China Attempts 20-Year-Old Middle East Diplomacy

May 10, 2013

Credit Dainis Matisons / Flickr

Earlier this week Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to China. Even though the two leaders did not meet, the timing of the visits signals China could start to become a diplomatic player in the troubled region.

Joshua Landis, the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a longtime observer of Syria, says China tried to arrange a meeting in 2007 between Netanyahu and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it didn’t work.

“[China has] been asserting themselves more and more in the Middle East,” Landis says. “And that’s a product of the United States withdrawing, and China is becoming much more self-confident.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping presented Abbas with a four-point proposal calling for a two-state solution and each side giving up land to achieve peace.

“It was a rehash of what the United States presented 20 years ago,” Landis says.

The New York Times reports that as China’s trade ties with Israel grow, the economic superpower has deliberately taken a “clear and consistent,” but not necessarily strong, stance in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The value of their trade relationship has been estimated in official Chinese news reports to be nearly $10 billion a year — but it supports Palestinian statehood and relies on crude oil imports from Iran and Arab nations to meet its energy needs. About half of China’s oil imports come from the Middle East, and that dependency is expected to deepen.

Rebecca Cruise, the assistant dean of OU’s College of International Studies, says China already imports 50 percent of its energy from the Middle East, and that number is expected to climb even higher.

“The other calculus here is not only that China is asserting itself in the international arena, but also that China has this rising middle class that they’re having to give fuel to,” Cruise says.

Landis says as the United States becomes more energy independent, Saudi Arabia is now China’s biggest trading partner.

“You can see a day when the United States is going to take a much smaller interest in the Middle East,” Landis says. “The United States has been a great world power in part because we’ve had our hand on the great oil tap in the Persian Gulf. That threat of using that against China has been our main card.”