PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 November, 2002, 12:00am

THE LATE LEADER Deng Xiaoping, in the wake of international ostracism of China following the Tiananmen Square military crackdown in 1989, had some words of advice for his successors.

In international affairs, he said, never take the lead. China should keep its head down and bide its time while observing developments. And where the United States is concerned, Beijing should adopt a co-operative attitude and not be confrontational.

In the past decade, Beijing has largely followed Deng's advice. However, economic development in recent years means the country is becoming increasingly active in the international arena. And now, still gingerly, Beijing is seeking to play a bigger role in world affairs.

One sign of this is the recent appointment of a special envoy to the Middle East. The envoy, Wang Shijie, is a veteran diplomat who has served as ambassador in Bahrain, Jordan and Iran. Last week, he returned to Beijing from a nine-day trip through the Middle East, during which he visited Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestinian-ruled areas.

Chinese spokesmen, in explaining Mr Wang's appointment, have pointed out that as a permanent member of the United Nations' Security Council, it is only right that China should participate in the Middle East peace process. Moreover, they say, some Arab countries have indicated they hoped China would exert a more positive influence on the Middle East question, and Beijing is simply responding to their request.

Viewed as regional power

Actually, of the five permanent members of the Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - the mainland, being geographically distant from the area, has been perhaps the least active. Beijing has tended to side with the majority and not take the initiative.

As a result, it has been excluded from the Quartet Committee on the Middle East - the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. Even Japan, which is not a permanent member of the Security Council, has its own Middle East envoy.

China is viewed primarily as a regional power, and is an important factor in such areas as the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and the Korean peninsula. However, it has not successfully projected its power and its influence beyond the region. The appointment of a Middle East envoy is a step in China's attempt to be regarded as a world player.

Of course, China has its own interests to consider. As an oil importer, it sees the Middle East as important to fuel security.

Mr Wang's primary mission is to mediate in the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which has deteriorated greatly in the past two years. However, Israel is distinctly cool to the idea, considering China too pro-Arab.

Relations with Israel improved

China's relationship with Israel has improved since 2000, when the Israelis, under US pressure, cancelled a US$250 million (HK$1.95 billion) contract to sell China an airborne, early-warning radar system. However, Israel recently cancelled an exhibition on Albert Einstein after Beijing asked for the removal of all materials indicating that Einstein was Jewish and had supported the creation of Israel.

Mr Wang provided the rationale of his mission while in Cairo, the first leg of his trip.

'China, as one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, has a responsibility and obligation to push ahead with the Middle East peace process,' he said. 'We sincerely hope for comprehensive, just and durable settlement of Mideast issues, and China has maintained close contacts and consultations with regional countries, especially Arab countries, in this respect.'

As for how China sees a resolution of this seemingly intractable dispute, Mr Wang said: 'Any settlement of this issue should include the establishment of a Palestinian state and ensure security for Israel.' Of course, this position is by no means original. The question is how to get the two sides to resume peace talks, especially when Israel insists that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat must first be replaced.

During his trip, Mr Wang also met the US and Russian envoys to the Middle East as well as the UN envoy, Terje Roed Larson. The two men briefed one another, with Mr Larson telling the Chinese ambassador that the Quartet Committee was considering a US-proposed plan.

No doubt China hopes to expand the quartet into a quintet, but it may take more than one swing through the Middle East to accomplish this.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator