China's stake in the Israel-Palestine talks

In 2010, I was taking a class on U.S. foreign policy in the Gulf and the eminent Marc Lynch was that day's guest lecturer. His talk was was primarily about the use of technology in revolutions, but during a Q&A session afterward Lynch made an interesting comment about China in the Middle East. "What's China's position on the Arab-Isareli conflict?" he asked. Silence. "Exactly," Lynch continued, "A gauge of whether a country is a superpower is whether it has a public stake in the conflict."

The Palestinian Authority's president Mahmoud Abbas paid a visit to Beijing on Sunday and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Shanghai on Monday and will make the trek to the capital on Wednesday. All indications are that these two will not meet while on Chinese soil, though the Chinese Foreign Ministry has offered to facilitate such a meeting if requested.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left), China President Xi Jinping (right). Photo credit: AP/Jason Lee)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left), China President Xi Jinping (right). Photo credit: AP/Jason Lee)

So what does this mean for China's role in world affairs? Does this mean that China is finally taking the mantle of a superpower? Surely these questions cannot be answered based on this visit by Palestinian and Israeli representatives, but this news also shouldn't be swept aside as insignificant.

Xinhua reports comments made by Chinese envoy to the Middle East Wu Sike:

The planned visits to China by Israeli and Palestinian leaders indicate that the new Chinese leadership devotes much attention to the Middle East issues and the development of the relations between China, Israel and the Palestinians, said Wu, who arrived here Sunday for a two-day visit....
Wu stressed that China has long believed that the Palestinian issue is the core of the Middle East issues and pushing for its solution will have a positive impact on the entire region.
He said China always backs the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in peaceful co-existence with Israel, based on the two-state solution, which is the way to settle the Israel- Palestinian issue in the long run.

These statements are true and Beijing has always upheld the consensus position of the international community as enshrined in UN resolutions. For example, this statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in 2001. But what Lynch was getting at was not whether or not China actually has a position, but if people actually know it intuitively as people know the U.S. position on the conflict.

As of May 7, Xi Jinping has released a 4-point peace proposal: 1) independent Palestinian state based on 1967 lines, 2) Israel's right to exist in peace, 3) end of settlement activities and other sources of conflict, 4) the international community should encourage new negotiations. On top of introducing this proposal, Xi signed agreements  with Abbas for cooperation and exchanges. Xi is expected to sign trade agreements with Netanyahu when he visits later this week.

I concur with Max Fisher that China's interest in mediating between Israel and Palestine is something to be celebrated. As Beijing exerts its influence to lessen turbulence in the international arena, all will benefit. China has gotten a reputation of stymieing Washington's initiatives on a whole host of issues, but maybe we are one step closer to a broad convergence of interests. Though cessation of rivalry is hardly imaginable, we can hope that convergence does occur, whether it be years or decades in the making.