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China and Gaza

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James Reynolds | 10:21 UK time, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Shortly after Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, I went to Gaza to find out how victory had changed a movement mostly known for its armed activities (I was one of the BBC's Middle East Correspondents at the time).

My colleagues and I interviewed a senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, who'd just been appointed Foreign Minister. We asked him about the fact that many Western governments had decided to boycott the Hamas-led administration. He didn't seem to mind the boycott all that much. He let us know that he was in a hurry because he had to go off to meet a Chinese delegation. Now, of course, I wish I'd asked him exactly who whom he was planning to meet.

China isn't particularly known for its diplomatic involvement in the Middle East conflict. One of China's famous ground rules has been not to get too involved in other people's conflicts.

But as China's power has grown, that ground rule has begun to erode. In order to protect its own position, China now finds that it cannot always sit to one side. So, this country now plays an active role in diplomatic talks with both North Korea and Iran. It's got its own special envoy to Darfur. It takes part in negotiations over climate change and world trade.

In other words, if you want to solve any of the world's major problems you've got to get China involved.

Because of this, some have called for China to play a much bigger role in resolving the crisis in Gaza. There's an argument that China is the only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council which would be seen as a neutral broker in the conflict.

But so far, China has decided to engage at its own pace. The Chinese government has called for an end to armed conflict in Gaza. The Foreign Ministry has announced a donation of $1m in humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people.

You may be surprised to learn that China does actually have its own Special Envoy to the Middle East. The envoy's name is Ambassador Sun Bigan. He's been doing the job since April 2006. He is a deliberately low-profile, even semi-anonymous figure. During recent days he's been holding talks here in Beijing with foreign diplomats. "He will be making unremitting efforts" to secure a ceasefire, says the Foreign Ministry.

For now, these efforts do not appear to include an immediate trip to the Middle East itself. The Foreign Ministry has declined to say when Mr Sun might return to the region.


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