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Gaza war an irritant to Biden’s bigger China plan

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While Israel focuses on hostage rescue in Gaza and, eventually, on destroying Hamas, its main ally, the United States, is working to fashion a post-war peace solution that will support its own broader goals.

Washington fears that the Gaza war has placed a significant obstacle to one of President Joe Biden’s major foreign policy projects: to reduce America’s military resources in, and attention to, the Middle East and pivot them to East Asia to better contain and confront China’s threat.  

The need to shift attention to East Asia was first enunciated during the presidency of George W Bush in the early 2000s. But Bush’s post 9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq derailed any significant shift of military resources eastward.

His successor, Barack Obama, made only minor transfers of military force from the Middle East to Asia. Finally, Donald Trump, though he launched a low-intensity trade war with China, found his main foreign achievement in the Middle East by convincing two Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to establish relations with Israel.

Almost three years into Biden’s term, US military officials are beginning to express the perceived need to increase America’s attention on a potential confrontation with China rather than obsess about terrorism and instability in the Middle East.

 Just four days before Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, Lieutenant General Alexus Grynkewich, the top US Air Force commander in the Middle East, warned that China was attempting to “displace” American influence in the region.

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“Where economic interests start, military interests will follow to protect those economic interests,” he said. “There is a risk of Chinese expansion into the region militarily.”

He painted an alarming picture of China’s ability to block US air and naval movement from US bases in Europe and the Middle East to locations in the Indian Ocean and East Asia. “That could be critical, not just for things that happen in the Middle East, but things that would happen in the Indo-Pacific in the future,” he warned.

The Israel-Hamas war is also obstructing Biden’s effort to compete with China’s economic thrust toward Europe through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) global infrastructure-building program, US officials contend.

In September, during a Group of 20 summit meeting in New Delhi, India, the US and its partners unveiled plans to create an “India-Middle East-European” corridor to link East Asia to Europe via cable networks and pipelines through the Indian Ocean.

The initiative also included promises of trade deals, high-tech industrial development and renewable energy promotion to countries along the corridor. The proposal was widely viewed as a fledgling Western effort to compete with Beijing’s BRI.

The West’s corridor would link the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea running from the UAE on the Persian Gulf, through Saudi Arabia and Jordan, then into Israel to its Mediterranean port of Haifa.

It took but a single devastating attack by Hamas on Israel to put a hold on the entire India-Middle East-European enterprise.

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“Despite its potential economic benefits, the corridor will be dependent on an integrated Middle East—which will also require the positive resolution of the Gaza conflict,” argued Daniel Mouton, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

The sudden block on Biden’s big geopolitical plan helped to explain his staunch backing of Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to crush Hamas. More recently, Biden has moved on to lecturing Israel about sparing civilian lives and expressing hope for a longer ceasefire.

Netanyahu has expressed frustration with the pressure, even as the truce provided space for the return of almost 100 hostages so far. Around 150 are still in captivity, according to reports.

“After this phase of returning our abductees is exhausted, will Israel return to fighting? So, my answer is an unequivocal yes,” Netanyahu said. “There is no way we are not going back to fighting until the end,” he said.

Beyond the battlefield and diplomatic advice, American officials have outlined post-war aims, something Israeli officials themselves have declined to do.

During an international conference in Bahrain on November 18, Bret McGurk, Biden’s Middle East national security coordinator, articulated Washington’s goal of resuscitating “two-state solution” negotiations, a three-decade-old path to a Palestinian state that would conceivably live in peace with Israel.

“No country can live with the threats of terror like what we saw from Hamas, unleashed on 7 October on their border,” McGurk said. “At the same time, Palestinians deserve, need and require safety and self-determination.”

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McGurk laid out proposed limits on Israeli post-war treatment of Gaza and its Palestinian residents:

  • “There must be no forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza.”
  • “There must be no reoccupation of Gaza.” Israel abandoned the region in 2005.
  • “There must be no reduction of the territory of Gaza. This is Palestinian land, and it must remain Palestinian land.”
  • “There must be no besiegement of Gaza. The innocent people of Gaza must be separated from Hamas. They are not responsible for its crimes.”

For Israel, he pledged that “Gaza must not be used as a platform for terrorism or other violent acts. That means no threats to Israel from Gaza.”

McGurk then produced a list of conditions to clear the way for a post-war settlement:

  • “The Palestinian people and their voices and aspirations must be at the center of post-crisis governance in Gaza.”
  •  “The West Bank and Gaza must return to unified governance, ultimately under a revitalized Palestinian Authority,” which rules parts of the West Bank.
  • “Israel must be secure. Terrorist groups and threats to Israel cannot be permitted to emanate and metastasize from the West Bank or from Gaza.”
  • “Resources must be provided, and we must prepare now to support the post-crisis phase in Gaza to include interim security resources as necessary.”

Finally, McGurk indirectly rebuked Netanyahu for an unwillingness to lay out Israeli goals beyond smashing Hamas. “I do not necessarily agree that until the fighting stops entirely, we really cannot focus on these fundamental questions,” he said.

Source: Asia Times

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