As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended his visit to Beijing yesterday, analysts said China’s desire to play a greater role in Middle East affairs in order to expand its influence in the region had been conspicuous.
However, they were divided over how big a role Beijing could play in brokering peace in one of the world’s longest-lasting conflicts, after keeping some distance from it for many years.
Analysts said they believed that the nearly simultaneous visits to China by Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas this week signalled China’s desire to play a greater role in promoting the Middle East peace process.
Abbas left Beijing on Tuesday after a three-day visit to China and Netanyahu wrapped up his five-day visit yesterday. He had spent the first leg in Shanghai.
In a meeting with Netanyahu on Thursday, President Xi Jinping urged Israel to restart peace talks with the Palestinians as soon as possible, days after he also tried to convince Abbas to revive them.
“I hope the two sides can make joint efforts to take practical measures to gradually build up mutual trust, to restart peace talks as soon as possible and achieve substantive progress,” Xi told Netanyahu, according to a statement carried on the website of China’s foreign ministry late on Thursday.
“Only by protecting the legitimate rights and interests of all countries and having respect for each other’s concerns can there be true realisation of regional peace and stability.”
Remarks by Chinese diplomats before the visits that Beijing would seek to facilitate talks between the two rivals triggered a flurry of international speculation that Beijing was claiming a direct role as a peacemaker. But Abbas left Beijing before Netanyahu’s arrived in the Chinese capital.
Professor Xiao Xian, director of Yunnan University’s Institute of Western Asian Studies, said the overlapping visits indicated “the new Chinese leadership’s desire to play a bigger role in Middle East affairs is a step forward from its long standing diplomacy of inaction”.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a press conference yesterday that China hoped the meetings with the two leaders could create a good environment for possible peace talks.
China has traditionally maintained a low profile in Middle East diplomacy, but in recent years has tried to play a more active role in its quest for markets, resources and diplomatic influence. China relies heavily on crude oil imports from Iran and Arab nations to meet its energy needs. About half of China’s oil imports come from the Middle East, and that dependency is expected to grow.
Yin Gang, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Western Asian and African Studies, said: “Securing energy supplies is one of China’s key national interests, and that is why China sought stable relations with both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Laurence Brahm, an international mediator who has been involved in a non-government, second-track dialogue to broker peace talks, said China’s growing economic and trade ties with Middle East countries, along with its fast-growing influence in the region following the world economic crisis, could give it more clout in mediating possible peace talks.
Both leaders’ China visits led to the signing of a raft of agreements for co-operation in trade, investment, technology and agriculture. China is Israel’s top trading partner in Asia, with bilateral trade reaching nearly US$10 billion last year.
Brahm, who took part in two interfaith conferences convened separately by Palestinian and Israeli authorities last month, said Israel was facing a fiscal deficit and Netanyahu had brought its largest trade and investment delegation to Beijing.
“Israel’s economic security can only be assured with peace,” Brahm said. “Peace can only be assured with Palestine’s economic security. China may leverage its own investment and trade with both to promote peace.”
Brahm said China’s investment in solar energy would play a crucial role in helping make Palestine energy self-sufficient. It is presently heavily reliant on electricity supplies from Israel and faces frequent blackouts.
But Xiao and Yin said China’s role in brokering peace was limited for historic reasons and due to the complexity of the conflict. Analysts said that China’s traditional support of countries like Syria and Iran, and also Libya before the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, would complicate its role in the region.
China has also sided with Russia to try to impede Western proposals for more action against Syria.
Additional reporting by Reuters