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 A Coalition Against Atrocity in the Middle East Can Also Undermine China

Xi Jinping. Image Credit: Creative Commons
Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Hamas’ barbaric Oct. 7 attack on Israel provides a rare moment of clarity in international politics. It opens up a fleeting chance for the U.S. not only to help Israel strike a blow against radical Islam, but also to frustrate Washington’s other enemies and rivals. 

Hamas’ attack directly benefits Iran and Russia, and it indirectly boosts China. Tehran’s multidimensional support for the terrorist entity serves its designs to inflict unbearable costs on the Jewish state. Its main goal in the region is the genocidal destruction of Israel. But a shorter-term and more achievable goal for Iran is to stymie any further reconciliation between Jerusalem and the Gulf countries, halting the emergence of an alignment that serves U.S. interests. 

Tehran’s hope is that Israel’s reaction to the atrocities will cause the Persian Gulf States to question their new allegiance to Jerusalem — or in the case of Saudi Arabia, to ditch the nascent relationship altogether. This goal aligns with Russian and Chinese efforts to subvert global U.S. leadership. Washington should help Israel succeed in its efforts to destroy Hamas and other Iranian proxies. It should also work with Jerusalem to roll back Iranian regional influence. Doing so will strike a blow against Tehran’s Chinese and Russian allies. 

For now, if there is any silver lining in the horrific events of the past week, it is that the same coalition that formed to support Ukraine against Russia has rallied to back Israel. Significantly, this time India has joined this coalition.

Russia, Iran and China Benefit

Besides Iran, Russia is the prime beneficiary of Hamas’ depravity.  Russia hopes that Iran’s proxies can distract the United States from Russian aggression in Ukraine. Most likely, Iran used the terror organization to open up another front in what it hopes will be a long-term global challenge to Washington. 

China benefits as well, though it is quieter about how it reaps the rewards of Hamas’ actions. Beijing is challenging U.S. leadership everywhere and all at once, most dramatically in its support for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. 

In Beijing’s cynical assessment, Russia’s war focuses the U.S. on the defense of Europe. Given how Washington has starved its own global military power, defending Europe comes at the expense of defending Asia, and China knows it. Now Beijing will enjoy the fact that two U.S. carrier battle groups are stationed far away from China, in the Eastern Mediterranean.   

China is also threatening U.S. posture in the Gulf as it builds robust relations with Tehran. In the past two years, Iran’s oil shipments to China returned to pre-sanctions levels, and China’s crude oil imports from Iran might have reached a new high at the end of 2022. China is Iran’s top trading partner, and Iran has formally joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the security bloc led by China and Russia. Meanwhile, China’s military ties with the Islamic Republic are also growing. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi hosted Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe in April 2022, and the two countries agreed to collaborate on military strategy. Iran, China, and Russia conducted a five-day naval drill in the Gulf of Oman earlier this year. 

Iran’s leaders can count on China’s diplomatic support as well. When Raisi traveled to Beijing in February, the two countries signed 20 agreements worth billions of dollars. Iran can now rely on China as an economic safety valve, while also avoiding military and diplomatic isolation despite being the world’s number one state sponsor of terror.

With two of its allies supporting Hamas, China’s call for a “two-state solution” to the Israel-Palestinian conflict is unsurprising. China probably further assesses that its moral equivocation has political benefits closer to home. Indonesia and Malaysia, countries courted by both China and the U.S., are far more sympathetic to Beijing’s position than they are to Washington’s. Even as Israel was still uncovering the slaughter of babies and rape of women, Indonesian President Joko Widodo blamed Israel’s “occupation” for Hamas’ depravity. Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur remain implacably hostile to the Jewish state. That stance cannot be explained by sympathy with Muslims, given both countries’ silence on China’s cultural and religious genocide of the Muslim Uighurs. 

Washington will have to ignore criticism from these quarters as it helps Israel prosecute its war. It will have to count on these countries to follow their own interests in countering Chinese hegemony. 

A Coalition Against Radicalism 

In stark contrast, as happened with the response to Russian aggression, Asia’s democracies and other U.S. friends joined the U.S. and Europe in standing firmly at Israel’s side — this time with the addition of India. Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Singapore have all declared their support for the Jewish state. Many of these countries’ leaders were moved by both moral and strategic calculations. They are part of a civilized world disgusted by Hamas’ atrocities against Israeli Jews. All would benefit if Israel and the U.S. struck a major blow against Islamists. In particular, India, Singapore, and Australia still face threats from radical Islam.  

With the exception of India, the global coalition that thus far has stood in solidarity with the Jewish state parallels the coalition supporting Ukraine against Russia’s brutal aggression. Like Ukraine, Israel will need a coalition’s support to accomplish its strategic objectives, which include the utter destruction of Hamas and the severing of Iran’s radical tentacles. 

These goals will take time to accomplish. Israel’s long-term strategy will have to parallel what the U.S. did to al Qaeda and ISIS, a process that in the former case took more than a decade. Israel needs not only to destroy Hamas on the ground in Gaza, but also to track down and neutralize all those who helped plan and finance the attack — no matter where they reside. U.S. and allied assistance will be key to this endeavor, which will surely lead back to Tehran. The coalition’s patience will be tested as Israel’s war causes civilian casualties, but it is critical that Beijing and Moscow see that it holds together. 

For the U.S. and its allies, then, Israel’s destruction of Hamas and a reckoning with Iran should be vital strategic objectives. A military, intelligence, and diplomatic campaign alongside Israel aimed at making Iran pay a price for its support of terrorism would serve Washington’s counter-terror interests while also frustrating Moscow and Beijing’s objective to build up Iran. 

Washington has worked hard to organize a coalition against Russian aggression. The most immediate next step is to expand this coalition to fight radical Islam. Over the long term, the goal is to undermine China’s efforts to support new allies that Beijing hopes will help it topple Washington’s leadership of a liberal world order. 

About the Author

Dan Blumenthal is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations. Mr. Blumenthal has served in and advised the US government on China issues for more than a decade.

Written By

Dan Blumenthal is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations. Mr. Blumenthal has served in and advised the US government on China issues for more than a decade.