World

China renews interest in playing larger role in Middle East

Unclear whether Beijing's moves in the region show a desire to play bigger role

China has expressed renewed interest in playing a larger role in the Middle East peace process, a move that some see as invaluable given how the latest US action has unnerved the region.

At a forum in Beijing last Saturday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China's willingness to bring Israeli and Palestinian representatives together for a dialogue by year end.

The offer came just a month after its special envoy on Middle East affairs, Mr Gong Xiaosheng, concluded a visit to Israel and Palestine, and said both parties welcomed China's involvement in the peace talks and were ready to work with China to find a solution.

China had proposed a trilateral dialogue with Palestine and Israel in July, following separate visits by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Beijing.

Experts are divided on the significance of the latest Chinese moves.

Some pundits viewed them as China trying to fill the vacuum caused by President Donald Trump's decision last week to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, reversing decades of American diplomatic policy.

"So far, China has made clear its determination to play a more important role in the Middle East," wrote China analyst Charlotte Gao in The Diplomat.

"Trump's latest decision seemed to have provided China a good chance to realise this goal."

The Middle East presents an opportunity for China to highlight where the US has fallen short, Assistant Professor Yoram Evron at the University of Haifa told The Straits Times.

"China wants to look like an important and influential player (on the world stage), and obviously getting involved in the Middle East peace process is part of it as it's a conflict with global implications and global exposure," said Dr Evron, who is with the university's Department of Asian Studies.

But a closer look at Chinese efforts to broker peace in the Middle East over the last decade will show that Beijing has no intention to play a big-power role in the Middle East - with the heavy investments this requires - and that its latest proposal is no different, said China-Middle East expert Sam Chester.

Dr Yin Gang, a retired expert on Middle East studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China has no wish to take a "dominant role" the way that the US has in the Middle East, especially given the attendant costs.

"The US plays a crucial role in the Middle East; China does not," he said.

"China does not have the capacity, need or qualifications to go in and play this role. There are many things going on close by that are difficult to handle, such as North Korea, India and Pakistan."

WORLD