Mideast role limited, say experts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 12:00am

The mainland will play an increasingly important role in the Middle East but its effectiveness may not be obvious, scholars at a seminar on Sino-Israeli relations in Hong Kong said yesterday.

China last week named Wang Shijie - a former ambassador to Arab countries - as its special envoy to the Middle East, raising speculation that Beijing was eager to play a leading role in the region and perhaps cement closer ties with the United States through its influence in the Middle East.

But the scholars said while Jerusalem valued ties with Beijing, China's desire to be a mediator would depend on its position on each side of the conflict. Professor Itamar Rabinovich, president of Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli ambassador to the US, said: 'If China wants to play an effective role, it has to be effective on both sides.'

But he added that China remained an important partner to Israel. 'The US is our closest ally. But for [Israel's] second echelon of countries, China is a very important [one],' he said at the Sheraton Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui.

China has criticised Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and backed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, although Beijing has adjusted its position since establishing diplomatic relations with Israel 10 years ago.

However, another Tel Aviv University professor, Aron Shai, said Israel would welcome China as a leading player in the Middle East. He said that since the mainland was a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Beijing's input would be essential.

But a Chinese authority on Middle East and Central-Asia politics, Pan Guang, conceded that China's influence might be limited. 'China has named this special envoy but I feel that perhaps all he can do is pay a visit to the area,' said Professor Pan, director of the Centre for International Studies in Shanghai. 'After all, China doesn't have the power. The US has the financial prowess. We don't.

'The Arab world could demand several hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild Gaza or the West Bank. Israel can say it is okay to have a deal but the US must increase [aid] to them to buy more jet fighters and other weapons. The US has the financial strength to do that, but we don't.

'However, China can support [a solution] on the moral and diplomatic levels and in the UN.'

Professor Pan agreed that cultivating good relations with Washington might be one of Beijing's aims, but he said the main reason would be China's interests - particularly energy security - in the Middle East.

Professor Pan and Professor Shai shared the view that Sino-Israeli relations had largely come out of the shadow of Jerusalem's cancellation of the Phalcon airborne radar deal two years ago.

Professor Pan said relations were no longer troubled by the affair, especially after Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres visited Beijing in March.

Professor Shai said although President Jiang Zemin - who was assured by Israeli officials four months before the cancellation that the deal would go through - was 'personally hurt', commercial relations had been unimpeded by the affair. In March, Israel agreed to pay China US$350 million (HK$2.7 billion) in compensation for backing out of the deal.

He said China reached an agreement with Israel in February to use two Israeli satellites to broadcast the 2008 Olympic Games - a sign that Beijing separated politics and business.

But Professor Shai said the recent cancellation of an exhibition in China on the life of Albert Einstein had led cultural exchanges between Israel and China into a 'recession'.

The exhibition, scheduled to be held last month, was cancelled after the ministry demanded Israel delete text which said Einstein was Jewish, supported the creation of Israel and was invited to be its first president.