China's fresh interest in Middle East splits views

Some say Beijing seeking bigger role; others downplay proposal for Israel-Palestine talks

China has expressed renewed interest in playing a larger role in the Middle East peace process, a move some see as invaluable, given how the latest United States actions has unnerved the region.

At a forum in Beijing last Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China's willingness to bring Israeli and Palestinian representatives together for a dialogue by the year end.

The offer came just a month after China's special envoy on Middle East affairs, Mr Gong Xiaosheng, concluded a visit to Israel and Palestine and said both parties welcomed China's involvement in the peace talks and were ready to work with China to find a solution.

China had proposed a trilateral dialogue with Palestine and Israel in July, following separate visits by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Beijing.

Experts are divided on the significance of the latest Chinese moves.

Some pundits view them as China trying to fill the vacuum caused by US President Donald Trump's decision last week to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, reversing decades of careful American diplomatic policy. But many experts have dismissed such a notion.

The decision has cast a shadow over the new blueprint that the White House last monthsaid it was developing to bring the decades-old conflict between Israel and Palestine to an end.

Mr Abbas, for instance, immediately blasted the move and said the US had essentially disqualified itself from its leadership role in the quest for Middle East peace.

"So far, China has made clear its determination to play a more important role in the Middle East," wrote China analyst Charlotte Gao in The Diplomat. "Mr Trump's latest decision seemed to have provided China a good chance to realise this goal."

The Middle East presents an opportunity for China to highlight where the US has fallen short, said Assistant Professor Yoram Evron at the University of Haifa.

"China wants to look like an important and influential player (on the world stage) and, obviously, getting involved in the Middle East peace process is part of it, as it's a conflict with global implications and global exposure," said Prof Evron, who is with the university's Department of Asian Studies.

But a closer look at Chinese efforts to broker peace in the Middle East over the past decade will show that Beijing has no intention to play a big-power role in the region - with the heavy investments required - and that its latest proposal is no different, said China-Middle East expert Sam Chester.

"All of the Chinese proposals have shared the following elements: They make no plan for China to take on a more active political role, go to great lengths to not antagonise anyone, and subtly criticise the failed previous peacemaking efforts by the US and the West," said Mr Chester.

"While Beijing is strategically choosing to take advantage of Mr Trump's unilateralism on other issues such as free trade, in the Middle East, it is unlikely that Chinese leaders will make any serious move to supplant US leadership."

Prof Evron agreed, noting that China's latest four-point proposal is much more vague than its previous proposal in 2013.

For instance, it omits Palestinian demands to establish an independent Palestinian state that enjoys full sovereignty, as well as Israel's right to exist while addressing its legitimate security concerns, instead making a general call to advance a two-state solution.

Chinese experts have also downplayed the latest proposal, preferring to emphasise that Beijing is simply playing a supporting role as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Dr Yin Gang, a retired expert on Middle East studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China has no wish to take a "dominant role" in the way that the US has in the Middle East, especially given the attendant costs. He pointed to how the US has provided some US$40 billion in aid to Egypt since 1979, part of the agreement of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.

"The US plays a crucial role in the Middle East; China does not," he said. "China does not have the capacity, need or qualifications to go in and play this role. There are many things going on close by that are difficult to handle, such as North Korea, India and Pakistan."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2017, with the headline 'China's fresh interest in Middle East splits views'. Print Edition | Subscribe