By Michelle Nichols
NEW YORK (Reuters) -U.S. isolation at the United Nations over efforts to end renewed Middle East violence has seen China seize the chance to burnish its multilateral leadership credentials, diplomats say, just months after President Joe Biden declared: "America is back."
For the past week the United States - a strong ally of Israel - has repeatedly opposed a statement by the 15-member U.N. Security Council on hostilities between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, leading China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi to publicly call out Washington for "obstruction."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday that if U.N. action "would actually effectively advance the objective, we would be for it."
"The U.S. position is a gift to China, frankly," said Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the Crisis Group think tank.
"The U.S. has been trying to put pressure on China to back U.N. action over situations like Myanmar, and now Washington is stopping the Security Council speaking on the Middle East," Gowan said. "This is hurting the Biden team's reputation at the U.N., and leaves China looking like the responsible power."
A week ago, Western states and rights groups angered Beijing by holding an event at the United Nations on accusations that authorities are repressing Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. China denies the charge.
A senior U.S. administration official said China's government "doesn't care about Israel and Gaza."
"It does look for every opportunity to distract from its acts of genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It's the United States that is engaging in intensive diplomacy with Israeli, Palestinian, and other regional leaders to bring an end to the violence," the official said.
China’s mission to the United Nations hit back, saying the U.S. comments were "untrue and distracting."
"Conflict in Gaza continues, and civilian casualties increase with each passing day. In the face of such a situation, anyone in good conscience will call for cessation of hostilities," a spokesperson said. "The U.S. has every opportunity to prove that it cares about Muslims."
Beijing has been pushing for greater global influence at the United Nations in a challenge to traditional U.S. leadership, flexing it multilateral muscle as former U.S. President Donald Trump, a Republican, pulled Washington back from international organizations and deals to focus on "America First" policies.
Since taking office in January, Democrat Biden has stressed the importance of U.S. re-engagement with the 193-member world body to challenge China. But the U.S. objection to a council statement on Israel and Gaza - drafted by China, Tunisia and Norway - has left a lot of countries frustrated, diplomats said.
"It is clear that China wants to profit from U.S. isolation over Gaza and is putting itself in an unusual leadership position on Palestinian issues," said a second U.N. Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A spokesperson for China's U.N. mission told Reuters: "Most members of the Security Council hope to see the council play a role in promoting a ceasefire and stopping the violence. China, as president of the council, must fulfill its responsibility."
China recently found itself on the other side of the argument when - together with Russia - it was wary of council involvement in the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray. After several private discussions, the United States challenged the council's silence. It eventually agreed a statement.
Biden's foreign policy moves have so far largely been centered on China, Russia and Iran, but he has now been forced to focus on the Middle East conflict.
"China has played it nicely; they are positioning themselves as a Middle East player and with some good reason too because others have been less engaged," said a senior Asian U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Beijing has tried to be everyone's friend in the Middle East, but has had to tread carefully, cultivating close ties with Israel and the Palestinians, as well as with Iran and its regional rival Saudi Arabia.
It has repeatedly attempted to act as a peace broker in Middle East conflicts but to limited effect, as it does not have the influence in the region of the other permanent U.N. Security Council members - the United States, France, Britain and Russia.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols, additional reporting by Ben Blanchard;Editing by Mary Milliken, Alexandra Hudson and Grant McCool)