By Peter Apps
LONDON, Oct 19 (Reuters) – In recent global geopolitics, there have been few days with as many moving parts as Wednesday, with Russian and Chinese leaders meeting in Beijing just as U.S. President Joe Biden touched down in Israel and wars raged in Gaza and Ukraine.
For Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Biden’s embrace of Israel is seen an opportunity to exploit Middle Eastern anger over events in Gaza and entrench their position across the developing world.
Both Russian and Chinese officials have condemned Israel for going beyond what they think is necessary for self-defence, also blaming Washington for both the unexpected conflict and wider tensions in the region.
Biden has gone further than any other recent U.S. leader in his expressions of support for Israel – both military and diplomatic – since Hamas fighters unexpectedly poured out of the Gaza Strip on Oct. 7 and killed hundreds of Israelis.
Simultaneously, however, his administration hopes to be seen as holding the Jewish state back from an even more aggressive approach, relying on a massive display of U.S. military might to deter Iranian proxy Hezbollah from also invading Israel.
To what extent either of those can be achieved remains unclear – although if the United States can pull off a deal to re-stabilise the region, or at least avoid further escalation, it will help Biden when it comes to re-election and boost battered U.S. prestige.
More broadly, however, Wednesday showed Biden, Putin and Xi all struggling to assert themselves in an increasingly unpredictable, unravelling and violent multipolar world where few of their plans work out as they had hoped.
Whether that is enough to divert Washington and Beijing from their increasingly antagonistic approach to each other is another question. The last year has seen mounting speculation a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the next decade might spark a wider war, prompting a dramatic plunge in U.S.-China trade.
Addressing representatives of more than 100 nations in Beijing – including Taliban-run Afghanistan – Xi presented China as the rising defender and driver of the multipolar system, criticising attempts to “decouple” China’s economy from that of the United States and its allies.
Western officials deny decoupling is the aim, talking instead of “de-risking” by moving away from dependence on Chinese manufacturing. Many developing world states, meanwhile, are doing what they can to avoid publicly picking between Washington and Beijing, attempting to keep up good relations with both.
The Gaza war is now feeding those dynamics. Earlier this year, China helped broker a fledgling peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, while the U.S. moved forward on its own Saudi-Israeli deal. Until the Gaza offensive, the latter looked like the more serious agreement. Now that looks in doubt.
Moscow and Beijing, however, retain distinctly different interests in the current Mideast war.
Mired in conflict in Ukraine, pro-Kremlin pundits have expressed open pleasure at events in the Middle East, hoping they will further reduce already battered Western appetite for supporting the government in Kyiv. Nervous and rising energy prices will also be good news for Russia’s sanctions-hit economy.
China, in contrast, will be desperately hoping to avoid yet another major economic shock just as it appears to be recovering from a property downturn and the effects of shifting trade.
Visiting Beijing last week, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and a bipartisan team of senators lobbied Xi to exert pressure on Iran to avoid the conflict spreading. U.S. officials have struggled to meet with Chinese counterparts this year, but it is still too soon to say whether shared Middle East worries might offer greater common ground.
Oil prices are already around 10% higher than before the Hamas attack, with the International Monetary Fund estimating a sustained rise of that amount normally shaves 0.15% of global growth. As with the food price shocks of the Ukraine war, those effects will be most starkly felt amongst the poorest nations.
Biden’s visit to Israel in the midst of a violent conflict is his second to an active war zone in 2023, following an unheralded 24-hour visit to Ukraine in February. Neither was devoid of risk – indeed, the fact they were seen necessary at all is a sign of the challenges the United States faces asserting itself amid the current chaos.
The explosion at a hospital in Gaza on Tuesday night with reportedly massive casualties brought further complications. On Wednesday, Biden threw his weight behind Israel’s version of events that the explosion appeared caused by a misfired militant rocket from Gaza rather than Israeli weapons.
Across the Middle East and wider world, however, many will still believe the initial Palestinian reports that the munition came from Israel. The blast prompted the cancellation of a meeting between Biden and Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestinian leaders, and at one stage briefly looked at as though it might lead to the cancellation of the U.S. presidential trip entirely.
BATTLE OF NARRATIVES
Arab leaders have so far largely continued to blame Israel for the hospital blast, as have many Arabic-language news channels across the region. That may be further intensified by Russian outlets – the Kremlin has invested heavily in deepening its Arabic-language reach across the Middle East and Africa, and those stations have mainly been pushing solidly pro-Palestinian narratives.
Other disinformation circulating online – including a crudely made English language report purporting to be from the BBC – claims the government in Kyiv had shipped Western weaponry directly to Hamas.
Putin faced his own embarrassment as he arrived in China – what appeared to have been highly successful Ukrainian attacks with U.S. long-range missiles that hit several Russian airbases. The timing of those strikes is unlikely to be a coincidence.
However, there are mounting worries, particularly in Europe, that the Gaza conflict is already doing perhaps catastrophic damage to Western efforts to keep the “Global South” on side, especially when it comes to Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia.
For now, Israel clearly retains considerable sympathy in the West, particularly the United States – as well as in a handful of other locations including among Hindu nationalists in India. More broadly, however, the sympathy of those in developing nations has long been with the Palestinians.
That is only likely to increase as the number of Palestinian dead rises to significantly outnumber Israelis killed in the initial Hamas assault. The broader effects of a wider Mideast war are impossible to predict, but they could well reshape the world.