Xi to attempt to bring Macron into China's peace efforts during European trip

Chinese President's visit to Paris will seek to promote the idea that Hamas should be involved in future Gaza governance

President Emmanuel Macron and President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China in 2023. Mr Xi will visit France this week. Reuters
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Either in the splendour of the Elysee Palace or the beautiful backdrop of the Pyrenees, President Xi Jinping will drop China’s plans to solve the Israel-Gaza war into the conversation with his French counterpart.

His words will favour the Palestinians and he is set to almost certainly propose that Hamas be involved in any peace deal.

During the two-day visit that begins on Monday, President Emmanuel Macron is expected to dutifully listen: Perhaps both might understand that while China’s position is far from nearly all sides, Beijing at last is beginning to take an interest in resolving the war.

That became apparent after China admitted that it hosted bitter rivals Hamas and Fatah at a reconciliation meeting in Beijing last month in its first meaningful move in the peace process.

Those huddles are largely symbolic so far, commentators told The National, and China knows it is near impossible yet that its strong influence on Iran could well assist in a future region-wide peace agreement.

But its role is important “because this is the first time that the Chinese are trying to put their head into such a horrible problem”, said Dr Michael Milshtein, head of Palestinian studies at Tel Aviv University.

Hamas at the table?

The presidential conservations, a French spokesman said, will focus on the Middle East, Ukraine and trade.

China may calculate that it also has a chance of enticing France into engaging with its Palestine-Israel initiatives, especially in the wake of its role in brokering ties between Tehran and Riyadh last year.

Mr Macron is not the first French leader with a penchant for an alternative foreign policy to that of America and Britain.

Offering some candid insight into Mr Xi’s motivation, China’s spokesman said the France trip was an “opportunity”, with Beijing keen to “make new contributions to world peace”.

France “can leverage that to get across messages from western countries”, said Mr Aboudouh, and deal with Lebanese factions that are not Hezbollah “to try to reach some kind of tranquillity and calm on the borders of Israel”.

“France has its own goals in positioning itself as a central player in any future peace process, that is EU led,” he said.

The prospect of Israel’s current or future government agreeing to any deal that involves Hamas remaining in politics are remote, considering the bitter legacy of the October 7 attacks.

The Chinese perspective brings Mao Zedong's teaching on armed struggle to its view of Hamas. It considers the faction as more a force in the Palestinian struggle and “an integral part of the political and social fabric of Palestine’s future”, said Ahmed Aboudouh, who leads on China’s rising influence in the Middle East at Chatham House think tank in London.

“They believe that a solution would not happen without the integration and inclusion of Hamas.”

But China’s manoeuvring is largely “symbolic”, said Dr Milshtein.

“Even the Chinese don't believe that they can promote any kind of settlement or solution but they are very clever as they want to be involved and have an impact,” he said.

Beijing’s attempt to involve Hamas in talks is also troubling to some commentators.

“Hamas sparked this whole conflict and for them to somehow not only survive but to return to government would be a massive failure for Israel and Fatah, the West or indeed anyone who wants a better future for the Palestinian people,” said Dr Alan Mendoza, director of the Henry Jackson Society think tank.

What is Macron up to?

After the banquet in the Elysee on Monday, Mr Xi will be spirited to Mr Macron’s childhood rural idyll in Hautes-Pyrenees where he spent many contented summers with his grandmother.

Both will be aware that France brings its own influence to the Middle East with its strong historical relationships in Lebanon, alongside a good communication channel with Iran.

Its ability to talk to Israel and its Arab partners could yet have a valuable place in ending the war and cycle of rising tension.

China’s influence on Israel is minimal as “we're very suspicious towards the Chinese” for its lack of criticism of Hamas, said Dr Milshtein, but it is far more important when it comes to Iran, as demonstrated by Beijing’s role in Tehran’s restoration of diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia in 2023.

“China has demonstrated that it can contribute to the broad strategic developments in the area,” he added. “China was a mediator for Iran and Saudi Arabia, so they also attempt to be in the same role right now.”

But this would not be a “Saudi-Iran 2.0 deal” said Mr Aboudouh, as it is “full of risks and the two parties are not interested in signing one”.

China stance

Analysts suggest that China’s position is that only Hamas’ inclusion in the peace process might lead to peace with Israel and it wants to legitimise the extremists by hosting them in Beijing to foster Palestinian unity.

Ultimately, Mr Xi is putting himself forward as an international arbiter, possibly understanding that China can do little more than provide the venue and “arrange for the dialogue to encourage both parties to reach a deal”, said Mr Aboudouh.

Dr Milshtein said China was “clever enough to know that maybe they can achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians” but there would be very little chance of “any reconciliation” between the rivals in the Palestinian arena, Fatah and Hamas.

China’s Ukraine peace

China’s biggest desire is to see the current global conflicts end as war is not good for trade.

To that end, Mr Xi will discuss a solution to the Ukraine war but one that is most likely to be pro-Russian and, hence, difficult for western powers to accept.

Nevertheless, with its significant influence over Russia, China will be a key player to any peace deal whenever the war might end.

“You can’t have peace in Ukraine without China,” said Mr Aboudouh, a specialist on US-Sino relations. “Nobody will have the influence China has on [Vladimir] Putin, but it is also very careful in its approach to the EU and doesn't want to lose its relations with it. China is playing a balancing act and so far, it has paid off.”

China’s recent diplomacy is “to portray itself as a neutral country that can mediate between opposing sides”, said Meia Nouwens, senior fellow on China security and defence policy at the IISS think tank in London.

China is trumpeting its modest role in the Iran-Saudi Arabia breakthrough as a vehicle to give it more diplomatic leverage, she added.

However, its pro-Russian and pro-Palestinian positions will make it “difficult for China to be a successful mediator”.

Dr Mendoza spoke of China’s “inherent stake” in allowing Russia to retain seized territory as they might have “similar goals in their neighbourhood, notably Taiwan”.

“It also in China's interest to ensure Russia emerges with some credibility, so the idea it is some neutral broker here is for the birds,” he added.

Updated: May 05, 2024, 5:33 AM