One of the most interesting things to come up in the opening remarks and first plenary session at the Valdai conference on the Middle East today was the proposal to expand the membership of the current Middle East Quartet.
The Quartet was established in Madrid in 2002 to help mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and consists of the European Union, Russia, The United Nations and the United States. However, although a quartet in name, with Tony Blair as special envoy, it has consistently and perhaps unsurprisingly been the United States that has been seen as the key player.
However, the latest breakdown in talks following the US admission that it had failed to persuade Israel to agree to stop building in settlements (despite apparently offering it a bribe of free F-35 fighter aircraft to do so) has underscored the need for a little fresh thinking. And one of the ideas at the conference here in Malta, which was floated by a very senior former government official, was to expand the Quartet to include China and India.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The idea of including China isn’t completely new – back in 2006, the Palestinian and Israeli delegations called on China to join the Quartet during a forum in Beijing.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported at the time:
‘With a unique status, China can increase its influence in the Middle East and contribute to advancing peace in the region, the statement said.
‘Israel's Former Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin said China is a country no one can neglect in the world. "That is part of the reason we support China to join the Quartet."
‘Former Minister of State of the Palestinian National Authority Abdel Kader I.F. Hamed said China is able to help resolve many issues between Palestine and Israel and clear up obstacles in the peace process.’
It’s hard not to feel, as some delegates noted, that the US can’t really be considered a neutral negotiator in the process. Setting aside the conspiracy theories about the Israel lobby, and also the obvious fact that as the world’s only super power the United States has more potential pressure it can bring to bear than any other nation, the reality is that the process clearly isn’t working.
The US may be loathe to cede influence, especially at a time when relations with China are prickly, to say the least. But allowing it a greater stake in trying to tackle what has been a massive dark cloud in international affairs would give China the chance to demonstrate that it’s willing to work with the international community and able to use its growing clout constructively. And it surely couldn’t do any harm to have Chinese and Indian diplomats working closely together on resolving a key strategic issue.
As fellow China Power blogger Mu Chunshan noted last month, although China has long been reluctant to become entangled in the peace process (and really, who can blame it?), it also doesn’t want to find itself left too far behind by the United States. It has already made a gradual start toward greater involvement, Mu notes, appointing a special envoy for Middle East issues between 2002 and 2006, who shuttled between the parties involved.
With Russia apparently increasingly determined to play a more active role in the quartet, is it time for China to heed its apparent call and step up for a sextet?