May 10 (Bloomberg) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to China this week seeking more trade with the world’s second-biggest economy. While his hosts welcomed the overture, they were focused on the Middle East peace process.
A government spokeswoman said during Netanyahu’s visit that China was pushing for the resumption of talks to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Xi Jinping put forward a new proposal to restart talks when he met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose two-day trip overlapped with Netanyahu’s visit.
Before Netanyahu and Abbas arrived in the country, China offered to host a meeting between them to break a stalemate in peace negotiations deadlocked since 2010. Though the two didn’t take up the idea, the suggestion marked a new assertiveness in a region where Xi may also be trying to ease a standoff between Israel and Iran, a source of Chinese oil.
“Beijing is certainly upping its game in the Middle East,” Willy Wo-Lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote in an e-mail. “China is a major importer of Middle-East oil, yet its clout there has so far been limited. The Xi administration hopes that it can exert more influence in defusing the Iranian crisis given China’s huge investments in oil facilities in Iran.”
Xi’s four-point proposal to Abbas called for a halt to settlement activities, an end to violence against civilians and lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip. He called for an independent Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The U.S. has long been the most important foreign power involved in the Israel-Palestine peace process, with former President Bill Clinton hosting the Camp David summit in 2000. The so-called Quartet of international Middle East peace mediators headed doesn’t include China.
China’s positions on some issues including Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear program have put it at odds with the U.S. Along with Russia, the Chinese government has opposed tougher sanctions against Iran’s atomic program and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
China offered a proposal for resolving the Syria conflict when joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi visited Beijing last November. The plan fell short of calling for the removal of Assad and was never taken up.
Asked yesterday if China wants to play a greater role in peace negotiations, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said her government has “always been fair and acted in a responsible manner” and noted that envoy to the peace process, Wu Sike, recently visited the region.
“All this is to push for the resumption of Middle East peace talks and to strike for early progress,” Hua said.
With China supporting the Palestinian push for statehood, Abbas said he would welcome its involvement in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“China should play an important role during the process as it is a fair country, impartial and adhering to justice,” the Palestinian leader told reporters in Beijing during his trip.
The visits by Netanyahu and Abbas reflect ambitions by China’s new leaders to play a bigger role in a region where it has historically been a bystander, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham in England.
“It reflects in part the greater assertiveness of China under Xi Jinping, as Xi would like to see China being respected more globally,” Tsang said. “I don’t think it necessarily means that China is determined to find a solution to the most basic of the Middle Eastern problems.”
In public, Netanyahu spoke only about economic cooperation, saying at a meeting with Xi yesterday that the two countries should “seize the future” using their advantages -- China as a global power and Israel as a “global center of technology.”
“I propose that Israel in many ways be the R&D lab for China,” Netanyahu said.
Chinese investment in Israel includes the 2011 sale of 60 percent of fertilizer maker Makhteshim-Agan Industries Ltd. to China National Chemical Corp. for $2.2 billion and the acquisition of Alma Lasers Ltd. by Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical (Group) Co. for $240 million.
Asked if China could become a member of the Quartet, Israeli ambassador Matan Vilnai said the Asian country’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian issue aren’t significantly different from those of the U.S., Russia, the United Nations and European Union.
“I think it’s complementary with America’s diplomacy” He Wenping, director of the African Research Section at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in an interview today. “It’s walking toward the same direction. They are not going in opposite directions. It’s not like the Syria crisis.”
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