Hong Kong —
The world must “must act urgently” to stem the conflict in Gaza, China’s top diplomat said Monday during a meeting with officials from Arab and Muslim majority nations, as Beijing steps up its efforts to play a role in establishing a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed counterparts from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian National Authority, and Indonesia, as well as the head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for a two-day visit to the Chinese capital, the start of the delegation’s expected tour of several world capitals.
“The international community must act urgently, taking effective measures to prevent this tragedy from spreading. China firmly stands with justice and fairness in this conflict,” Wang told the visiting leaders in opening remarks ahead of talks, where he reiterated China’s call for an immediate ceasefire.
Visiting ministers voiced their own strong calls for an end to the conflict, with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud saying: “The message is clear: the war must stop immediately, we must move to a ceasefire immediately, and relief materials and aid must enter immediately.”
Countries represented in the delegation hoped to cooperate with China and “all countries” that are “responsible and appreciate the seriousness of the situation,” he said.
Israel has launched weeks of bombardment and ground operations in the Hamas-ruled enclave of Gaza following a deadly attack on its territory by the group on October 7. More than 200 hostages were taken in that attack, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
The gathering in Beijing comes as sources tell that a possible deal to secure the release of some hostages held by Hamas and a several days pause in fighting may be in sight, following weeks of negotiations between the United States, Israel and the militant group, mediated by Gulf state Qatar.
Beijing has been at odds with Washington – an Israeli ally and long a major power broker in the region – over their approach to the conflict, including when it comes to an immediate ceasefire, which Washington does not support. Beijing has also criticized Israel’s retaliation and failed to condemn Hamas or name the group in its statements, sparking backlash from Israeli officials.
“Israel should stop its collective punishment on the people of Gaza, and open up a humanitarian corridor as soon as possible to prevent a humanitarian crisis of a larger scale from taking place,” Wang was cited as telling the delegation during the talks, according to a readout from China’s Foreign Ministry.
Israel has staunchly defended its actions as rooting out terrorism following a “barbaric invasion” and has rejected any ceasefire without the return of hostages.
China’s push for peace
China has been attempting to play an active role in finding a solution to the conflict as it seeks to expand its position as a major global power.
Beijing dispatched a peace envoy for a multi-country tour of the region last month and has acted as a strong voice pushing for an immediate ceasefire at the United Nations, including the Security Council, where China now holds the rotating presidency.
Last week the UN body passed its first resolution on the conflict, which called for the immediate release of all hostages held by Hamas and for extended humanitarian corridors throughout the enclave to protect civilians. The US and the United Kingdom abstained, citing the resolution’s failure to condemn Hamas.
“For reasons known to all, in particular, the repeated and persistent obstruction of a permanent member of the Council, this resolution at present can only serve as a first step based on minimum consensus,” Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun said following the vote, in an apparent veiled jab at the US.
In his comments Monday in Beijing, Saudi Arabia’s minister commended the Security Council’s decision, under China’s leadership.
The conflict has also given China an opportunity to bolster its already strengthening ties with a number of countries across the Arab world — a region where observers say it hopes to drive a wedge between the US and the countries with which it has long-standing ties.
“We have always firmly defended the legitimate rights and interests of Arab and Muslim countries, and have always firmly supported the Palestinian people’s efforts to restore their legitimate national rights and interests,” Wang told the visiting delegation.
Engaging major players?
Immediate ceasefire and longer-term peace were also key topics during a roughly 10-day tour in the Middle East last month from China’s special envoy for the region, Zhai Jun, who visited Egypt, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, according to China’s Foreign Ministry.
Last week the envoy visited and met with officials in Turkey and Bahrain, where Zhai also discussed the “regional situation” with representatives from Singapore, the US and Europe on the sidelines of an international conference.
So far there have been no apparent concrete outcomes from the diplomacy.
Zhai’s itinerary thus far has also not included stops in Israel, Palestinian-controlled territories, or Iran, per information released by China’s Foreign Ministry. Wang spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on the phone last month. It’s not clear if China has been in contact with Hamas officials during the latest conflict.
Visiting officials in Beijing this week include Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki of the West Bank-based Palestinian National Authority.
China earlier this month dispatched the head of its Foreign Ministry’s West Asian and North African affairs department to Iran, where the conflict was part of discussions, according to a post on the department’s WeChat social media account.
Iran is a longtime backer of both Hamas and Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
During hours-long talks between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden in California last week, Biden encouraged Xi to use China’s leverage with Iran to warn against a wider regional escalation, a senior US official told.
In the talks, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said they’d already held discussions with the Iranians on the topic, the senior official said.
Biden also made clear to Xi that he viewed Hamas as separate from the Palestinians. The US views Hamas as a terrorist organization that has perpetuated the suffering of Palestinian people, and has upheld Israel’s right to retaliate against the group.
Beijing has not referred to Hamas in its statements, but instead frames the current situation as a Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Speaking to reporters in Washington Monday, State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said the US “would welcome China playing a constructive role in the Middle East.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken had “made this clear personally” in conversations with China’s Wang, Miller added.