By Yew Lun Tian, Laurie Chen and Michael Martina
BEIJING/WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – With anger building across the Middle East over Israel’s strikes in Gaza, China and Russia are finding common cause with countries across the region in support of the Palestinians.
For Moscow and Beijing, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza following the Hamas attacks that killed 1,400 Israelis presents an opportunity to burnish their credentials as the champions of the developing world, in contrast with the United States, which has put its support squarely behind ally Israel.
China has consistently called for restraint and a ceasefire but has also sharpened its criticism of Israel.
“Israel’s actions have gone beyond the scope of self-defense,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said this week, called on it to stop its “collective punishment” of Gaza residents, Chinese state media reported.
Russia has expressed sympathy for the Palestinians while blaming the U.S. “I think that many people will agree with me that this is a vivid example of the failure of United States policy in the Middle East,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week.
Both Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have sought to deepen ties to the global south, seeing economic opportunities and possibly a way to counterbalance the diplomatic influence of the U.S. and its allies.
That was on display this week as China hosted a summit for Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, which has lent hundreds of billions of dollars for infrastructure projects across the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Putin attended and met Xi for three hours of talks that included “an in-depth exchange of views on the Palestinian-Israeli situation”, China said.
“China and Russia still see (the crisis) more in terms of the United States than in terms of either Palestine or Israel,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“If the United States can effectively rally the world, it’s bad for them. If the U.S. and its allies grow increasingly isolated, they see that as good for them.”
SUPPORT FOR PALESTINE
While the strategies of Russia and China in the Middle East are not fully aligned they have much in common.
Russia is sharply critical of the U.S. but China has mostly avoided criticising it, a contrast to early in the Ukraine war, when China’s support of Russia turned an unwelcome spotlight on its diplomatic position.
China signalled its growing influence in the Middle East this year when it announced a surprise deal on the restoration of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Russia too has been improving ties with Iran, which has included supplies of Iranian drones and common cause in backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Both China and Russia share a history of support for the Palestinians – and are critical of what they say is the marginalisation of them by the United States.
“There’s clearly a shared interest in emphasizing the negative role of the U.S. in the conflict,” said Jean-Loup Samaan, senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore.
“And that fits within their broader narrative on the need to build an alternative world order to the U.S.”
Russia’s state media has said it was sending humanitarian aid to Gaza and China has sent its Middle East envoy to the region, where he met Russia’s special representative. Russia said on Thursday it was coordinating Middle East policy with China.
While Chinese media covered the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, since then reports have carried images of Palestinian suffering, with some prominently citing Palestinian sources as saying Israel was responsible.
“None of the reality that shocked much of the world on Oct. 7 is in Chinese news. Instead, the news features Israeli bombing of Gaza without explaining that the target is only Hamas infrastructure,” Carice Witte, director of the SIGNAL Group, a Sino-Israel relations think tank based in Tel Aviv.
Russia’s war in Ukraine gives it an added incentive to align itself with the Palestinian cause.
The United States has been trying, with limited success, to persuade the global south to rally behind Ukraine. Portraying the U.S. as a driver of the conflict helps blunt that effort.
Alterman sees a similar motivation for China, which regards the U.S. as its chief geopolitical rival.
“China is trying to play the global south card, irrespective of its close ties to Israel. More than actually supporting Hamas, it is quietly helping build resistance to U.S. efforts to build international support for Israel,” said Alterman.
Ma Xiaolin, a Middle East expert and professor at Zhejiang International Studies University, said China was being even-handed between the Palestinians and Israel but if pushed, would side with its Arab partners.
“If Israel, with the support of the United States, expands the scale and scope of the war and causes more humanitarian casualties, China will definitely tilt the balance in favour of the Palestinians,” said Ma.