BEIJING – China on Tuesday hosted a Mideast peace forum backing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, part of its quest for greater diplomatic influence in a region of growing importance to its economy.
The two-day forum is one of a regular series of United Nations-sponsored discussions gathering together U.N. officials, diplomats, academics, and present and former members of the Palestinian and Israeli parliaments.
While it isn't expected to produce any concrete outcomes, the meeting does point to China's attempts to balance its support for the Palestinian cause and heavy reliance on Saudi oil with its pursuit of Israeli high-tech imports and know-how in areas from paramilitary training to water management.
That search for balance was demonstrated by Beijing's hosting of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu on state visits during the same week last month.
While Abbas' visit was brief and largely ceremonial, Netanyahu stayed for five days, including a visit to the commercial hub of Shanghai, and oversaw the signing of a raft of business deals to expand China and Israel's $8 billion two-way trade.
China launched its greater involvement in the Mideast with the appointment of a special envoy for the region in 2009, and has sought to maintain contact with most mainstream political groupings without actually becoming embroiled in talks.
That approach seems to satisfy Beijing's urgings to seek a higher diplomatic profile without alienating any of the parties in the region, analysts say.
"It has been, however, very important for Beijing to be recognized, and respected, as one of the leading great global powers not only in the formal sense, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, but also as an active one," said Yitzhak Shichor, a China expert at Israel's University of Haifa.
Shichor said Beijing's hosting of the U.N. meeting may also be a response to Arab desires for China to counterbalance U.S. support for Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as an attempt to counter the harsh criticism China has come under for blocking U.S. efforts to mitigate the bloodshed in Syria.
China, however, would likely prefer to see the U.S., Russia, and others do the heavy diplomatic lifting, Shichor said. Beijing also remains constrained by a lack of detailed knowledge of the conflicts and is distrusted by Israel for its strong support for the Palestinians, he said.
"The Middle East is far not only in geographical terms but also in cultural, religious, ethnic and political terms," Shichor said.