Schumer Confronts Xi on Israel-Hamas Statement in Rare Meeting

President Xi Jinping’s first meeting with US congressional leaders in eight years was colored with tension Monday, as the Chinese leader was confronted over his nation’s failure to condemn Hamas’ incursion into Israel.

(Bloomberg) — President Xi Jinping’s first meeting with US congressional leaders in eight years was colored with tension Monday, as the Chinese leader was confronted over his nation’s failure to condemn Hamas’ incursion into Israel.

“I urge you and the Chinese people to stand with the Israeli people and condemn the cowardly and vicious attacks upon them,” US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told Xi, hours after he blasted Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for showing “no sympathy or support for Israel during these tough, troubled times.”

Xi did not address the weekend’s surprise escalation of violence in the Middle East in his opening statement, instead expressing hope for mutual respect and peaceful co-existence between the US and China. “We have a thousand reasons to make US-China relations better, and no reason to make them worse,” Xi said.

The meeting in Beijing marked the first time Xi met with US senators since 2015, when he spoke with US congress leaders on a visit to Washington.

While Xi sat down with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June, the Chinese leader skipped meeting three other cabinet-level Biden officials in recent months, making the exchange on Monday all the more unusual.

Taking a hard line on China has become one of the few bipartisan areas of consensus in Washington in recent years, with congress often being a driving force for tougher policies on Beijing. The delegation to China was led by Schumer, a Democrat, and Republican Senator Mike Crapo.

Xi’s decision to meet directly with senators, without Biden officials present, could be an attempt to shift sentiment among such leaders, who can also influence business ties.

“This might be savvy because there’s been no significant traction thus far with Biden,” said Josef Gregory Mahoney, a politics and international relations professor at Shanghai’s East China Normal University. “Congressional leaders are more vulnerable to special interests, including American firms with extensive commercial interests in China who don’t want to see further deteriorations in ties.”

Israel Looms Large

The Israel-Hamas conflict has featured heavily during the senators’ trip to China, which had otherwise been expected to focus on relations between the world’s two biggest economies. 

The American senators were in China when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his country is “at war,” after Gaza Strip militants fired over 3,000 missiles and infiltrated Israel’s southern parts early Saturday. The combined death toll from the Hamas attack and Israel’s subsequent air strikes in Gaza has climbed to more than 1,100.

At the beginning of Monday’s meeting, Schumer told Xi the main purpose of the visit was to ensure “economic reciprocity.” Before arriving in Beijing, the US lawmakers met with American business leaders in Shanghai and discussed issues involving fair competition.

“We feel that China must also provide a level playing field for American companies and workers,” Schumer told Xi. “Most Americans, our bipartisan delegation included, do not believe we have that fairness now.”

China’s Response

During the earlier meeting with Wang on Monday in which Schumer criticized the Chinese foreign minister’s Israel-Hamas response, Wang told the senators he hoped their visit would get relations back on track. 

China’s Foreign Ministry called for an immediate ceasefire and reiterated support for an independent Palestinian state on Sunday. That statement did not mention Hamas by name, and characterized the weekend’s events as an “escalation of tensions and violence between Palestine and Israel.”

In a regular press briefing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said China is saddened by the casualties and opposes violence against civilians, while reiterating Beijing’s view that the only way forward involves a two-state solution.

Broader Talks

The other issues on the agenda concern Chinese companies’ role in the fentanyl crisis in the US and human rights. Schumer also told Xi he wanted to make sure China doesn’t support Russia’s “immoral war against Ukraine.”

US President Joe Biden has sent a steady stream of cabinet-level officials to Beijing since June, in a bid to stabilize ties between the world’s largest economies. The White House encouraged the senators to go, a person familiar with the planning said prior to their departure. 

A successful meeting may make talks between Xi and Biden more likely, said Mahoney, the East China Normal University professor. The two leaders — who haven’t spoken since last year’s Group of 20 meeting in Bali — could meet as soon as next month at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco.

Schumer and Crapo had also planned to raise issues on behalf of Micron Technology Inc., which is headquartered in Crapo’s home state of Idaho and building a massive chip production facility in Schumer’s New York.

–With assistance from Colum Murphy and Xiao Zibang.

(Updated with lines from Xi-Schumer meeting.)

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