What’s China’s Game in the Middle East?
A ChinaFile Conversation
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.
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