The most consequential development for the long term prospects of a more stable and peaceful Middle East that took place this week was not John Kerry’s effort to move Russia closer to the American position on Syria and take steps toward negotiating a political transition, nor was it the news that Israel has quietly implemented a freeze on new settlement construction in the West Bank that may lead to new negotiations with the Palestinians. Rather, it was the lightly scoffed and derided announcement of a Chinese plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace that covered no new ground and relied on the tired formula that has been in place now for decades. The Chinese plan, presented to Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing while Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was being feted in Shanghai, recycles the ideas that are generally recognized to be the eventual key to a settlement – an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital, an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist and genuine need for security, an emphasis on land for peace and the need for any resolution to the conflict to be a negotiated one, and calls for greater international involvement in bringing both sides to the table. In essence, the Chinese plan is the equivalent of a blue-ribbon commission report that calls for the same measures as the previous blue-ribbon commission report on the same subject. The plan was dismissed by some as not mentioning anything new, and was dismissed by others as being too tilted in the Palestinians’ favor, and the widely held assumption is that this brief Chinese foray into the peace process will soon be forgotten.
While it is true that China’s four-point peace plan covers no new ground and has no greater chance at being implemented or moving the needle on negotiations than any previous U.S., European, or Quartet initiatives to date, the fact that China has even waded into these waters is monumentally significant. The Chinese peace plan is much greater than the sum of its parts, as it indicates a real willingness on China’s part to be an actual stakeholder in the international system and to begin using its status to solve problems and be a force for stability. That China has chosen to step forward on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute speaks volumes given the symbolism of this particular issue.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the Rolls Royce of international problems; it is very big and shiny and everyone wants to be seen riding in it. Not only has it lasted for decades, it is enormously high profile and solving it has been the dream of too many American presidents and U.N. secretaries general to count. Despite the fact that everyone knows how it will eventually be resolved, it plays an outsize role in diplomacy given its salience to hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people in the West and the Middle East, and it elicits strong opinions from people who have no direct connection to it other than what they see and read in the news. By choosing to offer its own plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, no matter how overworn and unoriginal, China is signaling that it understands its international responsibilities as the world’s most populous country, largest military, and second largest economy. The details of the peace plan do not particularly matter; what does matter is that China is making an effort. It is no accident of history that the Quartet tasked with solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue is made up of the U.S., U.N., European Union, and Russia, but does not include China, as China has never indicated any willingness to be involved. As a country with a reputation for caring only about its quest for natural resources while sitting on the sidelines and generally obstructing any constructive efforts to solve global problems, the fact that China is trying to be proactive in the most high-profile global problem of all is a good sign.
The cynical take on this is that China is only now getting involved in an effort to curry favor with oil-rich Gulf Arab countries, curry favor with Israel now that it has massive natural gas fields coming online, or both. Yet even if this is the case, a greater Chinese effort to take ownership of this issue will cause greater Chinese involvement on a host of global governance issues whether China wants it or not. Once China becomes involved in the Israeli-Palestinian scene, it will be harder to walk away from other areas in which China does not have an obvious stake. China might actually even be able to break a deadlock on the Israeli-Palestinian front despite having nothing new to say just by virtue of being a new party with some credibility on both sides, and a larger role in other regional issues for China that do not have an obvious impact on Chinese economic interests, even if it is being done to counter American power in the Middle East, will mean that China is at least accepting that to be a world power means not letting international problems fester.
One of the big picture problems in international relations over the past decade has been how to get China to be a responsible stakeholder in world affairs and use its influence in a way that benefits the entire globe. To the extent that China begins to insert itself into other thorny problems in the Middle East, such as the Iranian nuclear standoff or the Syrian civil war, it will hopefully portend a positive trend for tamping down upheaval in the region. As much hard and soft power the U.S. brings to bear on regional issues, it clearly cannot solve problems alone, and having another major outside power exert a responsible influence – as China seems to be doing now with North Korea – can help alleviate some of the burden on the U.S. and add another powerful impetus for warring parties to come to agreements to end conflicts. China’s particular solution for a lasting peace in the Holy Land might seem like a small and unimportant story, but the bigger story here is what its foray into peacemaking means for its larger role in the world.