What Is China's Plan for The Middle East?

Xi Jinping's recent visit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders says as much about the United States as it does about China.
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xiabbas.jpgChina's President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing May 6, 2013 (Jason Lee/Reuters)

Solving the Israel/Palestine crisis has long been the holy grail of American foreign policy -- an elusive goal that each successive president has strived to achieve. Like moths to a flame, American presidents cannot resist the temptation to solve a problem from which so many other issues -- terrorism and Iran, notably -- seem to come from.

Could China, then, be stealing America's thunder? President Xi Jinping made waves last week by inviting both Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to China, a diplomatic maneuver that elicited the attention (and approval) of the U.S. media. The ambitions for the visit weren't terribly ambitious; Netanyahu and Abbas never met, and Xi issued a bland "four-point plan" that reinforced existing norms for resolving the crisis. But the very fact that China thrust itself in the situation nonetheless was significant. Why, then, did China decide to do it?

There are two major forces at play. First, publicly claiming an interest in solving this crisis is consistent with China's new global approach to foreign policy. For years, China focused its attention primarily on its periphery, but as its economy grew Beijing needed to come up with a strategy to deal with the rest of the world, one that, at least, went beyond "just sell us natural resources and we'll let you do whatever you want to your people." Now, a strategy has emerged.  On the United Nations Security Council China has formed a de facto alliance with Russia, using their respective vetoes to stymie American-led initiatives. Beijing has also flexed its diplomatic muscle through organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (a grouping of Central Asian republics plus China) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (which, though not a member, China exerts significant influence in). China may claim to be just a middle-income developing country, but in diplomatic terms it has become much more than that.

However, Beijing's involvement in the Middle East has as much to do with the United States than it does with China. Prospects for U.S. brokerage of Israeli/Palestinian peace are bleaker than they've been in a long time. President Obama's relationship with Netanyahu, to put it mildly, is not warm, and the continued split between Fatah and Hamas complicates matters further. The administration has also publicly signaled a "pivot to Asia", a declaration that foreign policy priorities won't be dominated by the Middle East forever. And when recently asked about the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, Secretary of State John Kerry pessimistically gave the "two-state solution" a window of two more years. Clearly, Washington doesn't feel good about the situation.

So will China fill the breach? Beijing's involvement does offer a fresh dynamic to the region; whereas Washington is seen as a staunch Israel ally, China tilts much more toward the Palestinians. It wasn't a coincidence that it was Mahmoud Abbas, not Netanyahu, who was awarded full state visit honors in China. That said, China still lacks the clout to play more than a peripheral role in the Middle East peace process -- something Beijing surely knows. But by meeting with the two leaders, Xi Jinping served a timely reminder that his country, at the very least, wasn't going to sit this issue out anymore.
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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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