flow of South Sudanese oil, the young country’s major source of revenue.
That deal served China’s interests; the Asian giant is the largest importer of South Sudan’s oil. And it is largely China’s growing economic interests in the Middle East that will drive its burgeoning role in the region, predicts Ma.
China may not take a front-seat diplomatic role, he says, but it “will invest more in the region, and get more involved. That is what will increase China’s influence.”