China and Russia have hardened their positions toward the conflict in Gaza in recent days, as the war between Israel and Hamas aggravates existing geopolitical tensions.
This new Middle East crisis could also benefit both Beijing and Moscow by diverting the attention of their main global rival: the United States.
With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of what’s happened so far and what’s at stake in Israel, Gaza, and beyond.
Finding Perspective: Shortly after Hamas’s attacks, China struck a neutral tone that angered many Israelis and Western countries, blandly calling for both sides to “remain calm” and failing to condemn the Palestinian group’s actions.
Beijing has pointedly refrained from using the word “terrorism” as it described the Hamas attack, even though there were four Chinese citizens killed by Hamas and three more taken hostage, according to Israeli authorities.
In recent years, Beijing has begun trying to extend its political sway in the Middle East as part of Xi Jinping’s vision for Chinese leadership of the Global South and China finds itself on good terms with almost all of the powers in the region, including Iran, who is the chief backer of Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
The long-term effect of the Middle East flare-up is hard to predict and the situation on the ground is moving quickly, but regardless, Beijing finds itself with new opportunities.
China could look to use its influence in the region to prevent things from expanding even further into a regional conflict and earn status as a peacemaker. The crisis is also another key theater that will require American attention to be diverted away from Beijing and the wider Asia-Pacific.
The potential for Russia is perhaps greater. As Washington focuses on the Middle East, Ukraine has drifted from the front pages of Western newspapers and many analysts believe that a new war will embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic bet that he can outlast Western support for Ukraine.
Should the war in the Middle East expand, Kyiv has even acknowledged the risk of already shrinking U.S. military aid becoming even more scarce.
Why It Matters: Beijing has an opportunity to showcase its stewardship of the Global South and its deepened ties in the Middle East, however, it’s unclear how much of a lasting strategic distraction this new crisis will be for Washington.
In March, Beijing brokered a tentative deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran -- a highly touted diplomatic breakthrough for China. This was followed up in June when Xi offered to help Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas promote peace talks with Israel.
But this is no guarantee for success. If anything, the current crisis could also risk exposing Chinese inexperience in the region and present new obstacles for Beijing to stumble over.
The same stands true for Russia. Even if Israel will require U.S. military aid, its most urgent request so far is for interceptors for its Iron Dome anti-missile system, something that Ukraine does not operate. Kyiv’s main desire, meanwhile, is for artillery and other ammunition.
Moreover, while Washington is set to be bogged down in Middle East diplomacy, the American role so far in the crisis highlights its continued importance and staying power in the region, with aircraft carrier groups and Secretary of State Antony Blinken quickly moving to help contain the conflict from spreading further.
In contrast, China has mostly kept a low profile as the threat of a regional war continues to grow.
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