Analysis | The war in Gaza looms over Asia’s geopolitics

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SINGAPORE — When Indonesia’s president-elect took the stage at a major regional security forum this weekend, his mind seemed far away from the Malacca Strait. The first 15 minutes of the speech made by Prabowo Subianto, who’s also the current Indonesian defense minister, was centered almost entirely on the war in Gaza. Prabowo lamented the “heartbreaking incidents” and “tragedies” endured by Palestinians caught in the crosshairs of Israel’s campaign against militant group Hamas. He called for investigations into, and accountability for, the “humanitarian disaster” unfolding in Gaza and welcomed the Biden administration’s efforts in helping broker an agreement that could lead to a cease-fire.

And Prabowo said the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation would be ready to help safeguard peace in the Middle East. “We are prepared to contribute significant peacekeeping forces to maintain and monitor this prospective cease-fire as well as provide protection and security to all parties and to all sides,” he told the assembled delegates at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual conference hosted in Singapore.

Prabowo was hardly alone among the many officials present at the forum in calling attention to the crisis in Gaza. The war hung over proceedings in Singapore, with leaders, diplomats and myriad analysts from around the region pointing to the worrying trajectory of the conflict and the shadow it cast over other geopolitical concerns. Malaysia’s defense minister, Mohamed Khaled Nordin, decried Israel’s “acts of genocide” and urged the summit’s organizers — the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a British think tank — to invite a Palestinian representative to their gathering next year.


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The Palestinian cause is a fiery issue in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where pan-Islamic sympathies abound. But the deepening toll of the conflict — which has claimed more than 36,000 Palestinian lives and seen much of Gaza destroyed in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack that Hamas launched on Israel on Oct. 7 — has inspired revulsion in many countries outside the West: First, out of shock at the civilian suffering widely on show and, second, out of fury at the perceived complicity of Western governments, especially the United States, in backing what they see as Israel’s heavy-handed and bloody retribution.

Disquiet over the war in Gaza also led to impatience with Western lecturing on other fronts. After he delivered a speech decrying Russia’s rampages in his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was confronted by a Cambodian participant, who questioned his stated backing for Israel. Her remarks compelled Zelensky to voice both a call for Israel to respect international law as well as for a two-state solution in the Middle East. Chinese officials present in Singapore were quick to raise the matter of U.S. tolerance for alleged Israeli abuses and probably found the ongoing war a useful foil when faced with criticism over its own role in supporting Russia’s norm-bending invasion of Ukraine.

Emile Hokayem, Middle East expert at IISS, said the “disconnect” between some Asian officials and their Western counterparts on the issue of Gaza was clear over the weekend, with the Westerners unprepared for the depth of feeling about Gaza in the region and the extent to which frustration about perceived Western hypocrisy is present in the Asian conversation. It amounted to something a “blind spot” for the West, he told me, no matter that Asian officials may have their own blind spots and hypocrisies, too.

“Gaza may serve as a bludgeon, a distraction, but it does not diminish the fact that Westerners are struggling in their attempt to rally support for their normative views about the rules-based order,” Hokayem told me.

In an interview on the sidelines of the Dialogue, José Ramos-Horta, president of East Timor, denounced Israel’s “carpet bombing” of Gaza, the “emptying of the territory of its people, the bombing of hospitals and universities,” and the humanitarian crises imposed by Israel’s war effort.

“I’m not sure to say whether I’m deeply shocked or disgusted that so many Western countries still do not find the decency, the morality, the courage to call out Israel, to call out [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” Ramos-Horta told me. The Nobel laureate cast himself as a “disappointed friend” of Washington but added that the war in Gaza “really undermines U.S. credibility” on the world stage.

Some Western officials attending the summit acknowledged the tension directly. Josep Borrell, the Europe Union’s top diplomat, said it was important for Western governments to “avoid the ‘double-standard’ accusation” — a reference to comparisons between American and European denunciation of Russian actions in Ukraine and their more mealy mouthed approach to Israel’s ravaging of Gaza. He urged countries to support the International Criminal Court’s potential investigation of Netanyahu for alleged war crimes as well as pressure Israel to comply with rulings made by the International Court of Justice to safeguard Palestinian lives.

Richard Marles, Australia’s deputy prime minister, also said Israel “must comply” with the ICJ’s binding orders. “If the [rules-based] order is to apply anywhere, it needs to apply everywhere,” Marles said at a plenary session.

In Asia, many nations are wary of an increasingly assertive China. But they temper their concerns with the recognition that Beijing is the preeminent economic player in the region and a partner that can’t be avoided. The Biden administration, meanwhile, is diligently boosting its security partnerships across the Indo-Pacific, but many governments still have to contend with public opinion that isn’t always friendly to the United States.

“What’s happening is that the U.S. itself is making it harder and harder for small countries to understand and connect to its policies and positions,” Suzannah Jessep, chief executive of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, told me. “On one hand, they say how credible the rules-based order is and, on the other, countries across Southeast Asia are seeing what’s happening in Gaza and U.S. support for Israeli actions.”

Shahriman Lockman, an Asia security expert at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, suggested that U.S. righteousness about the rules-based order is “going to grate on people’s nerves” at a time when many in the region see U.S. actions as “self-serving.”

“When South Africa takes Israel to the ICJ, isn’t that a commitment to the rules-based order? But no, the ICJ gets condemned by the United States,” he told me.

“I strongly believe that America’s presence is critical for stability in Asia,” Lockman added. “But, in the long term, that can only be sustained if partner countries can ‘sell’ their relations with the U.S. to their publics.”

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