Behind China's Mideast peace gesture

John Lee says Beijing's offer to be a peace broker on the Palestinian issue reflects not only China's wish for stability in the Middle East but also a desire to be seen as a constructive great power

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 May, 2013, 2:56am

President Xi Jinping's "four-point plan" presented to Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas is not original in content, but China's offer to enter the quagmire of Middle East politics is several steps removed from Deng Xiaoping's advice to keep a low profile.

Some might argue that this is evidence that China seeks a political and diplomatic role that is commensurate with its enormous size and importance to the global economy. That is one part of the reason for these latest moves. The other part speaks as much about Chinese vulnerabilities into the future as its strengths.

China currently has no clear strategy for what it wants to achieve, with whom, or how

Superficially, China is well placed to play some role in the peace process. It has not taken a high-profile stance on the Israeli-Palestinian border issues, meaning that it carries little contemporary baggage as a potential negotiator. Although avoiding headlines, China has frequently voted to give Palestine more rights in the United Nations since the 1990s and has regularly criticised Israeli moves such as the construction of the West Bank barrier (or the Wall) and settlement policies in occupied territories.

On the other hand, China has no history of anti-Semitism that could hinder future Sino-Israeli relations. Both countries are openly admiring of each other's achievements and are eager to share civilian technologies and know-how. The People's Liberation Army has an excellent relationship with the Israeli Defence Forces, even if Israel still maintains an export ban on hi-tech defence equipment to China at America's insistence.

That China has a poor record of negotiating agreements, when complex historical, cultural and political enmity between parties is involved, is beside the point. Being seen as a willing peacemaker in this dispute is a boon for Chinese hopes that it be seen as a constructive great power. The likelihood that it will never actually have to play this role, and get its hands and reputation dirtied, is a further windfall.

If China's capacity to play peacemaker is limited, its desire for stability in the Middle East is genuine, and its yearning for greater influence is understandable. It currently imports over half its oil, most of it from the Middle East. By 2020, it is estimated that about four-fifths of its oil needs will come from the Middle East; almost all shipped through American-patrolled waters. Even though the PLA's strategists fear "strangulation" by the American Seventh Fleet, it has become apparent to Beijing that its greatest energy security threat is instability in a major oil-producing country that could jeopardise reliable and affordable supply.

It has also dawned on Beijing that, for a region of such immense importance to its future, China has relatively little standing in the Middle East which would offer it some chance of shaping events into the future, or at least helping to stabilise the region. As recent events demonstrate, the cosy formula of signing exclusive resource contracts with authoritarian governments can fail when those regimes fall - as occurred in Libya, likely Syria, and perhaps one day in Iran. Besides, the large oil supplier governments such as Saudi Arabia will never enter into large-scale exclusive supply agreements with China as African governments in countries such as Angola and Sudan have done.

Although the Israeli-Palestinian issue has no direct impact on its energy supply calculations, Beijing has been searching for non-military avenues to extend its influence and standing in the broader Middle East - and the role of peacemaker is potentially one. China currently has no clear strategy for what it wants to achieve, with whom, or how. Offering to hold an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit is a stab in the dark. But it knows it needs new friends outside Iran and Syria, and more relevance in a region that holds the key to its energy security future.

Finally, Beijing's interest in improving its standing among the Muslim states of the Middle East speaks to one of its great vulnerabilities. We generally focus on Chinese activities in the maritime domains of the Indo-Pacific. But Beijing views its geo-strategic future not just vertically but horizontally, as evinced by its relatively recent articulated "Go West" strategy. This involves not just holding on to the traditionally Muslim-dominated Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region but winning friends and acquiring influence in countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As its continual troubles in Xinjiang demonstrate, Beijing needs to engineer an enduring Sino-Islamic entente of sorts to achieve this. To be sure, the Muslim world is culturally alien and bewildering to the Han Chinese, and far from homogenous. Any constructive role in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process is unlikely to earn Beijing meaningful brownie points among Muslims in Central Asia, or even throughout the Middle East.

But as China grows in global prominence, it would be a domestic disaster were Beijing to be viewed as an "enemy" of Islam, as Muslim elements in Xinjiang could attract sympathisers and supporters. It is no coincidence that Beijing has consistently emphasised its support for an independent Palestinian state when meeting leaders of Islamic republics.

To counter its record of cultural and religious intolerance in Xinjiang, Beijing is desperate that it be seen as a partner of Islamic actors rather than a suppressor of them.

Xi's four-point plan will not bring peace to the Middle East. But China's size is too great and interests too vast to "hide brightness and cherish obscurity". A lonely great power, playing peacemaker is how it would like to reveal itself to the world.

Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow and adjunct associate professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra