Gaza Is China’s New Wedge Issue to Split US From Global South

(Bloomberg) -- Last week, a top Chinese diplomat took to the microphones at the United Nations to harangue the US for blocking a resolution that would have backed Palestinians’ bid for membership, saying it had “shattered the decades-long dream of the Palestinian people.”

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The broadside by Ambassador Fu Cong may have just looked like more anti-US rhetoric. But US officials and experts say it fits into a pattern with greater significance — an increasingly active Chinese effort to turn opinion in developing countries against the US since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, using the Gaza war as a wedge.

US officials and experts argue that China is seizing on global outrage over the rising death toll in the Gaza Strip and the dire humanitarian situation as a new tactic in its longtime push to to score points against Washington at the UN and online.

One senior US official, who asked not to be identified discussing the US assessment, said China has used Gaza as a means to try to paint America as a major contributor to global insecurity, while simultaneously promoting itself as a force for peace.

The effort extends to stoking dissent at home. In April, the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue said a network of pro-Chinese Communist Party operators known as Spamouflage was using accounts posing as right-wing Americans and targeting the Gaza war to flame internal US divisions.

The institute’s assessment is “Chinese and Russian actors are capitalizing on the perceived unpopularity of Western policy towards Gaza,” said Melanie Smith, director of research for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. Their aim is “to push the idea of an alternate global power structure with themselves at the helm.”

Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have united in challenging the US-led world order, which Beijing says is trying to contain its development. Their “no limits” relationship has attracted heightened scrutiny since the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, with the US repeatedly pressuring Beijing to condemn the war.

That conflict has also become a point of tension between Washington and some Global South nations. Countries including Brazil, Indonesia, India and Turkey have rebuffed US efforts to enlist their help to back Ukraine, a position now echoed in their unwillingness to side with Israel in the wake of the Hamas attack.

China also has peppered its state media with messaging on how officials are facilitating countries’ efforts to break into the Western-led international system. Two such China Daily headlines in March read “China a true diplomatic power for Global South” and “Multipolarization gaining traction across globe.”

The National Security Council declined to comment. Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, criticized the US for talking about “a ceasefire while pouring weapons” into the “biggest humanitarian tragedy in the 21st century,” in an emailed statement.

In a report last October, the Atlantic Council argued there was “clear evidence that Beijing’s tireless efforts” to portray itself as a defender of the Global South were paying off. It cited support at the UN to defend its human rights record and a growing influence in the Middle East, as well as China becoming a “major source of emergency funds” for Argentina.

In the battle for global influence, Washington has also stepped up efforts to woo Global South nations. US diplomats have fanned out across the globe to argue that smaller and poorer nations should be wary of Chinese support. President Joe Biden has also been vocal in criticizing China’s alleged human rights abuses in its far western Xinjiang region, accusations that Beijing denies.

When it comes to the Middle East, US officials argue that while China and Russia may criticize Washington for its role, they do so from the sidelines, without providing an alternative vision.

“Let’s be honest — for all the fiery rhetoric, we all know that Russia and China are not doing anything diplomatically to advance a lasting peace,” US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Security Council in March.

While China has gradually swayed some nations to its side, others are pushing away. Nations such as the Philippines, for example, may agree with Beijing on Gaza, but they’re eager to stay committed to the US in areas of security and investment.

Essentially, both superpowers are portraying the other as responsible for global destabilization, according to Lily McElwee, deputy director of the China studies program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“China in a way is at the advantage here, narratively speaking,” she added, “Because it can go to these countries in the Global South and say: ‘We are not fueling the fire.’”

--With assistance from Iain Marlow, Norman Harsono and Alberto Nardelli.

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