Simone van Nieuwenhuizen is a Master of International Relations (Diplomacy) candidate at Peking University.
Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas' overlapping visits to China in May triggered speculation by both Chinese and international media about China's potential role in the Middle East peace process.
In an article for the China Daily, China's Special Envoy to the Middle East, Wu Sike, wrote that the visits, in which President Xi Jinping's presented his own 'four-point plan', demonstrated that 'Middle East affairs, especially the Palestinian question, have become a focus of China's diplomacy'.
As is often the case with China, it is difficult to know exactly what to believe. At a roundtable discussion of Chinese scholars of Middle Eastern issues last month, it was revealed that, after the King of Bahrain was unable to come to China in early May, Abbas took his time slot. Thus, it would seem the timing of the visits was not as carefully planned as many were led to believe.
However, in a piece for the Diplomat on 11 June, Zachary Keck revealed that according to Wu Sike, in October 2012 a meeting was held between himself and US special envoy for Middle East Peace, David Hale, in which US-China cooperation on the peace process was discussed. Wu claims the US has been encouraging China's involvement for some time.
Whether the timing was coincidental or not, China has leapt at the opportunity to demonstrate its global leadership potential. However, there are a number of reasons why China is unlikely to play an effective role in the Middle East peace process.
Firstly, China's has demonstrated a distinct lack of diplomatic leadership in resolving the crisis in Syria. Perhaps China's new-found interest in the Palestinian issue is a means of diverting attention from this. China has conveniently overlooked the fact that the Golan Heights, a major source of Arab-Israeli tension, has recently become a factor in the Syrian crisis too. It is unclear whether China would be willing to abandon its reticence on Syria to pursue peace for Israel and Palestine.
Secondly, important contradictions between China's diplomatic theory and practice would inevitably limit the effectiveness of its approach to the conflict.
China promotes the 'harmonious world' concept which emphasises multilateral solutions to international problems, and it staunchly defends the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. But in its own maritime territorial disputes with its neighbours, China has repeatedly emphasised bilateral over multilateral negotiations in order to prevent the 'internationalisation' of these issues. And how would China promote a two-state solution for the extremely complex and sensitive Israel-Palestine conflict, in which both sides would be expected to make significant compromises on their respective concepts of territorial integrity, while simultaneously denying calls for clarity on its own territorial claims?
Thirdly, since Reform and Opening Up, particularly since the introduction of the 'Going Out' policy in the 1990s, China's main interest in the Middle East has been fueling its own economic growth with the region's abundant natural resources. Due to China's traditional practice of staying out of the diplomatic spotlight, it still lacks a firm political or cultural presence in the region. Therefore, it is doubtful whether Chinese diplomacy would have a widespread impact.
While China appears to have the intention of playing a greater role in the Middle East peace process, it still lacks the capacity. China will need to determine its own diplomatic role and identity, as well as strengthen its regional diplomatic mechanisms, before attempting to mediate international conflicts such as this. It will take more than a redundant 'four-point plan' for China to make a lasting contribution to Arab-Israeli peace.
Photo by Flickr user Prime Minister of Israel.