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China's President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing May 9, 2013.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas visited Beijing last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping took the opportunity to bestow his approval on Mr. Abbas’s four-point plan for peace with Israel. Whether Mr. Xi—or anyone—will be able to solve one of the world’s most intractable conflicts remains to be seen. But China’s sudden interest in Israel suggests that the Middle East, long considered part of America’s sphere of influence, may become another realm of competition between Washington and Beijing.
From one angle, the Netanyahu and Abbas trips are merely a part of China’s wider attempt to become a global player. From Latin America to Africa, Beijing has sought to complement its economic might with increased political influence and security projection. While the Obama administration has committed itself to “rebalancing” toward Asia, China realizes that the real game for influence is being played all around the world.
But China also has specific, canny reasons for focusing on Israel at a time when Syria is burning and Iran stands poised to build an atomic bomb. Like his counterparts in the U.S., Mr. Xi wants to proclaim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core of the Middle East’s troubles. Doing so gives China cover to impede serious attempts to squeeze Iran’s nuclear program and to echo the Obama administration’s reluctance to get involved with Syria. Persian Gulf oil shipments may partially explain Beijing’s supportive attitude—but in general, China continues to identify its interests with disruptive regimes that are destabilizing global peace.
Whatever China’s motivations for focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the move is welcome news to Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Xi’s public support for a Palestinian state last week has given Mr. Abbas a new lever to use against his financial backers in Washington. Diversifying his supporters should give Mr. Abbas more freedom to pressure Israel over intermediate issues such as settlements and the Gaza blockade.
On the other hand, Beijing’s balancing act with Jerusalem will be harder to pull off. Israel and China are diametrically opposed over issues such as Iran and Syria. Beijing has been Damascus’s major supporter after Moscow and has vetoed United Nations resolutions designed to punish Bashar al-Assad’s massacre of civilians. China has also worked to water down U.N. sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, just as it has done for North Korea. Mr. Netanyahu could be forgiven for seeing China as directly abetting the deterioration of Israeli security.
Yet in Beijing the Israeli prime minister preferred to sweep most of these tensions under the rug. Instead he focused on building the economic relationship between the two countries. That makes some sense, given that China is Israel’s third-largest trading partner after the U.S. and the European Union. Bilateral trade between the countries nearly doubled from 2007-12, to $8 billion from $4.5 billion. China and Israel are now considering a free-trade pact and have signed numerous agreements related to investment and joint research.
Last week Mr. Netanyahu reminded his Chinese audience that Israel leads the world in intellectual-property development relative to its size. Partnering with China’s manufacturing capability, Mr. Netanyahu said, would be a “winning combination.” Hi-tech cooperation in telecommunications, software and biotechnology is of particular interest to Chinese companies.
In the Middle East and beyond, China has learned how to use trade agreements, financial aid, security assistance and political support to win greater foreign support. In contrast, Washington finds its foreign influence constrained by continuing economic weakness, political partisanship, a shrinking military budget and its focus on human rights.
Ultimately, China’s lack of interest in democracy and unwillingness to commit to security partnerships may limit its influence abroad. But in the Middle East, which will remain at the center of geopolitics throughout this decade, those very preferences will give Beijing an increasing role. This is a region where democratization remains fragile and military alliances play very little role.
U.S. exhaustion and lack of new ideas for the Middle East has given China an opening to advance its interests, no matter how limited they are at the moment. At a minimum, the trips Messrs. Netanyahu and Abbas took to Beijing—and the prominent coverage they received in Israeli media—show that as the U.S. struggles to execute a pivot toward Asia, China continues to cast its shadow across the entire globe.
Xi Jinping’s plan for peace in Israel is another sign of global Chinese ambitions—and waning U.S. influence.
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