Starting May 5, Beijing welcomes two important leaders from
Simultaneous Visits and Hope for Peace in the Middle East
US President Barack Obama visited Israel and Palestine at the outset of his second term and Secretary of State John Kerry went to the Middle East three times in two months, all aimed at restarting the long frozen peace process. At the end of April, the Arab League put forward a two-nation land swap proposal based on the 1967 borders, offering some chance for the resumption of peace talks. It is also the first time for China’s new administration to receive key Middle East leaders. For these reasons, the two visits have attracted extensive international attention. Discussions between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders with their Chinese counterparts are said to focus on their respective bilateral relationships and the Middle East peace process.
On the first front, China maintains friendly relations and sound cooperation with both countries. Palestine has been a traditional friend of China; according to President Abbas, China is the only major country that has always supported the resumption of national rights for Palestinians. During the visit, China and Palestine signed agreements to enhance cooperation in the fields of economy, trade, culture and education, further elevating bilateral relations.
For Israel, 21 years worth of diplomatic ties with China have led to the rapid growth of relations, friendship and cooperation. With bilateral trade reaching nearly $10 billion, China has become Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia and its third largest trading partner in the world. Additionally, a huge delegation of officials and entrepreneurs joined Prime Minister Netanyahu at joint economic and trade events. The two sides are expected to sign multiple intergovernmental cooperation documents and business agreements in many different sectors.
With regard to the Middle East peace process, Chinese leaders are ready to seize the opportunity to push for peace talks. President Xi Jinping has put forward a four-point proposal. Although many ideas were already voiced by China on different occasions, it is the first time for them to be articulated in a systemic way and by the head of state. Palestine’s independent statehood and the peaceful co-existence of Palestine and Israel are the ultimate way out of their protracted conflicts. Peace talks are the only path to the above-mentioned objectives and have to follow the principle of “land for peace.” The process also requires concerted efforts by the international community. Other issues of respective Palestinian and Israeli concerns are also expected on the meeting agenda, but bilateral relations and peace process are the highlights.
As is known to all, China has always supported the peace process. The first special envoy appointed in Chinese diplomatic history was to the Middle East. Since the appointment in 2002, the special envoy has had shuttle visits to the Middle East every year, sparing no effort to push for peace and facilitate peace talks. Such a position by China reflects a common desire of the international community and is a practical expression of China undertaking the responsibility of a major country. Needless to say, with increased national strength and closer links with Middle East countries, China’s interests in the region also expand as a stable Middle East serves Chinese interests. China is always of the view that the peace process lies at the heart of the Middle East question and that there will be no stability in the Middle East without peace between Palestine and Israel. In recent years, the international community has increasingly realized the significance of facilitating peace talks between Palestine and Israel. As a matter of fact, China and the US have important common interests in Middle East stability. Last year, upon request of the US, cooperation in the Middle East was added to the strategic dialogue agenda between China and the US. It is believed that the US and the rest of the world do wish to see a more active role played by China in the Middle East peace process.
Nonetheless, greater efforts by China on the Middle East peace process does not mean that China is going to or has the ability to replace the US. Actually, China can only play a supporting role. The process depends on concerted efforts by the international community and especially on behalf of the US because only the US is able to exert substantive influence over Israel. The international community, the US included, needs to address two difficulties in the peace process: identifying the pre-1967 War border as the basis for negotiation and making sure that Israel stops building Jewish settlements. While it is extremely difficult to press ahead with the peace process, it is also a cause that well deserves unswerving effort.
Li Shaoxian is the Vice President of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.