Experts split over China's moves on the Middle East following Trump's decision on Jerusalem

A protester waving a Palestinian flag during a demonstration against US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on Dec 11, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

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

At a forum in Beijing last Saturday (Dec 9), Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China's willingness to bring Israeli and Palestinian representatives together for a dialogue by year end.

The offer came just a month after its special envoy on Middle East affairs, 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 viewed them as China trying to fill the vacuum caused by 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.

Mr Trump's decision has cast a shadow over the new blueprint that the White House said last month it was developing to bring the decades-old conflict between Israel and Palestine to an end.

Dr 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. "Trump's latest decision seemed to have provided China a good chance to realise this goal."

Why is China so interested in the Middle East?

Experts said the chief reason is economic. China is today both the largest importer of oil from the Middle East and exporter of goods to the region, which inextricably ties its fortunes to the region's stability.

But a close second is its ambition to be seen as a rising major power with global influence, or as President Xi Jinping put it at the 19th Party Congress in October, a "China moving closer to centre stage".

In this respect, the Middle East presents an opportunity for China to highlight where the US has fallen short, Assistant Professor Yoram Evron at the University of Haifa told The Straits Times.

"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 Dr Evron, who is with the university's Department of Asian Studies.

Historic and economic reasons make China uniquely suited to play a mediating role between the two sides.

Experts point to China's policy of non-interference and consistent support since the 1960s for Palestinian independence, even as it had always nurtured trade ties with Israel even before the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992.

Trade between China and Israel grew tenfold to US$11.4 billion from 2000 to 2015, and China is now Israel's third-largest trading partner after the US and the EU.

But a closer look at Chinese efforts to broker peace in the Middle East over the last decade will show that Beijing has no intention to play a big-power role in the Middle East - with the heavy investments this requires - 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 Trump's unilateralism on other issues such as free trade, in the Middle East it is unlikely Chinese leaders will make any serious move to supplant US leadership."

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

For instance, it omits Palestinian demands to establish an independent Palestinian state that enjoys full sovereignty, as well acknowledging 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 UN 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" 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."

And while both Israel and Palestine see China as important enough a partner to sit down and discuss the issue with Chinese leaders, Dr Evron said that neither side, especially Israel, are looking to China as a replacement for the US right now.

"Israel will still remain cautious about Chinese involvement because of China's traditional pro-Arab, pro-Palestinian approach, and its strong relations with Iran and other Muslim countries in the Middle East," he said.

The best indication of Chinese contribution that goes beyond the symbolic would be something like a joint economic or infrastructure project that includes both Israel and Palestine, said Dr Evron.

"This plays to its strong suit, its economic prowess, to bring the two sides together," he said. "And such projects will fit China's existing agenda in the Middle East."

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