Why it’s great news that China wants to mediate Israel-Palestine talks

May 3, 2013

A 2010 photo shows Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meeting with then-Chinese President Hu Jintao in Shanghai. (Omar Rashidi/PPO via Getty Images)

The Chinese foreign ministry has offered to broker a meeting, according to the AP, between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom are visiting Beijing next week.

It's a promising sign. Probably not for the Israel-Palestine peace process, which has demonstrated a remarkable ability to resist mediating efforts by more experienced and invested powers, but for China's foreign policy. The offer, whatever comes of it, could indicate that China sees its role in world affairs evolving from that of an insecure outsider to the kind of responsible global power it wants to be.

China has made some previous efforts to project power in the Middle East, by low-bidding on high-profile development projects in Algeria and Saudi Arabia, for example, or by helping to support the regime in Sudan when it was otherwise isolated. China continues to oppose international action on Syria or Iran, and buys large amounts of oil from the latter. Those efforts have mostly positioned China as a sort of spoiler to Western powers, exploiting holes in the U.S.- and Europe-dominated international system.

A gesture to mediate in Israel-Palestine, though, suggests that Beijing may be getting more serious about upholding that international system rather than free-riding off of it. Beijing has long opposed the Western power projection it says is imperialistic, from the NATO-led Balkans interventions to U.S. overseas bases in East Asia to Western sanctions on rogue states. But the truth is that China also deeply relies on the international system of free trade and global security, enforced in large part by Western power, without which China's export-led growth would never have been possible.

That China would undermine the same international order it so relies on, contradictory though it might seem, is not so irrational. China, since enduring what its history books call the "century of humiliation" from the 1830s through World War Two, has perceived itself as weak and beset by enemies. As Henry Kissinger noted in his otherwise poorly received book on China, Beijing has not yet succeeded in developing a diplomatic tradition, in part because China has historically either been so strong it didn't need to exercise diplomacy or so weak it didn't bother. As a rising power within a U.S.-dominated system, it's had to find a new place for itself in the world.

China's foreign policy transition, of a spoiler exploiting the international system to a stakeholder helping to prop it up, could mean a reduced global leadership role for the U.S. But, for all the anxiety this is understandably causing in Washington, it might not actually be such bad news for U.S. interests. As the scholar G. John Ikenberry predicted in a 2011 article for Foreign Affairs, though we're accustomed to disagreeing with China on international issues, China's growing stake in and reliance on the U.S.-dominated system may lead China to share U.S. interests rather than contradict them. At some point, China is better served by preserving the system than undercutting it. And that means, as in the case of moderating in Israel-Palestine, Chinese interests shifting to line up more with those of the U.S.

There are already hints of this on the Korean peninsula, where China has shown remarkably public unhappiness with North Korea's recent provocations. Beijing is not about to withdraw support for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but it has been unusually assertive in reigning Kim in. It seems that China, which once sent hundreds of thousands of troops into Korea to preserve the fellow communist regime, is today more concerned with a quiet neighborhood and peaceful status quo.

In Sudan, where China has long profited from Western isolation of the regime in Khartoum by buying Sudanese energy at low prices, there are signs that Beijing might now feel compelled to help moderate peace deals between that regime and South Sudan. That doesn't appear to be out of humanitarian concern for South Sudanese civilians but out of a growing view in Beijing that its support of Khartoum made peace in Sudan less likely and endangered Chinese investments.

Watching China's evolving foreign policy, it's easy to be reminded of the first of the aging baby boomers, many of whose passion for radical social change moderated into law-and-order conservatism once they got 401ks and mortgages. Suddenly, they saw their city's streets as something to keep clean and safe rather than as a place to protest.

China, alas, probably does not yet have the experience or know-how to resolve the Israel-Palestine peace process, one of the most difficult and intractable international disputes of the past century. You should not hold your breath for the Great Wall peace accords of 2013. That's not meant as a knock on China; the U.S., after helping lead such diplomatic breakthroughs as the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt and the 1993 Oslo accords, has obviously not found many recent successes itself. But the point is that Beijing wants to be, or at least be seen as, the kind of global power that mends international disputes rather than exploits them for its own gain. That's good news for the U.S.; we can use all the help we can get.

Comments
Show Comments

Get the WorldViews newsletter

Sign up for daily updates from WorldViews.

Most Read World
Next Story
Max Fisher · May 3, 2013