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China In Eurasia Briefing: Beijing, Moscow, And A New Crisis In The Middle East

Smoke billows after an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the Gaza Strip on October 16. The recent outbreak of hostilities in the region could benefit both China and Russia.
Smoke billows after an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the Gaza Strip on October 16. The recent outbreak of hostilities in the region could benefit both China and Russia.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

Listen to the Talking China In Eurasia podcast. Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | YouTube

Beijing, Moscow, And A New Crisis In The Middle East

China and Russia have hardened their positions toward the conflict in Gaza in recent days, as the war between Israel and Hamas,designated a terrorist organization by the EU and the United States, 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 Hizballah.

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 Authority 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.

Podcast Corner: On The Ground In Georgia And How Beijing Weaponized Its Economy

Listen to the latest episode of the China In Eurasia podcast. You can find the show on Spotify, Apple, Google, YouTube, or wherever else you like to listen.

We have two new episodes out. On the first one, I'm joined by Axios reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, who discusses her new book, Beijing Rules, and how China has managed to leverage its economy for geopolitical gain by shaping markets and influencing the behavior of governments and major companies.

The second new episode is an on-the-ground journey along a new Chinese-built highway in Georgia, where my colleague Tamuna Chkareuli and I reported earlier this year. We take a ground-level view of China's growing presence in the region and look at the human face of the Belt and Road, speaking with locals, current and former officials, and experts.

Be sure to listen and leave a review on your listening platform of choice. I’d also love to hear what you think. Reach out at

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. The Belt And Road Big Picture

China has just wrapped up the third Belt and Road Forum, a two-day gathering in Beijing with officials from around the globe that coincides with the project's 10th anniversary.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has faced growing criticism in recent years, and as I reported here, Xi is looking to reboot and rebrand the project a decade after its launch.

The Details: The Forum began on October 17 and comes as the BRI is finding a new identity.

Beijing says that, since its inception, more than 150 countries have signed agreements under the auspices of the BRI as China has directed much-needed funding and investment into infrastructure in poorer countries.

But controversies -- from alleged predatory lending and crippling debt to environmental damage -- have always surrounded the Chinese initiative.

In response to these difficulties, the BRI has shifted gears, refocusing on projects across the Global South and moving more toward investing in renewables and digital infrastructure. The project has also become less focused on large-scale lending from large Chinese state policy banks and seen a greater uptick in involvement from private Chinese companies.

This all leaves the BRI with a passable -- but less than stellar -- report card after 10 years and lots of questions about what its future will look like.

As Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told me, “everyone always focuses on individual projects, but [BRI] is ultimately a Chinese vision for how to engage with the world.”

This more zoomed-back look at the BRI is important as it continues to change. China originally branded the project as a strategy to boost global connectivity, but as Niva Yau, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, told me, it now forms the backbone of a Chinese playbook to lay the foundations for a new global order with China at the center.

In this vein, BRI is one of several ways that Beijing is looking to introduce Chinese norms and values to the world, with other projects unveiled in the last two years, such as the Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, and Global Civilization Initiative helping to fill in the rest of China’s blueprint for a new world system.

2. Putin's Pipeline Dream

Putin also attended the Belt and Road Forum, making his first trip to China since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

As I reported here, Moscow has been pushing for a clear commitment from Beijing on the China-bound Power Of Siberia-2 gas pipeline, which Russia needs to compensate for at least part of the European Union market it has lost due to the war.

What You Need To Know: Ahead of Putin’s China trip, there were signs of progress on Power Of Siberia-2.

Trilateral talks between China, Russia, and Mongolia (where the pipeline will transit) were moving forward and Putin was set to travel with the heads of Russian energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft, Aleksei Miller and Igor Sechin.

But prior to departing from Moscow, Putin seemed to imply during an interview with Chinese state media that negotiations are still ongoing and was vague on how talks were shaping up. Interestingly, the Chinese-language versions of the interview did not include any mention of oil and gas projects -- past or future -- between China and Russia.

There’s very little transparency on where things stand behind the scenes, but the general consensus among analysts is that Beijing is in no hurry to reach an agreement -- if it will at all.

The proposed pipeline will need to overcome growing economic, financial, and technical challenges to come to fruition. Moscow's bargaining power with its more economically powerful neighbor has also weakened over the course of the war in Ukraine and questions remain over Gazprom's ability to underwrite such a complicated infrastructure project.

3. The Ukraine War And Chinese Drones

New research shared with RFE/RL shows that, despite an official ban on their sale to Russia and Ukraine, drones from DJI -- the preeminent Chinese drone maker -- continue to play a decisive role on the battlefield and are being sold to Russian companies and training centers with links to Moscow's war effort.

Read the full report here.

What It Means: The research -- which was compiled by Molfar, a Ukrainian business intelligence consultancy, and corroborated by RFE/RL -- shows that DJI's small, low-cost drones are being sold to Russian entities that are part of its sprawling military-industrial complex or to companies in the country that train government personnel or military units on how to use the unmanned aerial vehicles.

In some cases, the training centers state plainly and even boast on their websites and Telegram channels that they are training pilots and members of the Russian military on DJI drones for Moscow's war in Ukraine.

Small and affordable drones, many of which can even be bought online or off the shelf, have become a staple of the war in Ukraine for both Kyiv and Moscow for reconnaissance and targeted attacks. Ukrainian forces have proven particularly adept at retrofitting consumer drones with explosives and then crashing them into Russian forces and territory.

This has led to both sides burning through the products at a high rate and constantly needing to replenish their stocks. The Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, estimated earlier this year that Ukraine goes through 10,000 drones a month.

The report adds to a growing body of evidence since February 2022 that demonstrates how Moscow has been able to draw critical items for its military from abroad, particularly from China, despite Western attempts to restrain Russia's war machine.

Across The Supercontinent

Mineral Hype?: The Taliban has been celebrating since it signed seven mining contracts promising to attract more than $6.5 billion in investments in late August.

But as my colleague Abubakar Siddique reports, there's still plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the large-scale projects actually being implemented.

Meet And Greet In Beijing: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was the only head of government from an EU state to attend the Belt and Road Forum. In addition to meetings with Chinese officials, Orban met with Putin and discussed energy cooperation.

Visa-Free: Kyrgyzstan has made progress toward visa-free travel to the country for Chinese citizens. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on October 11 that Bishkek agreed to allow Chinese citizens holding valid U.S., British, or EU visas, as well as residents of Hong Kong and Macao, to enter and stay in the country without visas for up to seven days.

Data Exchange: In a move that’s worried activists, the Kazakh Senate ratified an agreement on October 5 with China on the exchange of personal data for their citizens, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported.

The deal is part of a plan to regulate visa-free travel between the two countries, which was agreed to earlier this year. But the exchange of biometric data has many activists in Kazakhstan worried given the crackdown against Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs next door in Xinjiang and how Beijing has used such data to track the minority groups.

One Thing To Watch

A Canadian general criticized the Chinese Air Force over an incident off China’s coastline that apparently saw a fighter jet cut off a patrol plane and drop flares in its path.

The incident highlights China’s frustration over Western military flights near its shores, though they are carried out in international airspace.

In May, the Pentagon said a Chinese fighter jet that swerved in front of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the South China Sea behaved in an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver.” Last year, Chinese fighters reportedly buzzed Canadian planes in the region and released small pieces of aluminum in front of Australian aircraft.

That's all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every other Wednesday.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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About The Newsletter

China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.