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US Dismisses Chinese Diplomacy on Gaza

FILE - A staff member wipes on national flags from left, Palestinians, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, Jordan, Indonesia and Organization of Islamic Cooperation before a round table meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing, Nov. 20, 2023.
FILE - A staff member wipes on national flags from left, Palestinians, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, Jordan, Indonesia and Organization of Islamic Cooperation before a round table meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing, Nov. 20, 2023.

The White House is dismissing China's recent diplomatic engagement in the Israel-Hamas conflict, part of Beijing's attempt to position itself as a more credible peacemaker in the Middle East than the U.S.

"We're comfortable with our relationships. We're comfortable with American leadership in the region. We're comfortable that we have the ability to work through partners in the region to achieve outcomes and results that are beneficial to all of us," National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in an interview with VOA Wednesday.

Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi has been stepping up peacemaking efforts in Gaza, meeting with Arab and Muslim officials Monday and calling for an immediate cease-fire and more humanitarian aid for Gaza.

The Beijing meeting is the first leg of a tour to the capitals of permanent members of the United Nations Security Council by a delegation of ministers from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Indonesia and Nigeria.

The so-called Peace Committee, appointed during the Nov. 11 Joint Arab-Islamic Extraordinary Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, held subsequent meetings in London and Moscow this week, with further travel planned to Paris and Washington.

Wang told the foreign officials that the decision to start their tour in Beijing is evidence of the high level of trust in his nation. The meeting saw Arab officials praising China's stance and disparaging Washington's.

In comments posted by his ministry on X, formerly known as Twitter, Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry told Wang, "We look forward to a stronger role on the part of great powers such as China in order to stop the attacks against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, there are major countries that give cover to the current Israeli attacks."

China's stance on Gaza war

Within days of Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel, China launched a diplomatic blitz, positioning itself as a "friend to both Israel and Palestine" and urging for a cease-fire.

Beijing has called for an "international peace conference," promising "impartial conciliation and mediation" and contrasting its position to U.S. full-throated support of Israel's right to defend itself.

China has repeatedly shown its support of the Palestinian cause on international forums, including during Tuesday's virtual meeting of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) bloc of developing nations.

"The root cause of the Palestinian-Israeli situation is the fact that the right of the Palestinian people to statehood, their right to existence and their right of return have long been ignored," said Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Xi is capitalizing on the opportunity to improve ties with the Arab and Muslim world, said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.

"Yes, there's an element of conflict resolution. But at this point, it seems a resolution is very unlikely to transpire," she told VOA. "I think the Chinese priority is basically to use this opportunity to consolidate and strengthen relationships."

Beijing has high stakes in the Middle East related to its economic and energy security. As a key trading partner for Middle East countries and the largest consumer of Saudi oil — and as it has rapidly boosted its oil purchase from Iran in recent years— China has every reason to ensure regional stability and stop the war in Gaza from broadening.

Beijing, however, also has an interest in undermining Washington, its strategic rival, said Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University. By calling for a cease-fire, Rynhold told VOA, Beijing can be "both against American policy and trying to stop the spread of the conflict that could threaten their interests."

And unlike Washington, Beijing does not describe Hamas attacks as terrorism and maintains that Israeli retaliation has gone beyond the acceptable under international humanitarian law — a position shared by many countries in the Global South, including Indonesia, home to 13% of the world's Muslims.

No Chinese security investment

Under Xi, China has pushed its image as an international mediator in the Middle East, securing a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year.

"In terms of political and diplomatic engagement, China is catching up quite rapidly," Yun said.

As China pitches itself as an alternative to the U.S.-led political and security order, however, it has not increased its security investments in the region.

"You can see how hollow Chinese power is in that they can't guarantee stability themselves," Rynhold said, adding that Beijing has "very little leverage" beyond the pressure it can exert on Tehran to refrain from broadening the conflict.

China was not involved in the Tuesday deal to secure a dayslong temporary cease-fire to allow for the release of around 50 hostages held by Hamas in return for 150 Palestinian prisoners and ensure more aid into Gaza.

By contrast, U.S. President Joe Biden was "personally involved," Kirby said. On Wednesday, Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to welcome the deal, and he thanked the leaders of Qatar and Egypt for their roles in reaching the agreement.

In a statement Tuesday, Netanyahu said he had personally asked Biden to join and "improve" the mediation effort.

"Indeed, it has been improved to include more hostages and at a lower cost," he said.

A National Security Council spokesperson told VOA Wednesday the U.S. has been actively engaged with countries in the Middle East, leading efforts to increase the flow of humanitarian assistance and urging Israel to restore access to water and electricity in Gaza.

"The president was able to broker a deal to enable the Rafah crossing to reopen. Israel began allowing fuel into Gaza for NGOs at our strong request," the spokesperson said.

Despite his efforts in increasing humanitarian aid for Gazans, Biden is losing ground with voters of his own party on his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, hitting the lowest approval rating of his presidency.

According to a new NBC News poll, 41% of Democrats disapprove of Biden's handling of the conflict.

The survey also found that 51% of Democrats and 42% of young voters believe Israel has gone too far in its military operations.

Paris Huang contributed to this report.