China Power

China Appoints New Special Envoy to the Middle East

China’s choice for a new envoy to the Middle East shows a focus on the Israel-Palestine peace talks.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang announced Wednesday that Ambassador Gong Xiaosheng is China’s new special envoy to the Middle East. Gong replaced long-time envoy Wu Sike, who had held the position since 2009. According to the Foreign Ministry, Gong is expected to “tap into his rich diplomatic experience, forge close and friendly relations with relevant parties, continue with the mediation efforts to advance peace talks, and make contributions to regional peace and stability.”

Gong’s “rich diplomatic experience” includes stints as China’s ambassador to Jordan (from 2006 to 2008) and Turkey (2008-2014). Gong was China’s ambassador to Turkey during the bloody 2009 riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. Turkey, which is home to a large Uyghur population, followed the violence closely, giving Gong a crash course in explaining China’s Xinjiang policies. Deflecting criticisms of China’s treatment of Uyghurs (many of whom are Muslim) has only grown more necessary in recent years, particularly for a diplomat serving as envoy to the Middle East.

Most interesting, however, is an earlier position Gong held: China’s representative to the Palestinian National Authority (a position that holds ambassadorial rank). China considers the Israel-Palestine peace process to be its top priority in the Middle East and Gong’s role will largely involve discussing the peace process with officials from around the region. Gong’s background as China’s representative in Palestine provides a clear reminder that Beijing has historically been closer to Palestine than to Israel.

Gong served as China’s top official in Palestine from 2003 to 2005. Predictably, during this time Gong was often approached by approached by Palestinian officials (including the late Yasser Arafat) who wanted China’s help in presenting Palestine’s perspective to the broader international community. Even ten years ago, Palestinian leaders hoped that China would back Palestine in ways the U.S. was unable or unwilling to do. As China’s global stature has grown, Palestine has only become more hopeful that China can play a larger role in the Middle East peace process — with the expectation that Beijing will be more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than Washington ever was (the U.S., for example, does not even have a representative office in Palestine).

Though pundits (largely from outside China) have often urged Beijing to get more involved in the Middle East, China’s leaders have been reluctant to become entangled in the region’s various crises (understandably so). Still, there have been some signs that China is slowly seeking a larger role in the region, and particularly on the Israel-Palestine peace process. In May 2013, Xi Jinping invited both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to visit China. Although the two men did not meet in China, their simultaneous visits signaled to many that Xi had ambitious goals for restarting the peace process. In April of this year, when Israel President Shimon Peres visited Beijing, Xi Jinping again assured him that China would play a constructive role in the peace process.

While China has not lived up to the most outsized expectations (and likely never will), it has been active diplomatically in seeking a resolution to the latest Israel-Palestine conflict in Gaza. Gong Xiaosheng’s predecessor, Wu Sike, made a number of trips to the region to promote a ceasefire deal brokered by Egypt. Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s August trip to the Middle East had a similar theme, with Wang presenting China’s own five-point plan for Israel-Palestine peace.

Beijing also continues to list the Israel-Palestine peace process as one of its major concerns in the Middle East. Gong Xiaosheng’s first trip to the region as special envoy will include stops in Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. In each country, Gong “will reach out to relevant countries and parties, and continue to promote peace talks” between Israel and Palestine, according to the Foreign Ministry. With his background as China’s representative in Palestine, Gong is certainly familiar with the issues. The decision to appoint him as China’s new special envoy to the Middle East is one more sign that Beijing is wading deeper into the waters of Israel-Palestine mediation.