This past week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited China. It was the first time Beijing ever simultaneously hosted the leaders of the two rival nations. As China’s new president discussed peace with Abbas, the media rushed to anoint the joint visits as evidence that China had come of age in the Middle East. The growing East Asian power, whose dependence on Arab oil grows higher every year, was depicted as ready to play a genuine role in the peace process. One influential analyst suggested that the new Chinese president’s peace initiative to Abbas was “a momentous shift in China’s foreign policy.”
In embracing this narrative, observers swallowed the story Beijing wanted while completely missing the real reason for Abbas’s visit. Abbas was not in China to herald a new dawn of Chinese peacemaking. Beijing invited him for one overriding reason: to provide diplomatic cover for Netanyahu’s far more strategic meeting with China’s new leaders.
By showering attention on the Palestinian leader and giving lip service to the peace process, China was able to placate the concern of traditional Arab allies that the first head of state from the Middle East to visit the new Chinese leadership, which took office in March, would be from Israel. Savvy maneuvering by Chinese officials allowed Beijing to burnish its credibility in the Arab world through an act that ironically was mostly intended as a fig leaf for China’s strategic dialogues with Israel. In addition to deflecting attention from the Arab world, China likely also sought to sidestep American concerns over the deepening security ties between China and Israel, eager to avoid the sort of breakdown in Sino-Israeli ties that took place due to American pressure a decade earlier.
Whether Arab or American audiences were the main target of Beijing’s diplomatic charade, the extent to which the Abbas visit was a smokescreen was evident when the two Middle Eastern leaders failed to meet in Beijing. China’s leaders did not even mention Abbas’s visit when they welcomed Netanyahu to Beijing twenty-four hours after the Palestinian leader had departed China. Unlike Abbas, who visited China with few retainers and had little to show for his time overseas save hollow declarations about the peace process, Netanyahu was accompanied by dozens of top businessmen and government officials on a visit that the Chinese ambassador to Israel described as likely to “determine the direction the relationship will take in the coming years, elevating ties to a new level.”
Indeed, Netanyahu’s visit is the culmination of a series of bilateral military dialogues over the last two years, with China’s top general having visited Israel in August 2011 and his Israeli peer returning the favor on a visit to Beijing in May 2012. The growing military ties since 2011 have developed alongside a dramatic rise in bilateral trade and investment. China appreciates Israel’s hi-tech sector and relative stability during the Arab Spring while Israel has come to understand that Beijing possesses a rare degree of influence with Israel’s foes in Damascus and Tehran, not to mention a giant market for the Israeli economy. Last week’s trip makes China the very first country Netanyahu has visited since winning reelection in January (with the exception of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in April). Indeed, the visit was deemed so strategically significant that Israel’s Foreign Ministry allowed the trip to take place despite being mired in a contentious labor dispute that has suspended all other diplomatic activity.
China’s determination to juggle warm relations with all sides in the Middle East meant Beijing could not risk slighting its Arab allies—especially given Arab anger over China’s continued support of the Assad regime in Syria—by granting Netanyahu the honor of visiting Beijing before an Arab head of state. As such, they invited Abbas. This not only accorded respect to the Palestinians but also changed the media’s coverage of Netanyahu’s strategic visit. Instead of lauding growing Sino-Israeli ties, the media, especially in the Arab world, followed Beijing’s lead and celebrated China’s support of the peace process. To sell this narrative, the Chinese media made sure to underline that Abbas was on a ‘state visit’ in contrast to Netanyahu’s mere ‘official visit.’ Far less attention was devoted to the fact Abbas was invited only six days before Netanyahu arrived in China, with Beijing covering the cost of the Palestinian leader’s brief visit to make it happen. Abbas dutifully played his part, stating in an interview (that was widely circulated in the Arab world) that Netanyahu’s visit would in fact be beneficial to the Palestinians.
The lesson of last week’s overlapping visits to China is not about Beijing’s emergence as a Middle East peacemaker. No one seriously believes that China is prepared to become an active participant in the peace process. As several observers pointed out, the peace proposal China’s president delivered to Abbas was merely a reiteration of generic slogans Chinese diplomats have been repeating for decades. While the media was right to note that China’s profile in the region is growing, they missed the real story of China’s rising profile—the deepening strategic synergy between Beijing and Jerusalem—by swallowing a bit of political theatre China organized with the help of Abbas. Aside from highlighting Beijing’s artful diplomacy, last week’s visits underlined China’s readiness to expand ties with Israel, albeit cautiously and without attracting the sort of unwanted attention that would undermine relations between the two counties.
Sam Chester is a longtime student of China-Middle East affairs and a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His regular commentary on Sino-Middle East issues can be found on Twitter @Shaihuludata.