BEIJING

Reuters/AFP

China’s President Xi Jinping urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to restart peace talks with the Palestinians as soon as possible, days after he tried to convince Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to revive discussions.

Xi’s comments to Netanyahu and Abbas this week reflect China’s intent to strengthen its diplomatic role in a region where its influence has historically been weak. On Monday, Xi floated China’s “four-point proposal” for peace with Abbas, who was visiting China in the same week as Netanyahu.

The moves by China come as the United States is engaged in a fresh diplomatic campaign to revive peace talks, which collapsed in 2010 over Israel’s continued expansion of settlements.

Netanyahu - the first top Israeli leader to visit China since former prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2007 - met Xi on Thursday, part of a five-day visit to China aimed at boosting bilateral trade with China.

“I hope the two sides can make joint efforts to take practical measures to gradually build up mutual trust, to restart peace talks as soon as possible and achieve substantive progress,” Xi told Netanyahu, according to a statement carried on the website of China’s foreign ministry late on Thursday.

“Only by protecting the legitimate rights and interests of all countries, having respect for each other’s concerns can there be true realisation of regional peace and stability,” Xi told Netanyahu.

Xi, who took office in March, did not outline any specific proposals for the resumption of peace talks to Netanyahu, who did not meet Abbas in China.

Netanyahu told Xi that “Israel is well aware of the pain caused by war, welcomes and desires peace, and is willing to achieve peace through negotiations,” according to the Chinese foreign ministry.

Netanyahu’s remarks come amid reports that he has quietly curbed new building projects in Jewish settlements, in an apparent bid to help US efforts to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has said that the problems that plague the Middle East, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Syria’s civil war, require “political, not military” solutions.

Saying the “old order” was vanishing in the region, Hagel stressed in a speech that the United States would work to promote democratic reform while bearing in mind the “limitations” of American power.

Although the Pentagon chief made clear that Washington had not ruled out potential military action against Iran or Syria, his remarks highlighted President Barack Obama’s cautious stance on resorting to armed force in the volatile region.

He said that regional challenges including “the nuclear challenge posed by Iran, dangerous instability in Syria, or the continuing threat of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups” must be addressed through “coalitions of common interests,” including Israel and other allies in the region.

“A common thread woven into the Middle East fabric is that the most enduring and effective solutions to the challenges facing the region are political, not military,” Hagel told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“America’s role in the Middle East is to continue to help influence and shape the course of events - using diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, intelligence, and security tools in coordination with our allies,” he said.

Arab uprisings had shaken the established political landscape in the Middle East, he said. “The old order in the Middle East is disappearing, and what will replace it remains unknown. There will continue to be instability in the region as this process plays out and we all must adjust accordingly.”

Prospects for stability in the longer run would hinge on the outcome of political transitions in Egypt, Libya and Syria, said Hagel, who travelled to the region last month. “The best hope for long-term stability relies on countries like Egypt, Libya, and Syria making transitions to democratic rule,” he said.

The United States would “remain engaged in helping shape the new order, but we must engage wisely,” he said.

“This will require a clear understanding of our national interests, our limitations, and an appreciation for the complexities of this unpredictable, contradictory, yet hopeful region of the world,” he said. The war in Syria was turning “sectarian” and the possibility the state would break apart was “increasing,” he said.

The war was putting Syria’s “stockpiles of chemical weapons and advanced conventional weapons at risk, and the escalation of violence threatens to spill across its borders,” he said. But Hagel struck a restrained tone on Syria and did not reiterate Obama’s declared “red line” warning Damascus not to use its chemical weapons.

The Obama administration has faced renewed calls for intervention after US intelligence agencies said the Syrian regime probably used chemical weapons on a small-scale. But the White House says the spy services are still investigating the allegations.

After the speech, when asked about Syria, Hagel said the administration would not take any action until it had all the facts and alluded to the intelligence disaster in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.

“It’s fair to say that we’re all probably a little wiser today than we were before and when we take action, there is always the reality - that you accept - that there may be consequences and unintended consequences may come from that,” he said. “There are also consequences and unintended consequences that come from inaction,” he added.

In answering the question on Syria, Hagel joked about his outspoken style before he took over at the Pentagon in February. He said now he had to watch his words more carefully as he was no longer a senator and he couldn’t “speak as irresponsibly as I would like.”