Beijing targets peace talks in Middle East

Foreign minister Wang Yi's priority in his first trip to the region is to secure new round of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 4:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 4:30am

Foreign Minister Wang Yi starts his first official trip to the Middle East today as Beijing tries to increase its political and economic influence in the region.

Wang told US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday by phone the main aim of his trip was to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together for peace talks.

Kerry has also been pushing for talks between the two sides in recent trips to the region.

President Xi Jinping gave the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas a state welcome to Beijing in May and called for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Talks were also held the same month with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Beijing offered to host any future peace talks between the two sides.

Wang will visit Israel, the Palestinian territories, Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia during his 10-day trip.

China is becoming a major oil buyer and trade partner in the Middle East. The consultancy firm McKinsey estimates trade between China and the region will reach US$500 billion by 2020.

China also imports 3.7 million barrels of crude oil a day from states of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

The Middle East was "ever changing and unpredictable," said Li Guofu, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the China Institute of International Studies. "China wants to show its influence in resolving the crises facing the region."

China's stance on Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed since civil war erupted in March 2011, will be scrutinised next month during a UN conference in Geneva aimed at finding a political solution to the crisis.

Wang told Kerry China hoped the conference would generate positive results to start a political transition in Syria.

China and Russia had previously angered the US by vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for tough action against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. China rejected setting the removal of Assad from power as the precondition of next month's talks, raising concerns about the division between Beijing and Washington on the issue.

Wang Lian , an international relations professor at Peking University, said China's main interest in the region was still oil. But the fact Wang had discussed the trip's agenda with Kerry indicated China was aware the US was still the leading player in the region and Beijing had no intention of challenging that, Wang said.

"The US hopes to get China's support in dealing with not only Syria, but other issues such as nuclear development in Iran," he said.

"The Middle East is indeed a region where the two nations can more easily look for common ground for co-operation than the Asia-Pacific region, where tension is heightened by territorial disputes."