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US senators seek Xi’s help to pressure Iran on Middle East conflict

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US lawmakers have asked Xi Jinping to pressure Iran not to inflame tensions in the Middle East in the first meeting between American congressional leaders and the Chinese president in eight years.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, who was in Beijing with a bipartisan delegation of senators, also urged Xi to harden China’s reaction to the Hamas attack on Israel at the weekend, during which gunmen from the Palestinian group massacred civilians and took hostages.

“A bunch of us made the request that China use its influence in Iran to not allow the conflagration to spread,” Schumer told reporters after the meeting on Monday. “He [Xi] said they have influence with Iran in many different ways and we asked them to do everything they could.”

He said that the Chinese side “said they would deliver the message to the Iranians”. Iran denies any role in the surprise attack and the foreign ministry said that it would respond to any threats and accusations about its alleged involvement.

The rare meeting between the six senators and the Chinese president, which lasted longer than expected at 80 minutes, follows a diplomatic push by US president Joe Biden’s administration to improve rock-bottom relations with China.

Several senior Biden cabinet officials have visited Beijing this year ahead of Xi’s possible attendance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum next month in San Francisco.

But Beijing has yet to confirm the Chinese president’s presence. Xi abruptly missed a G20 leaders summit in Delhi last month, the first time he has done so since becoming president.

Chinese state media highlighted the US congressional visit, with government news agency Xinhua prominently displaying a photo of the two sides talking across a vast table adorned with flower bouquets on its homepage.

“Xi Jinping pointed out that Sino-US relations are the most important bilateral relations in the world,” Xinhua reported.

“Competition and confrontation are not in line with the trend of the times . . . The ‘Thucydides trap’ is not inevitable,” Xi reportedly told his visitors, referring to the idea that the rivalry between an established power and a rising one often ends in war.

Schumer also said China had changed its statement on the Hamas attacks after he had complained to Xi and foreign minister Wang Yi that its earlier response lacked sympathy for Israel.

But China on Monday still did not directly criticise Hamas, using language that could be interpreted as addressed to both sides.

“China feels deeply saddened by the civilian casualties caused by the Israel-Palestine conflict,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said. “We also oppose and condemn violence and attacks against civilians.”

She repeated China’s earlier calls for a ceasefire and for a “two-state solution” that would lead to an independent Palestinian state. 

“China considers itself a friend to both Israel and Palestine,” she said.

Israel’s embassy in Beijing also tweeted an appeal to Beijing, saying that “we also hope that China can provide solidarity and support to Israel at this difficult moment”.

In other comments, Schumer said the delegation pressed its Chinese counterparts to provide a more level playing field for US business and to stop the sale in China of precursor chemicals used for fentanyl in the US.

With additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing

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