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US Lobbied China For Greater Middle East Cooperation

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The Debate

US Lobbied China For Greater Middle East Cooperation

China’s recent Middle East peace proposal came after US officials pushed for greater cooperation.

The U.S. has been quietly lobbying China to play a larger role in the Middle East peace process, China’s envoy to the Middle East recently told a Hong Kong-based publication.

In an interview with Phoenix Weekly, Wu Sike, China’s special envoy to the Middle East, rejected the notion that China’s recent inroads into the Israel-Palestinian conflict were a challenge to the United States traditional dominance of the issue, citing a number of occasions where senior U.S. officials asked for enhanced cooperation with China on the issue.

In the report Wu says that during a visit to Beijing last October, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, William Burns, raised the possibility of including the Middle East peace process in the next U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue that is scheduled to be held next month in Washington.  A State Department press release says that Burns was in China on October 17th as part of a larger trip to the region.

Wu goes on to say that in October of last year, he also discussed the issue of strengthening U.S.-China cooperation on the Middle East peace process with his U.S. counterpart, David Hale. It was not clear if this occurred at the same meeting as Deputy Secretary of State Burns or at a different meeting during the same month.

Wu also told Phoenix Weekly that China and the U.S. again discussed enhancing their cooperation on the Middle East peace process when Secretary of State John Kerry visited Beijing in April of this year. Since becoming Secretary of State, Kerry has worked tirelessly on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace, visiting the region repeatedly over the last few months. He also was in California for the Obama-Xi summit over the weekend and will join Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in heading the U.S. delegation at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue next month.

Shortly after Kerry’s visit to China, in early May Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had overlapping visits to China, albeit they did not meet while in the country. During his meeting with President Abbas, President Xi Jinping unveiled a new four point proposal for Israeli-Palestinian peace based on: a full independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital; Israeli security and its right to exist acknowledged; upholding the principle of land for peace; and the international community’s full support for negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Although the proposal far surpassed China’s past efforts on the issue, some foreign observers doubted it was little more than an empty gesture.

Wu Sike has sought to dispel such notions, telling Xinhua in an interview last week that: "China's proposals on resolving the Middle East hot issues come directly from its higher leadership as China is a permanent UN Security Council member and a valued state of high sense of responsibility."

China has a strong interest in becoming more immersed in the politics of the Middle East in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. In recent years Beijing has been the largest consumer of Middle East oil and oil imported from that region accounts for nearly 60 percent of China’s entire oil imports. Moreover, its position on Syria has almost certainly created turbulence between China and its largely Arab oil producers. China likely hopes it can minimize some of the fallout from its support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime by more actively supporting the Palestinians and Arabs in their ongoing conflict with Israel.

The motives of the U.S. in seeking to get China more involved in the Middle East peace process are less clear. The two countries have pledged to build a “new type of great power relationship” and the U.S. has, at times, sought to integrate China into the existing U.S.-led global order as a way of minimizing any intention it may have to challenge the status-quo.

During the Cold War both great powers were actively involved in the politics of the region with the Soviet Union even co-sponsoring the Madrid Peace Conference that followed the first Gulf War, despite its vastly weakened state by that time. Thus, by enhancing its cooperation with China on the issue, the U.S. may be trying to signal to Beijing that it is ready to treat it as a global power.

On the other hand, the Middle East peace process has been stalled for years and, as noted above, the U.S. has recently begun a new initiative to revive the stalled negotiations. It’s possible, then, that the U.S. recognizes that greater Chinese involvement in the negotiations could be conducive to solving the long-standing conflict.