Xi Jinping's sudden announcement that China has a peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed to come out of left field. Traditionally skeptical of foreign entanglements, modern Chinese leaders have studiously avoided taking stands on international issues – remaining neutral to a fault, as when China's resistance to recognizing the new governments of the Arab spring led it into a series of diplomatic pitfalls.
This policy of non-intervention has brought China under repeated international criticism in recent years from countries who call for China to take on more responsibilities in the international community, helping to resolve disputes with North Korea, Iran, and Sudan, among others. Beijing has cooperated to a certain extent with American-led groups in these cases, but it has never seemed happy about becoming involved.
But given a certain understanding of Xi's political goals, I think this move makes perfect sense. It is the logical foreign policy component to Xi’s larger efforts to rewind the clock to the summer of 2008, before what many see as the great errors of the Hu Jintao administration. If Li Keqiang's economic policies are an effort to undo the “state advances, private sector retreats” policies of post-crisis China, a move to establish China as a peacemaker in the Middle East could be a parallel effort to recapture China's lost popularity.
For Chinese liberals, and most international observers, the end of 2008 was a watershed moment in China's recent history. China's response to the financial crisis is widely seen as where things went wrong: most importantly, the “four trillion RMB stimulus” which shoveled cash to state-owned enterprises at the markets' trough, allowing them to go on enormous spending sprees for real estate and corporate acquisitions. These policies have had a lasting impact, with a private sector that remains shriveled and chastened compared to its pre-crisis counterpart.
While this stimulus was initially hailed as a victory for China's model of state capitalism, by the end of Hu's administration the supercharged SOEs were viewed as exploitative monopolies, leading many to fondly recall pre-crisis China as a golden age for private enterprise. Hu's own prime minster, Wen Jiabao, became a critic of the bloated state sector, pursuing a series of unsuccessful policies to shift the economy away from its dependence on state-led investment, and the new Xi-Li administration appears to share this view, moving ahead on Wen's economic policies.
Parallel to Hu's economic failures, in this account, was a decline in China's international standing – going into the crisis, China appeared to be considerably more popular globally than the U.S. The Beijing Olympics focused attention on China's spectacular growth for years before the event, leading people around the world to view its political rise as inevitable, while the wars of the Bush administration gave China a chance to cast itself as a champion of international law, leading many to view an empowered China as a desirable balancing force. French President Jacques Chirac, for example, spent several years touting a “multipolar world” with China as a prime example, while in early 2009 even Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama called for positioning his country “between the United States and China.” From a Chinese perspective, it was easy to see the U.S. as a country in terminal imperial decline, with China poised to inherit its position by international acclamation.
Of course, China's international position has turned out to be a good deal more complicated than that. Without the Bush administration as a foil, China has found itself dealing with issues on which its approach is less popular: nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, and China's own territorial disputes, both issues in which European states and China's neighbors view American military power more favorably. For Chinese who take seriously the account of the U.S. as a nasty hegemon – and who see no difference between the war in Iraq and more recent interventions, such as that in Libya – this has been an unaccountable change.
From my perspective, blaming Hu Jintao for this apparent loss of influence is unreasonable – China always had real disagreements about territory with its neighbors and about the relative importance of sovereignty versus human rights with developed countries in Europe, and they were probably bound to reemerge when Bush left office. But given the lengths to which Xi has gone to distance himself from his predecessor, I think it is worth considering the possibility that this Middle East push is aimed at repeating the PR victories of the last decade.
There is one other serious hole in this theory – it does rather depend on China's leaders reading and taking seriously hyperbolic New York Times columns about the decline of the U.S. and the offhand musings of European Presidents. But, given the Economist's recent argument that Xi's “Chinese dream” catchphrase may have been lifted from a Thomas Friedman column, it seems likely that they do precisely that.