Kim Kyung-Hoon / Pool via EPA
China's President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 9.
BEIJING – An official visit to Beijing by Israeli and Palestinian leaders last week has prompted speculation that China may finally be ready to claim its place as a world power by trying to negotiate an end to one of world's most caustic conflicts.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Chinese President Xi Jinping within days of each other in Beijing – the two Middle Eastern leaders having arrived in the country within hours of each other.
"China's hosting of the two emphasized its active involvement in Mideast affairs and highlighted its role as a responsible power," declared an editorial by China's state news agency, Xinhua.
A more active role in Middle East diplomacy would be a dramatic break from China's long-held policy of non-intervention. With controversial business partners like Sudan, Libya and Iran, China has consistently ducked the political and regional strife of others to focus on natural resource extraction and trade.
To a long line of American leaders who have invested a great deal of political capital in the quest for peace in the region, a Chinese diplomatic shift could be a welcome development.
But some experts like Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, wonder how much China is willing to risk entering this particular political game.
Feng Li / Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, gestures to invite Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to a welcoming ceremony held outside the Great Hall of the People on May 6 in Beijing.
"Right now China has the benefit of free-riding on U.S. security [and its] presence, so there is no incentive for them whatsoever to actually pay costs and take risks," Blumenthal said. "China has been fairly extractive in those areas and again for China to become a global power that exercises responsibility, you can't just reap the economic benefits."
Middle East experts in China have noted that the country has a fresh point of view unsullied by years of involvement in the region. It has a carefully crafted position of supporting the Palestinian cause -- dating back to 1965 when the Palestinian Liberation Organization setup an office in Beijing -- but also being a close friend of Israel, as its third-largest trading partner behind the U.S. and the European Union.
"The United States' slant toward Israel has long been regarded as a bias stance by Arabic countries, so this bias towards Israel is not helpful for President Obama when it comes to pushing forward current or future initiatives," said He Wenping, a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). "But China maintains good relations with both Israel and Palestine, so China's stance is viewed as more neutral than the United States."
Just how much political capital Beijing is willing to spend hammering out a deal that has eluded others remains a critical question – one that could be fraught with risk to China's relationship with the Muslim world. Would Beijing be willing to put its neutral position and substantial business partnerships in the region in jeopardy?
To be sure, Xi's meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas were modest at best in ambition. The two Middle Eastern leaders never met face-to-face. And Xi's "four-point plan" effectively parroted calls by the United States for an independent Palestinian state, supplemented with a firm call for the two countries' boundaries to be based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem serving as the new Palestinian state's capital.
"I don't think China has some magical power at hand that can make the Israeli-Palestinian process move more smoothly," said He of CASS. "It is significant that Israel and Palestine both recognized China's role because if they don't want China involved, [Netanyahu and Abbas] would have never come to China. This shows they wish for and they recognize China's role in the process."
Whether their involvement is desired or not, past Chinese diplomatic history suggests that given the options, China in the short-term would likely continue a nominal role rather than put trade relations at risk.
But a silver lining is the affirmation that while China and the U.S. continue to have major political differences on issues ranging from Iran to America's Asia "pivot," there is room for the two powers to cooperate and engage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.