Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was welcomed by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing on Monday, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a visit to the eastern financial hub of Shanghai. Netanyahu is due in Beijing on Wednesday following Abbas' departure a day earlier.
China's Foreign Ministry said last week it would be willing to help set up a meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu if the two men wanted. Talks between the Israeli and Palestinian sides have been deadlocked for four years and there was no indication a meeting would take place.
China has traditionally maintained a low profile in Middle East diplomacy, but in recent years has tried to play a more active role in the region as part of its quest for markets, resources and diplomatic influence. Beijing has sought stable relations with both sides in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but Israel's weekend airstrike on a Syrian military complex created a turbulent start to China's diplomatic foray.
Asked by reporters about playing host to Netanyahu following the airstrike, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying avoided criticizing Israel by name but said, "We oppose the use of force and believe any country's sovereignty should be respected."
Still, Hua reiterated that China's hosting the two leaders should be positive for promoting regional peace.
Meeting with Xi at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's legislature, Abbas reviewed the history of their relations stretching back to the 1960s and said the two sides shared the "same views on many world problems."
"I appreciate China's high position in the world nowadays," Abbas said in opening remarks at the meeting, which was followed by the signing of agreements on technical cooperation and cultural exchanges.
China recognized the Palestinian state in 1988, four years before establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.
In an interview with China's official Xinhua News Agency last week, Abbas said he wanted to involve China more in the Middle East peace process, and said the dual visits would offer a "good opportunity for the Chinese to listen to both of us."
Netanyahu's visit is the first by an Israeli leader since Ehud Olmert visited in 2007, and is expected to include the signing of numerous trade deals. China is a major customer for Israeli know-how, from high-technology to agriculture, engineering and military hardware and services, including the training of Chinese security forces and purchase of unmanned aerial vehicles.
After touring a high-tech industrial park, Netanyahu spoke to Israeli and Chinese business leaders in Shanghai. He paid tribute to Shanghai's role as a haven for European Jews fleeing the Holocaust, and then touted the potential for future cooperation combining Israel's high-tech know-how with China's manufacturing heft.
"Israel is not as big as China. We have 8 million residents, approximately one-third the population of Shanghai. But we manufacture more intellectual property than any other country in the world in relation to its size. If we create a partnership between Israel's inventive capability and China's manufacturing capability, we will have a winning combination," Netanyahu said, according to remarks distributed by his office.
Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said China wanted to see a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict that allowed for both Israeli security and a Palestinian state based on the handover of occupied territory to the Palestinian Authority.