The Global Implications of the Gaza Conflict

There are some negative externalities, but color me skeptical about the spiral models.

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

In the wake of the horrific Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent horrific loss of life in Gaza, international relations analysts are starting to think about the second-order and third-order effects of the conflict. Obviously the Middle East is going to be scrambled for a spell. The question that intrigues so many, however, is whether this will have spillover effects on great power politics.

The concerns are understandable. There have been multiple stories about key actors in the Global South crying foul over the perceived hypocrisy by the United States.1 The Financial Times’ Henry Foy noted earlier this month: 

Western support for Israel’s assault on Gaza has poisoned efforts to build consensus with significant developing countries on condemning Russia’s war against Ukraine, officials and diplomats have warned….

[U.S. support for Israel] had eroded efforts since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine to build consensus with leading states in the so-called Global South — such as India, Brazil and South Africa — on the need to uphold a global rules-based order, said more than a dozen western officials….

“We have definitely lost the battle in the Global South,” said one senior G7 diplomat. “All the work we have done with the Global South [over Ukraine] has been lost . . . Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.”

A few days later the New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar filed a similar-sounding dispatch, with the effect compounded by the U.S. veto at the U.N. Security Council of resolutions seen by the Biden administration as insufficiently supportive of Israel’s right of self-defense: 

Israel’s counterattack on Gaza, its threats to mount a ground invasion and America’s tight embrace of its most important Mideast ally, regardless, have prompted cries of hypocrisy.

Such accusations are not exactly new in the Middle East conflict. But the dynamics of the dual crises have gone beyond Washington’s desire to rally global support to isolate and punish Russia for invading its neighbor….

When the war in Ukraine first broke out, Palestinians were elated by the tough stance taken by Western capitals against one country occupying another’s land, said Nour Odeh, a Ramallah-based Palestinian political commentator. “But it seems that occupation is only bad if the guys who are not on your side are doing it.”

In some ways the Gaza conflict has been a boon to the Kremlin, knocking the spotlight off the Ukraine war and burnishing Russia’s image in the Middle East and Global South. In recent years, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has sought to restore some of the Soviet Union’s lost influence in the Middle East, intervening militarily in civil wars in Syria and Libya. He has greatly strengthened ties with Iran, a country which Israel considers a national security threat….

China has also been seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East, having recently mediated a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore relations. Russia and China have refused to condemn Hamas. They have instead criticized Israeli treatment of Palestinians, especially its decision to cut off water and electricity to Gaza and the civilian death toll there. They have called for international mediation and a cease-fire before Israel considers that its war has fully begun.

While Russia has its own hypocrisy to deal with, China clearly views the conflict as a diplomatic opportunity after being knocked off balance by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the Washington Post’s Christian Shepherd and Lyric Li explain China’s short-term aims, “bolstering its status as a champion of developing countries at the same time it is positioning itself as a superpower to rival the United States in a multipolar world, with some notable support…. For decades, China stayed well away from the intractable conflicts of the Middle East, but that has changed in recent years. Beijing has tried to match its economic influence with growing political clout. That shift is partially to protect Chinese business interests but also to secure support from Arab nations for China’s efforts to reshape the world order in its favor.” 

Add in China’s ability to attract 130 countries to Beijing to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road initiative, and you can understand the concern

These are all concerning developments. They help to explain why the Biden administration has been pushing back on the hypocrisy claim. It also helps to explain why the Biden White House has been applying more private and public pressure on Israel to: a) think carefully before proceeding with a ground invasion; and b) respect the laws of war as best as humanly possible.

But some of the concerns being voiced are of a different, more strategic variety. Some are worried that China will exploit the crisis to take aggressive action against Taiwan. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat is worried that in focusing on regions other than the Pacific Rim because, “there are good reasons to think that China is open to invading Taiwan in the near future.” Forbes’ Gautam Mukunda notes that China, as a peaking power, might choose to exploit this window of opportunity to move on Taiwan. 

As someone concerned with growing Chinese pessimism about the future, I get where these concerns are coming from. But deciding to move on Taiwan years ahead of any planned schedule seems reckless even by Xi’s standards. Even before the Gaza crisis, Taylor Fravel argued in Foreign Affairs that China was unlikely to move on Taiwan as a means of diverting domestic public opinion: “When the Chinese economy falters, the danger is not diversionary war. It is that China’s leaders will feel weak and become more sensitive to external challenges, potentially lashing out to show strength and deter other countries from taking advantage of their insecurity.” 

Over the weekend Bonnie Glaser took to the pages of the New York Times to argue that China was not going to accelerate its Taiwan timetable because of the current geopolitical situation:

[China’s] bluster masks significant misgivings within China’s leadership about whether its largely unproven People’s Liberation Army forces can seize and control Taiwan at an acceptable cost, doubts that have very likely been accentuated by Russia’s military failures in Ukraine. In this light, a P.L.A. takeover of Taiwan is not inevitable nor, perhaps, even likely in the next few years, which gives the United States and Taiwan time to bolster their military capabilities and avert conflict.

Recent purges of senior Chinese generals, including the defense minister and two leaders overseeing the country’s nuclear and missile arsenal, hint at Mr. Xi’s lack of confidence in his military’s warfighting capability. While the reasons for these cabinet removals have not been made public, signs point to possible corruption and its impact on military preparedness. Officers who are lining their own pockets, if that is the case, are likely not taking seriously enough Mr. Xi’s instruction to be prepared to seize Taiwan by 2027. Mr. Xi has frequently admonished the P.L.A. to improve military training and strengthen combat readiness.

Russia’s debacle in Ukraine is a cautionary tale for Mr. Xi. Early in the war, the battle-hardened Russian military failed in the relatively straightforward task of crossing a land border to capture Kyiv. The P.L.A. would face even greater difficulty in crossing the Taiwan Strait. A large-scale amphibious invasion is among the most difficult military operations, requiring air and maritime superiority and the ability to sustain an invading force during a lengthy campaign.

For Mr. Xi, the political risks of anything less than a quick, low-cost and successful invasion are huge. A protracted stalemate could undermine his assertion that China is strong and powerful again, jeopardizing his goals of national rejuvenation and a powerful military.

The China experts make some solid points! 

Weirdly, China’s current ability to make short-term diplomatic gains is another reason why an aggressive move against Taiwan is likely off the table. Why take such a big risk if much lower-cost moves are reaping positive gains? 

The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World is concerned about the negative externalities that the war on Hamas will have on U.S. foreign policy. China invading Taiwan, however, seems unlikely to be one of those externalities.

1 I suspect having to cope with this blowback is one of the underrated drivers for reported discontent within the State Department.

(This post is republished from Drezner’s World.)

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