Title

What’s China’s Game in the Middle East?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Rachel Beitarie:

Xi Jinping’s four point proposal for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is interesting not so much for its content, as for its source. While China has maintained the appearance of being involved in Middle East politics for years, its top leaders, so far, haven’t taken an active role in bringing the two sides to the negotiating table. Beijing’s rulers have been more comfortable leaving this to their foreign ministers and the largely ceremonial Chinese “special envoy” to the Middle East. Xi’s move might indicate he is ready for a change of attitude, but why? And are the two parties interested in China as a mediator?

Xi might be testing the waters for his call for “national rejuvenation”—China’s playing peacemaker seems appealing to national sentiment, and many comments I saw on Weibo were positive, even enthusiastic about this prospect. Can it be that Xi is steering China away from what Ely Ratner called its victim complex, toward a more proactive, but less confrontational role in world affairs? Would the U.S. be comfortable with this?

The idea of China as a mediator might appeal to the Palestinians and the larger Arab world as well. They have long viewed the U.S. as biased towards Israel, and Arab diplomats and observers in China have been calling on Beijing to get more involved, for several years. Perhaps someone more familiar with Arab politics and media can comment on how Xi’s plan—which does not mention the Palestinian right to return—was received. President Mahmoud Abbas, at any rate, received the full treatment of a head of state in Beijing, something not often extended in the West to representatives of Palestine, as well as a favorable coverage from state media.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as a head-of-government (not a president), was the official guest of Premier Li Keqiang, though he, too, briefly met with President Xi, presumably to discuss Iran. In all of his media briefings and press releases for the Israeli media, Mr. Netanyahu has kept the focus of this visit on economic cooperation and trade issues, never even acknowledging Abbas’ presence in the same country or China’s offer to arrange a meeting. This somewhat awkward situation also failed to make an impression on the media in Israel, which only mentioned Xi’s proposal in passing, probably because two other stories dominated the news cycle this week: the situation in Syria, and public rage over planned budget cuts. Not many in Israel take seriously the possibility of China’s bringing the two sides to the table, though it could have been an exercise in thinking outside the box in a conflict which seems unsolvable.

While Mr. Netanyahu repeatedly states the importance of China as a trade partner, he is unlikely to accept any diplomatic pressure from Beijing. The Israeli political system as a whole, and this Prime Minister in particular, feel a lot more comfortable dealing with the U.S. The White House is another party that might not be happy with too much Chinese involvement. I wonder what Beijing’s conclusion from this experiment in international diplomacy is, and what Xi’s next move will be.

Comments

Many Arabs and Muslims are keen to engage China in business and the oft-touted ‘win-win’ partnership, precisely because Beijing doesn’t issue impotent directives to foreign countries the way the U.S. State Department does.
 
What’s more, Beijing’s sympathies appear to lie with Palestinians—for both ideological and business reasons. If that serves as a diplomatic balance to Washington’s bias in favor of Israel, this would be a welcomed change in the Middle East. 
 
But the very idea that China, only now recovering from the internal upheaval of 2012—with the escape of the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng and the Bo Xilai scandal—thinks it’s time to make a foray into the complicated world of Middle East politics reminds me of the late Muammar Gaddafi’s pledge to solve this all once and for all. Clearly things weren’t going too well for him at home, so why not redirect international attentions abroad?
 
As for the Chinese people, in my own experience, they have always welcomed me very warmly as an Arab American living in China. They are curious, at times Orientalist. But there is an underlying, deeply embedded feeling of solidarity in post-colonialism. There are shared hopes for economic development, democratization with Eastern characteristics, and international respect for our homelands.
 
For these reasons, I think at a grassroots level, Chinese may indeed be better equipped to understand the desires for change and frustrations with chronic corruption and general social injustice that concern many Arabs. In that regard, China mediating an Arab affair isn’t entirely ridiculous.

As Rachel Beitarie points out, one of the most interesting aspects of the visits of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to China was the personal involvement of Xi Jinping in seeking to find ways to improve Palestinian-Israeli relations. As seasoned realists, Xi and the Chinese leadership are likely to have expected few concrete results from this effort. But these visits suggests that the new Chinese leadership may be seeking to inject new thinking and may be developing a more pro-active foreign policy in regions that previously have been secondary in their priorities but are becoming increasingly important for its national interests.

While the public spotlight of Netanyahu’s visit to China was on economic cooperation, trade, and investment, probably the most important issue between the two countries is Iran and its nuclear weapons development. While this issue was not publicly raised, it would be surprising if the two sides did not address this topic in their closed-door discussions as they have very divergent views and interests.

Israel increasingly is worried that Iran is getting close to acquiring key elements of a nuclear weapons capability and has made clear that it would take military action to prevent this from occurring, whether on its own or with U.S. support. China enjoys strong economic, energy, and geo-political relations with Iran and has been reluctant to join international sanctions against Tehran. An Israel-Iran military conflict would very much be against China’s interests given the growing importance of Iran and the Persian Gulf as a key source of oil imports.

While it is unlikely that the Netanyahu visit would have led to any bridging of the wide gap in the two countries’ approaches to dealing with Iran, it would at the very least allowed the Chinese leadership to have a better first hand appreciation of what is at stake for Israel. A more informed and engaged Chinese leadership on Middle East issues might be very useful in the event that the Iranian nuclear issue reaches criticality in the coming months.