Beijing, China (Reuters): China welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday just days after hosting Saudi Arabia's King Salman and the signing of deals worth as much as $65 billion with Riyadh, as China steps up its tentative engagement with the Middle East.
China has traditionally played little role in Middle East conflicts or diplomacy, despite its reliance on the region for oil.
But it has been trying to get more involved, for example in efforts to end Syria's civil war, trying to portray itself as an honest broker without the historical baggage the Americans and Europeans have in the region, Beijing-based diplomats say.
Meeting in Beijing's cavernous Great Hall of the People, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang praised Israel's advances, saying it was a world leader in some technologies.
"The Chinese people and the Jewish people are both great peoples of the world," Li said.
Netanyahu said there was much to talk about in tech cooperation.
"And at the same time there is a great deal of convulsion in the world, including in our part of the world," Netanyahu said, in comments made in front of reporters.
"And I would like to have the opportunity to exchange views with you and to see how we can cooperate together for the advancement of security, peace and stability, and prosperity."
Deng Li, director general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's West Asian and North African Affairs Department, told a briefing that both countries had agreed to step up free trade talks.
"Personally I am very confident and optimistic about the future of this free trade agreement," Deng said.
He added that Li had said China does not have its own interests on the Palestinian issue and would like to see the issue properly solved at an early date in line with United Nations resolutions and the international consensus.
Chinese envoys occasionally visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories, but Chinese efforts to mediate or play a role in that long-standing dispute have never amounted to much.
China also has traditionally had a good relationship with the Palestinians.
The Middle East, however, is fraught with risk for China, a country that has little experience navigating the religious and political tensions that frequently rack the region.
China also has close ties with Iran, whose nuclear program has seriously alarmed Israel.
Behind closed doors, China and Israel have close security ties too, rarely discussed in public.
"You shouldn't ask me this question," Deng said, when asked whether Li and Netanyahu discussed intelligence sharing.