China began welcoming on Monday representatives of 130 countries for a conference that will be overshadowed by the Israel-Hamas war, as an increasingly assertive Beijing is asked to help de-escalate the violence.
At the top of the invitation list to China’s Belt and Road Initiative forum is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, on his first trip to a major global power since the Ukraine invasion threw his regime into international isolation.
Leaders have begun to pour into the Chinese capital for a gala event marking a decade of the BRI, a key project of President Xi Jinping to extend China’s global reach.
While China hopes the forum will help boost its international standing, Israel’s war with Palestinian militant organisation Hamas will continue to dominate the headlines.
Israel declared war on the Islamist group after waves of its fighters broke through the heavily fortified border on October 7, shooting, stabbing, and burning to death more than 1,400 people, most of them civilians.
More than one million people have fled their homes in scenes of chaos and despair under heavy Israeli bombardment of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Israel’s bombing has killed at least 2,670 people in Gaza, mainly civilians, and flattened entire neighbourhoods.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi condemned Israel’s actions for going “beyond the scope of self-defence” and called for it to “cease its collective punishment of the people of Gaza”.
“(Israel) should listen earnestly to the calls of the international community… and cease its collective punishment of the people of Gaza,” Wang said Sunday, in China’s strongest response to the conflict so far.
Western officials have criticised Beijing for not naming Hamas in statements on the Israel-Gaza conflict.
Wang spoke on Sunday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who called on China to use its “influence” in the Middle East to push for calm.
China has a warm relationship with Iran, where the clerical leadership supports both Hamas and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that could open a second front against Israel.
This year, China brokered an entente between former regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Beijing’s special envoy Zhai Jun will visit the Middle East this week to push for a ceasefire and peace talks, China’s state broadcaster CCTV said on Sunday, without specifying which countries he would visit.
The BRI summit would allow Beijing to frame attendance as a gesture of support for its position on the Israel-Hamas war, said Niva Yau, a non-resident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.
“Any head of state that attends the summit, it’s almost as if they agree with Beijing’s positions on these global issues,” she said.
– Strategic dependence –
Several leaders are already in Beijing ahead of the two-day forum, which starts Tuesday.
Among them are the prime ministers of Hungary, Ethiopia and Cambodia, and the presidents of Kenya and Chile.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew into Beijing on Monday and within hours held talks with his Chinese counterpart.
Lavrov thanked China for inviting Putin as the summit’s “chief guest”, according to a readout from Moscow, which later said the top diplomat would head to North Korea after Beijing.
Relations between China and Russia are “on the rise”, Lavrov told Wang Yi, adding that their two leaders “will discuss them in their entirety when they meet”.
Wang, in turn, said China “appreciates” Russia’s support for the Belt and Road Initiative.
“Both sides should plan commemorative activities, deepen strategic mutual trust, consolidate traditional friendship, and promote friendship from generation to generation,” he said.
Putin is expected to arrive overnight.
Trade between China and Russia this year has soared to levels not seen since the beginning of Moscow’s war in Ukraine, with Chinese imports of Russian oil offering Moscow a critical lifeline as international sanctions bite.
China has refused to condemn the Ukraine war in an effort to position itself as a neutral party, while also offering Moscow vital diplomatic and financial support.
At the heart of the deepening partnership is the relationship between Xi and Putin, who have described each other as “dear friends”.
In their symbiotic alliance, each relies on the other to help counter Western dominance.
Putin hailed ties with Beijing in an interview with state broadcaster CGTN ahead of his visit, and praised “highly relevant and significant” initiatives put forward by Xi.