Peacemaker role open to China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 July, 2006, 12:00am

China's standing up to Israel over the killing of a Chinese and three other UN peacekeepers fills a gaping void in international diplomacy. By condemning Israel and calling for a ceasefire, Beijing is, thankfully, playing a leading role on an issue on which world powers have failed to act decisively.

Israel has used disproportionate force in attempting to crush Hezbollah militias in southern Lebanon that are firing rockets on its towns and cities. The rising Lebanese civilian toll, obliterated infrastructure and growing humanitarian crisis resulting from Israeli bombing raids should have been enough to stir the world into action. Instead, governments have expressed concern, but then watched complacently.

The world's only superpower, the US, is Israel's firmest ally. That relationship has made other countries reticent about getting involved. Amid the US 'war on terrorism', in which Hezbollah has been declared a terrorist organisation with backing from Iran and Syria, keeping out of the fray seemed diplomatically wise.

With Washington's full backing, Israel determined that the only way to stop Israelis being killed or kidnapped by Hezbollah was to use military force against their positions in Lebanon. That force, claimed to be based on precision targeting to minimise disruption to the lives of Lebanese, has so far resulted in more than 400 civilian deaths, billions of dollars of damage and more than half a million refugees.

Hezbollah's rockets have left one-twentieth of that number of civilians dead and caused far less damage.

Despite having one of five permanent seats on the UN Security Council, China has not been a world leader in international diplomacy. Beijing has used its power of veto on the council sparingly and allowed the other members to dictate policies and solutions.

Even in 1999, when US warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the central government was unable to sway a vote on a resolution condemning the fatal attack. Instead, despite Beijing's outrage, the council decided that it neither 'condemned' nor 'deplored' the air strike, but did want China to know it felt 'deep distress and concern' over the fact that the raid took place.

In the seven years since, China has enjoyed rapid growth and become the world's third-largest trading economy. With the growth has come confidence. The mainland is increasingly getting involved in humanitarian work and peacekeeping operations.

Terrorists have killed or kidnapped Chinese in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan and Pakistan. A Chinese UN weapons inspector was killed in a car accident in 2003. But the death in southern Lebanon on Tuesday of one of the 180 peacekeepers that China has there as part of an international force is particularly high-profile.

As China's involvement and influence around the world grows it will increasingly be thrust into positions where it must take a stand - and play a prominent role - in international affairs.

Fortunately for the Lebanese, Beijing is using the attack on the peacekeepers to flex its strengthened diplomatic muscle. Apart from taking a leading role at the UN to condemn the incident, China has demanded an apology from Israel and called for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon.

The 'deep regrets' expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are not enough. And the explanation offered - that the precision bombing of the clearly marked UN bunker the peacekeepers were sheltering in after being fired on 14 times was simply a 'mistake' - is equally unsatisfactory.

China has taken the initiative and now must rally support to stop the fighting. Only then can the negotiations that should have taken place occur. The central government leadership should see ending the crisis and pushing for peace between Israel and Lebanon as the start of a much more proactive role for China in international diplomacy.