China right to play greater role in Mideast peace talks

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 5:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 5:00am

Sustainable prosperity cannot come for a country without stability. China's reliance on the Middle East for energy resources means it has every interest in ensuring that the nations from which it gets its oil and does business with are stable. That is one reason why it is increasingly turning its back on a foreign policy of non-intervention in favour of political involvement. But there is more than economics to the new approach adopted since Xi Jinping took the presidency last year: a nation so important internationally should, and has to, help resolve conflicts.

There have been hints under Xi of a shift, but proof came this month when Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the Arab television network Al-Jazeera that Beijing wanted a broader role in the Middle East, "not only in the economic field, but also in the political, security and military fields". He said China was ready to join peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. With 11 years of negotiations by the quartet - the US, EU, UN and Russia - having achieved little, the offer is brave, but also exceedingly welcome. China has good relations on both sides, so there is no country better placed to try to broker a deal.

China's joining the quartet would be symbolically important and immeasurably raise the nation's international diplomatic standing. Such involvement could also serve as a testing ground for the "new type of power relationship" that Xi and US President Barack Obama pledged at their summit last June. No nation has been as involved in the Mideast as the US. But despite Obama telling the UN General Assembly last September that the US would be "engaged in the region for the long haul", its decreasing need for Arab oil and a lack of public interest following its losses in Iraq and Afghanistan make a strategic withdrawal more likely.

Western nations want China to take a bigger role. It helped negotiate an interim deal on Iran's nuclear programme and is helping ship out Syria's chemical weapons for destruction. That is on top of a long record of trade, investment, humanitarian aid and participation in UN peacekeeping forces. Its growing trade with Arab states has contributed to economic development.

More than half of China's oil comes from the region and it plans a new "silk road" trade route across Asia. But being a world power involves more than just protecting interests and there is no better place to put its influence to work. A pay-off from negotiating peace is greater international acceptance and trust. China, the Mideast and the world will benefit.