Can China be a Middle East peace broker?

Abbas wrapped up his visit to China and was clearly pleased with his meetings. He publicly agreed with Xi Jinping's four-point proposal and "appreciates China's objective stance on the Palestine issue, and expects China to continue playing an important role." But can China actually play the role of Middle East peace broker?

Transient

Yesterday, I described my case for tempering high expectations for China's role in the Middle East (at least for the short-to-mid term). Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor offers some additional reasons why Beijing diplomatic ambitions may face roadblocks:

For a start, China has not been ready to put its money where its mouth is. Beijing contributes a paltry amount to the Palestinian Authority budget compared to major donors such as the United States and the European Union. Where Japan built an airport in Gaza, China built one primary school.
Nor is China a member of the “quartet,” made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations, which has been leading international efforts for more than a decade to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Third, Israel would be reluctant to see China playing a greater role in the region, given Beijing’s traditional backing for Palestinian positions, says Ma [former Middle East correspondent for Xinhua]. “China is not capable of becoming a key player,” he adds.

Naysayers proliferate. In a story relying heavily on the insights of Gerald Steinberg, professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University in Israel, and Yitzhak Shichor, TIME also reports a negative verdict on alleged Chinese aspirations to be a broker of Middle East peace. Only the United States has enough trust on both sides to mediate talks. On the other hand, China was slow to extend diplomatic relations with Israel (in 1992), Beijing's four points are a mere rehash of what's come before. China continues to protect Syria (something I mentioned yesterday), block initiatives on Iran, and other problematic positions. Speaking of the four points:

“It’s not really a plan, just a collection of slogans trying to satisfy everybody,” says Yitzhak Shichor, a specialist in Asian studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Let’s say I would be surprised if China would really become involved in this.”

Steinberg's conclusion:

“My own view, and of many of us who deal with China, is China is basically completely mercenary on this,” says Steinberg. “They’re interested in China and what’s good for China.”
Photo Credit: Alexander F. Yuan/AP

Photo Credit: Alexander F. Yuan/AP

Whether "mercenary" is the best word to use here is up for debate, but Beijing's motivations are almost certainly self-interested. David Cohen describes Xi Jinping's moves this week as "the logical foreign policy component to Xi's larger efforts to rewind the clock to the summer of 2008, before what many see as teh great errors of the Hu Jintao administration. If Li Keqian's economic policies are an effort to undo the 'state advances, private sector retreats' policies of post-crisis China, a move to establish China as a peacemaker in the Middle East could be a parallel effort to recapture China's lost popularity."

Surely there must be some positive spinners? Yes, The Diplomat's Zachary Zeck. Zeck sees the potential for China to replace Russia in the quartet. Initially, Russia was part of the quartet because of its loose alliance with Arab states, but it no longer holds these cards. Mao supported Palestinian militant groups as well as UN Resolution 3379. The United States is unable under U.S. law to engage directly with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, while Beijing lacks such constraints and has relations with Hamas. China can also help prop up the Palestinian economy in preparation for independence.

The U.S. should therefore propose that China join it in spearheading the Middle East Peace Process. Not only would this serve U.S. interests by helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but such a gesture would also give China greater confidence that Washington recognizes and accepts its importance on the world stage.
China has at least as strong an interest in accepting such a proposal. Not only is it increasingly dependent on the Middle East for its energy needs, but helping resolve an international security issue as important as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would signal to the world why it should welcome China becoming a leader on the world stage.

This is quite an attractive vision of the future and not entirely irreconcilable to some of the prior objections to China's ability to play Middle East broker. The sticking point is partnership between the United States and China to achieve balanced peace talks.