BEIJING (AP) -- Chinese leaders welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Beijing on Wednesday as China tries to bring its growing international influence to an area where it has had little impact — the Middle East peace process.
Greeting the Israeli leader at the Great Hall of the People, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made no direct mention of his meeting two days earlier with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads his people's efforts to achieve statehood. Talks between Israel and the Palestinians on the statehood issue have been deadlocked for four years, despite pressure on Jerusalem from the United States, Russia and the European Union, long the major players in Middle East diplomacy.
"I'm ready to exchange views with you today on how to strengthen our bilateral relationship, how to enhance our bilateral cooperation and also on regional issues such as the question of Palestine and the Middle East process," Li told Netanyahu before the two sat down to talks on the peace process and other regional issues.
The near simultaneous visits to China by Abbas and Netanyahu underscore China's desire to play a greater role in the Middle East, a region Beijing has long seen as a key source of energy.
"The Middle East confuses the Chinese," said China expert Yoram Evron of Israel's University of Haifa. "But in the past two years, there are people in China who think it needs to expand its activities in the region in order to safeguard its interests."
Evron's view was echoed by Middle East expert Li Weijian of the Shanghai Institute of Foreign Studies, who said the region was far too important for China to ignore, particularly in light of Beijing's increased economic and political clout elsewhere in the world.
"China needs to play a role in major international affairs, including the affairs of the Middle East, and China has been stepping up efforts in this respect," he said.
Last week, China's Foreign Ministry said it would be willing to arrange a meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu, but with the Israeli side casting Netanyahu's visit in largely commercial terms, the meeting didn't take place. Instead, Netanyahu devoted much of his time on his trip to pressing for an expansion of his country's $8 billion annual trade with China, and encouraging Chinese investment in Israeli industry.
Following their meeting, Li and Netanyahu presided over the signing of five agreements on aerospace, agricultural research, financial cooperation, science and technology, and on Chinese language instruction. Details were not immediately provided.
"There is a perfect marriage between our mutual capabilities," Netanyahu said at a ceremony marking the signing of business agreements between Israeli and Chinese companies. "The Israeli government stands firmly behind cooperation between Israeli and Chinese companies, (and) between Israeli research institutes and Chinese research institutes."
Netanyahu's emphasis on his trip will likely win only partial approval from Beijing, which for decades has taken a strong position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with very little to show for it.
Adopting a strongly pro-Palestinian stand in the mid-1950s, Beijing recognized Palestinian statehood in 1988, four years before establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
While ties between Jerusalem and Beijing have expanded rapidly over the past 15 years — China is now a major purchaser of Israeli know-how, from high-technology to agriculture, engineering and military-related services — it maintains its Palestinian sympathies, amid a general critique of what it sometimes sees as Israeli belligerence in the area.
After last weekend's Israeli airstrike on a Syrian military complex, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying avoided criticizing Israel by name, but left little doubt that Beijing saw it as an unwelcome curtain raiser to Netanyahu's visit.
"We oppose the use of force and believe any country's sovereignty should be respected," she said.