China's new role as peacemaker

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2013, 3:06am

Diplomacy does not have to be only for superpower countries, but having economic and political clout helps. China's offer to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians speaks of a new confidence and willingness to take a bigger and more responsible international role. With decades of US effort having achieved little, there has for some time been a need for a fresh mediator. To Beijing's credit, it has seen the void, sized up the situation and taken the initiative.

Befitting the difficulties, President Xi Jinping has approached the task cautiously. Although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were visiting China at the same time last week, the idea of them meeting was floated, not engineered. As it happened, the handshake that seemed possible did not occur; Abbas left Beijing on Tuesday, a day before Netanyahu arrived from Shanghai. That nonetheless gave ample opportunity for Xi to present China's four-point peace plan to Palestine's leader and for Premier Li Keqiang to urge his Israeli counterpart to rejoin negotiations.

China has taken a bold and, some would say, brave step. There are few conflicts as protracted or complicated. The US has tried repeatedly since the 1970s to bring about a solution, got closest in 2000, but ultimately failed. Negotiators from other countries have flitted in and out of the region, former British prime minister Tony Blair among them, to little avail.

But while other brokers have had strong international standing, they have also been hampered by historical baggage. China is not impeded in such a way; it has good relations with Israelis and Palestinians alike. The business and investment deals Netanyahu and Abbas left China with attest to Beijing's advantage. Few countries are as well-placed as China to rein in Iran, a major oil trading partner, but also Israel's biggest threat.

Getting involved in Middle East peace is not new for Beijing. It has had a special envoy to the region since 2002 and its present representative, Wu Sike, visited Israel and Palestine last month. Nor was the plan - centred on a Palestinian state beside Israel with East Jerusalem as the capital and based on the 1967 boundaries - extraordinary. It merely formalised China's long-held position. The proposal nonetheless raises the nation's image, marking it as willing to take a larger role in global matters. With the spotlight now firmly on its efforts, it has to make plain how committed it is to working for lasting peace.