Washington's unwavering support for Israel during its ground invasion of Gaza is coming under increasing scrutiny in the Global South.
China's top diplomat Wang Yi this week hosted a delegation of foreign ministers from the Arab and Islamic world, including representatives from Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Egypt and Indonesia. Beijing said it is ready to work with these countries towards a ceasefire in Gaza, the release of hostages, the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid, and an "early, comprehensive, just and enduring settlement of the Palestinian question".
This is not a new line from Beijing, but it will no doubt be welcomed by some in the Muslim world, particularly in Southeast Asia, which is keen to see more global leadership on an issue that has stoked outrage across communities. Tensions have been running high since Oct 7, when Hamas militants surged across the border and killed 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals and took as many as 240 hostage.
The region's two largest Muslim majority countries -- Indonesia and Malaysia -- have long taken a strong pro-Palestinian stance and neither has diplomatic ties with Israel. As the civilian death toll in Gaza climbed above 13,000 following Israel's military campaign, with images of dead and injured children flooding their timelines, tens of thousands of Indonesians and Malaysians have attended rallies and sermons in support of Palestinians.
The protest movement is spreading to all areas of public life in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, where 87% of the 280 million strong population follow the faith.
In a social media video message to his followers on Nov 13, Asrorun Niam Sholeh, the chairman of the Fatwa Division at the Indonesian Ulema Council, the highest Muslim authority in the land, laid out the four principles behind an edict that urged the faithful to boycott Israeli products. There have also been social media lists encouraging people to avoid well-known American brands like McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Coca-Cola. Those protesting say the the double standards of the US in the Middle East are becoming increasingly apparent.
It's a similar picture in Malaysia. At a rally in Kuala Lumpur on Oct 24, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim joined thousands of pro-Palestinian supporters to condemn what they are calling "barbaric" acts in Gaza.
The country has refused to cut ties with Hamas, and Mr Anwar has spoken to the head of its political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, to express "Malaysia's unwavering support for the Palestinian people." In parliament, the prime minister said the US embassy had tried to pressure him to change his mind, but he refused.
"Popular opinion in Malaysia is causing leaders to speak out forcefully," Sidney Jones, the New York-based senior adviser to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, told me.
"In Indonesia, there is no way that the President Joko Widodo could have met President Joe Biden recently and not said he had delivered a message about Gaza to the US." This has yet to cause a serious rift between the US and Indonesia -- the two countries signed a comprehensive strategic partnership at that same meeting -- though if Indonesians volunteering in hospitals in Gaza are killed, it could prompt more representations from Jakarta to Washington, she notes.
The pressure is already rising. Indonesia's chief diplomat, Retno Marsudi, in a video message from the foreign ministers' meeting in Beijing, "strongly condemned" what she said were Israeli tank attacks on the Indonesian Hospital in Gaza on Monday, in which it is thought 12 civilians were killed. Israel says the medical facility is used to disguise Hamas's underground command and control centre, a claim both the Indonesians and the Palestinians deny.
This is just one example of how the conflict is spilling over into Southeast Asia. Washington's unquestioning support for Israel is contentious in the region, notes Joseph Liow, dean of Nanyang Technological University's College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.
Much of this is a hangover from the aftermath of al-Qaeda's attacks on the US on Sept 11 -- in particular the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan -- that is still fresh in the minds of many Malaysians and Indonesians. "That script is going to play out again, and that is going to create difficulties for the leaders of these countries," he says.
Enter China, which has been quick to spot the opportunity to act global peacemaker, despite its many limitations. Beijing has been trying to position itself as a powerful player in the Middle East, after it helped broker a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US has urged China to use its influence to prevent the conflict from spreading further, but President Xi Jinping has yet to use the leverage he has with Russia and Iran to influence either the war in Ukraine or Gaza. Even now, as more nations in the Arab and Islamic world are turning to Beijing, it has little more to offer besides commitments to keep talking.
The Chinese are likely to continue their relationship-building with the Islamic world on the Palestinian issue, overtures that are likely to be welcomed, despite Beijing's mass arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Human Rights Watch in 2021 concluded that these violations constituted "crimes against humanity". But the focus for many Muslims in Asia is the fate of their fellow Muslims in the Middle East, not in Xinjiang. Comments by Mr Biden warning Israel about extremist violence against Palestinians in the West Bank will do little to win over those suspicious of US intentions. The question now is whether Beijing can bridge the gap between its diplomatic ambitions and and its ability. ©2023 Bloomberg
Karishma Vaswani is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asia politics with a special focus on China. Previously, she was the BBC's lead Asia presenter and worked for the BBC across Asia and South Asia for two decades.