China Seizes on Gaza Crisis to Counter U.S. on Human Rights

China’s position as head of the United Nations Security Council gives it a powerful perch to help ease the bloodshed in the Middle East. So far, its strategy appears more focused on scoring points in its geopolitical battle with the U.S.

Beijing, which has long played an observer role in Middle East peace efforts, has used the the rotating presidency of the Security Council to spotlight Washington’s reluctance to condemn Israel. Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the U.S. to “shoulder its due responsibilities,” while a ministry spokesman said Washington “only seeks selfish interests.”

The attacks underscored how quickly any international dispute, including the decades-old stalemate over the Gaza Strip, can become entangled in the strategic struggle between the U.S. and China. For Beijing, the crisis provides an opportunity to counter President Joe Biden’s criticism of the treatment of its own Muslim minority in the region of Xinjiang.

Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday that he expected de-escalation on a path to a cease-fire, although the U.S. hasn’t allowed a Security Council statement demanding a “cessation of violence” to go through. More than 200 people have been killed, mostly Palestinians.

The episode shows the limits of Chinese soft power. President Xi Jinping’s push to lead a “shared community for mankind” carries little weight in a region where China has no military presence and faces skepticism from the biggest players. On Wednesday, the Israeli Embassy in Beijing accused state broadcaster CGTN of spreading “lies and racism” after an on-air commentator cited the “influence of wealthy Jews” as a source of U.S. support for Israel.

“Despite its recent offers to mediate, China doesn’t have the diplomatic capital or the deep historical engagement to play a major role in resolving the issue,” said Jonathan Fulton, an assistant professor of political science Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates. “It will likely continue to use the UN to try to come to some kind of resolution, but I don’t think China on its own is going to be able to make a significant contribution to solving this.”

While China backed Palestine under Mao Zedong and recognized it as a state in 1988, it has avoided the the bloody and costly entanglements that have preoccupied the U.S. and other powers in the Middle East. Instead, China has profited by balancing interests across the region, forging diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 and eventually becoming its second-largest trading partner.

Still, Beijing’s historical support for the Palestinian cause and Israeli’s reliance on U.S. backing complicates its efforts to play a serious mediating role. In 2013, Xi sought unsuccessfully to broker a meeting between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing.

A “four-point proposal” that Wang presented to the UN on Sunday, which was similar to other mediation plans put forward by China over the years, has so far failed to entice Israel. And by championing the cause of Israeli’s critics -- and using the crisis to attack the U.S. -- Beijing risked undercutting its value as a more neutral mediator.

“The Arab world and Islamic countries all appreciated China’s commitment to international rules and equity and justice,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular news briefing Wednesday in Beijing. He urged the U.S. to support “de-escalation, rebuilding trust and a political settlement.”

The fight, however, does serve an immediate purpose for China: Countering calls for international sanctions and a boycott of the Winter Olympics next year in Beijing over its domestic human rights policies. Chinese diplomats have sought to highlight what they see as Western hypocrisy as part of a broader effort to challenge “U.S. discourse hegemony.”

The U.S., European Union and U.K. have placed sanctions on Chinese officials and goods over alleged human-rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, which the Biden administration has said amounts to genocide. China denies any forced labor, calling it the “biggest lie of the century,” and says its policies are lifting the region out of poverty, boosting the economy and countering extremism.

China is signaling support to Arab nations that have generally backed its practices in Xinjiang, one Western diplomat in Beijing said. Having broad support from these countries is helpful at a time when China faces a barrage of criticism from abroad, the diplomat said.

At the same time, that won’t help much in resolving the broader conflict between Israel and Palestine.

“China is obviously trying to play a more active role in Middle Eastern issues, but its influence is still quite limited compared to major powers such as the U.S. and even Russia,” said Fan Hongda, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University’s Middle East Studies Institute. “So the efficacy is yet to be seen.”

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