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China’s Xi Jinping calls for peace conference and ‘justice’ over war in Gaza as Arab leaders visit Beijing

Chinese leader Xi Jinping decried “tremendous sufferings” in the Middle East and called for an international peace conference as leaders from Arab nations visit Beijing this week amid mounting global concern over Israel’s war in Gaza.

“Since last October, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has escalated drastically, throwing the people into tremendous sufferings. War should not continue indefinitely. Justice should not be absent forever,” Xi said Thursday at the opening of a meeting between top diplomats from China and Arab states, also attended by several leaders from the region.

He also reiterated China’s call for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, as well as Beijing’s support for a “more broad-based, authoritative and effective international peace conference.”

The diplomatic gatherings in Beijing come as Israel’s war in Gaza remains an urgent global focus, as Israeli forces intensify operations in the enclave’s southern city of Rafah and a humanitarian crisis worsens by the day.

China, which has sought to deepen its relations across the Middle East in recent years, has positioned itself in alignment with the Arab world and the broader Global South on the nearly eight-month-long conflict, criticizing Israel and calling for a ceasefire.

Its stance has put it at odds with the United States, long a key power in the region and a primary backer of Israel. Chinese officials have used the conflict to hit out at Washington – fitting into a larger message from Beijing that frames the US as an aggressor unfairly dominating the current world order.

Xi in his remarks hailed a “common desire for a new era of China-Arab relations” and said their relations could be a “model for maintaining world peace and stability.”

“In this turbulent world, peaceful relations come from mutual respect, and lasting security is built on fairness and justice,” said the Chinese leader, who has pushed for an alternative model for global security to the alliance-based one backed by the US.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, United Arab Emirates President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and Tunisian President Kais Saied are in China for state visits that coincide with the ministerial meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum.

Delegations from 22 Arab states joined that event at Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, according to Chinese state media.

War in Gaza on the agenda

Diplomats attending Thursday’s ministerial meeting were expected to adopt agreements to deepen cooperation across a range of fields and “make a common voice of China and Arab states on the Palestinian question,” China’s foreign ministry said ahead of the gathering.

With its diplomacy this week, China “wants to demonstrate leadership, consolidate ties, and call for ceasefire (in Gaza). It wants to be a particularly strong leader on this issue, at least rhetorically,” according to Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank.

“China has chosen to side with Palestine and the Arab countries. The choice is deliberate as it does suggest a desire to align with Arab countries, and the Global South. But China didn’t create the crisis. It only capitalized on it,” she added.

Xi said China will provide an additional nearly $70 million to alleviating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and to supporting post-conflict reconstruction, adding to roughly $14 million already contributed, as well as $3 million to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in support of its emergency humanitarian assistance to Gaza.

Israel declared war on Hamas in Gaza following the militant group’s October 7 attack on its territory that killed some 1,200 people and saw more than 200 taken hostage, according to Israeli forces. More than 36,000 Palestinians have died since the start of Israeli military operations in Gaza, according to its health ministry.

China has recognized a Palestinian state since 1988.

Since the start of the war, Beijing has positioned itself as a champion for the broader issue of a two-state solution, which would see the international recognition of a Palestinian state, and dispatched rounds of envoys to the region to meet Arab counterparts. It has not explicitly condemned Hamas for the October 7 attacks.

Beijing last month hosted representatives from rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas for “reconciliation” talks.

Even as Beijing has sought to tighten ties throughout the Middle East in recent years, observers say its influence in the region remains limited.

Beijing has also appeared unwilling to take certain steps to respond to regional effects of the conflict. For example, it said it did not deploy additional naval assets to secure Red Sea shipping lanes that were under attack in recent months by Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Thursday’s ministerial meeting is the first such gathering since China held its first joint summit with Arab leaders in late 2022 in Saudi Arabia.

Then, Xi was welcomed to the Gulf state with fanfare – cutting a sharp contrast to a tense visit from US President Joe Biden earlier that year amid American outrage over Riyadh’s alleged role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside its consulate in Istanbul.

Xi is also holding bilateral talks with visiting leaders this week.

Egypt’s Sisi was greeted with a red-carpet welcome to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Wednesday, where the two leaders agreed to deepen their strategic partnership, according to a readout from China’s foreign ministry.

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