Time for China to join the Middle East Quartet

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New diplomatic opportunities are being created for China in the Middle East after US President Donald Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there.

Trump’s announcement has broken the consensus inside the international community on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on two states, with the holy city to Jews, Muslims and Christians as capital of both Israel and Palestine, along the borders of 1967.

Now more than ever, Washington is no longer perceived by many Arabs as an honest broker in the dispute. And as Trump’s decision has also alienated Washington’s allies in Europe, the European Union could be considering more coordination with Beijing on the issue.

On Monday, after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Brussels, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said no initiative to restart peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis could happen “without an engagement from the United States.”

However, at the same time, she proposed enlarging the Middle East Quartet to include Jordan, Egypt and other relevant partners. The Quartet, which as it stands brings together the United Nations, the United States, the EU and Russia, is tasked with facilitating peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Asked if Mogherini’s proposal would include an invitation to China, an EU source told Asia Times that “the immediate focus will be on partners in the region, while work with international partners would also be increased.”

Despite the clarification, it is almost impossible to ignore the centrality that Beijing has gained from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the addition of the East Asian powerhouse could feed new lifeblood into the flagging Quartet and help revive negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, which have remained stalled since 2014.

Avoiding new turbulence

Just like the EU and its member states, China has an interest in preventing further destabilization of the Middle East, which is becoming increasingly strategic for its geopolitical designs. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated this position in his keynote speech at a diplomatic forum in Beijing last Saturday. Addressing diplomats and scholars, he urged all parties involved in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis to “exercise restraint and avoid creating new turbulence in a region already fraught with challenges.”

Just like the EU and its member states, China has an interest in preventing further destabilization of the Middle East, which is becoming increasingly strategic for its geopolitical designs

Joining the Quartet would raise China’s diplomatic profile in the region. China’s participation in Middle Eastern affairs has been growing in line with its rise as a global power. Beijing is investing a great deal in communication and transport corridors to link the Western Pacific and Europe under its Belt and Road Initiative. New Chinese Silk Roads have to pass through the Middle East, so regional instability there is a permanent threat to Beijing’s plans for trade expansion across Eurasia.

As with other crises in the area (Syria, Yemen and their connections with the Saudi-Iranian “cold war”), China thinks the conflict between Israel and Palestine should be resolved through dialogue and negotiations in accordance with successive UN resolutions. Beijing also believes that any political solution to problems in the Middle East should be matched by parallel efforts to improve people’s economic conditions.

Limits and perspectives

China’s proposals for resolving Middle Eastern controversies have produced no tangible results so far. This is despite Beijing having good relations with many of the conflicting parties, particularly Israel, with which it has considerable trade and infrastructure ties. China is Israel’s largest trading partner after the EU and the US.

A Chinese company was chosen to build the Israeli port of Ashdod in 2014, while another one will be running the Haifa port for 25 years starting from 2021. Chinese funds will also help construct a light rail system in the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Area.

At the moment, Beijing has not gotten used to the niceties of Middle Eastern politics, and its policy toward the region is still in the making. But continued collaboration with the EU, as well as Russia and Turkey, may help the Chinese government hone its diplomatic tools in this transitional phase.

Ultimately, after his attempts to sink the Iran nuclear accord and his decision to withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, Trump’s backing of Israeli views on the status of Jerusalem risks moving China and the EU one step closer to an enhanced partnership, at least on these three specific issues.

Taking into account that this outcome could have some strategic implications, and that Beijing has already privileged relationships with Moscow and Tehran (both arch-rivals of Washington), Trump’s Jerusalem move seems rather shortsighted.

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