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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jason Burke International security correspondent

China and Russia harden positions on Gaza as war stirs geopolitical tensions

Sergei Lavrov shakes hands with Wang Yi as they stand in front of their respective country's flags
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, met his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Beijing on Monday. Photograph: Russian foreign ministry/AFP/Getty Images

China and Russia have hardened their positions towards the conflict in Gaza in recent days, as the war between Israel and Hamas aggravates existing geopolitical tensions and underscores the growing gulf between the cold war allies and western powers such as the US, UK and France.

The Chinese foreign minister said over the weekend that Israel’s bombing campaign had gone “beyond the scope of self-defence” and that it “should stop collective punishment of the people of Gaza”.

On Friday, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, raised the possibility that an intensified siege of Gaza by Israel may resemble that of Leningrad by German armies during the second world war, a reference likely to cause deep offence in Israel.

Russia’s top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, arrived in Beijing on Monday before an expected visit by Putin, which will raise western concerns about increasingly close links between the two powers.

China has historically backed the Palestinian cause for decades, as did the USSR throughout the cold war. More recently, both powers have sought to balance closer ties with Israel with their broader diplomatic efforts to win allies in the Arab world and more broadly.

Russia is seeking support for its continuing war in Ukraine while China is looking to build a broader coalition of developing countries to extend Beijing’s influence and reinforce its efforts to compete with the US on the global stage.

“Beijing has been pro-Palestinian since Mao’s days and is mindful about the US’s close ties with Israel … [now] almost anything that the US supports, China must be against. Beijing also wishes to be seen as a key supporter to the global south, which includes most Arab countries retaining friendly ties with China. It’s a matter of maintaining those relations by continuing to support the Palestinians​,” said Dr Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at the Chatham House thinktank in London.

Analysts have suggested China is looking to offset concern in the Islamic and Arab worlds about Beijing’s treatment of the Muslim ethnic Uyghurs in the north-western Chinese region of Xinjiang.

The Middle East supplies much of China’s oil needs and is a nexus in the belt and road initiative, President Xi Jinping’s ambitious infrastructure project to connect markets around the world and so extend Beijing’s influence.

Since the war began, Chinese state media have been critical of Israel and blamed the US, Israel’s strongest supporter, for fanning tensions in the region. There has also been an increase in antisemitic content on the heavily policed Chinese internet, according to Yaqiu Wang, the research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at the US-based not-for-profit organisation Freedom House.

Putin said on Friday that Israel had been subjected to “an attack unprecedented in its cruelty” by Hamas militants and had the right to defend itself but was responding with cruel methods of its own. “The civilian casualties [likely in the event of an Israeli ground offensive] will be absolutely unacceptable. Now the main thing is to stop the bloodshed,” he said.

Russian officials have insisted Moscow can help mediate because it has relations with Israel, the Palestinians, groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran and major Arab powers.

Israeli soldiers ride in armoured vehicles
Israeli soldiers ride in armoured vehicles towards the border with the Gaza Strip on Monday. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

Russian officials have also been keen to blame the US for the conflict. The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, has said the US bears “responsibility for the looming war in the Middle East”.

Other big powers in the developing world face difficult diplomatic choices.

India has made a global fight against terrorism a central principle of its foreign policy for decades and has, like Russia and China, developed economic and other ties with Israel in recent years.

But the government of Narendra Modi has also built new relationships with leading actors in the Arab world such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that it does not want to jeopardise. As elsewhere, officials in Delhi are deeply concerned about any further escalation.

“India is slightly different from other countries in the global south in that India itself has been the victim of this kind of terrorism so this hits close to home,” said Prof Harsh Pant of the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi.

“There has been a triangulation of foreign policy for some time, with the idea that India can get along with Iran, the Arab world and Israel all at once … but if the faultlines become sharper then [Indian] diplomacy will have its work cut out.”

Reactions in Africa have been varied, with a statement from the African Union that analysts have described as “carefully balanced”.

Israel has made a significant diplomatic effort on the continent, which may be paying dividends.

Nevertheless, harsh criticism has come from South Africa, which has a specific and troubled history with Israel, which grew close to the racist, repressive apartheid regime in the 1980s.

Priyal Singh, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, described South Africa as an outlier on the continent.

“The Israel-Palestine issue speaks to South Africa’s own divided society and history of inequality. So it is a national domestic issue too and that’s pretty unique on the continent,” he said.

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