November 2023

Trade, not terror

The atrocities committed last month by the terror group Hamas crossed a line in brutality that has shaken the global establishment.  

Part of the shock came from the reckless cruelty, and the fact that a corrupt, violent and nihilist organisation has been allowed to act as the elected government of the Gaza Strip since 2006.

While Israel’s response is understandable, it moves the situation nowhere towards resolution.

The question for Asia is: what can the region learn from the crisis and, of equal importance, what can it teach in showing how advocating trade, not war, is the policy that brings security and improves citizens’ lives?

Within current mindsets, the 75-year-long deadlock between Israel and its neighbours has no solution, and this threatens stability and development throughout the whole Middle East.

Government leaders flew into Israel to show support. The American Secretary of State travelled from capital to Middle Eastern capital, recreating the decades-old shuttle diplomacy of his predecessors.

Palestinian supporters took to city streets from London to Jakarta, highlighting complexities of history and grievances that go far beyond the massacre of October 7th.

As in so many conflicts, the intense bombing of Gaza shows that however many enemy are killed and buildings flattened, peace will not emerge until the idea itself is crushed –in this case Hamas’ view that the world would be a better place with the destruction of Israel.

The Indo-Pacific is filled with similar intractable disputes. Pakistan-India, India-China and China-Taiwan immediately come to mind, while hot war insurgencies continue in dictatorial Myanmar and China’s claim over the South China Sea focuses global attention.

Others are less well-known: the disputed islands between Japan and Russia, two Asian nations which still have no peace treaty after the Second World War; the Muslim unrest in southern Thailand and, for many years, the numerous Bangladesh and Indian enclaves on each other’s territory.

Some of this tension has flared into situations similar to those of Israel and Palestine. Myanmar’s 2017 violent expulsion of its Rohingya community is a recent example. 

But, as of now, the world’s hot conflicts rage in Europe and the Middle East, while the Indo-Pacific, although strained in places, remains relatively quiet.

Asian leaders have kept it like this largely by accepting realities.

After visiting Israel, US President Jo Biden gave an address to the nation in which he underlined two of these realities.

One is the unifying strand between the crises in Gaza and Ukraine, with Hamas and Vladimir Putin sharing a common thread in wanting to annihilate a neighbouring country. Therefore, Israel and Ukraine had America’s full support.

The second was an unpalatable truth for those harbouring pipe dreams of overturning the current global order, in that American leadership still held the world together.

Biden’s unequivocal statement coincided with Putin’s visit to Beijing, aimed at displaying the strength of the relationship between these two big beasts of authoritarian power.

Putin believes he can bomb and kill his way into recreating the Soviet Union and President Xi Jinping continues to argue that the strong, forward-looking modern China he inherited from his predecessors would somehow be a better place if it went to war against Taiwan.

Yet, in terms of global leadership, the hard facts are that Russia and China are apprentice minnows, each sharing macabre dreams that would impact badly on all our lives.

If we couple these fantasies with their choice of allies such as North Korea, Syria and Iran, we rapidly envisage exactly the type of world order in which we do not wish to live.

Thankfully, with China’s weak economy, Communist Party elders have given President Xi Jinping a rap over the knuckles to row back from his overt and aggressive nationalism.

Let’s hope he listens.

By witnessing the cost of extremism in the Middle East and Europe, the Indo-Pacific must be motivated into keeping a cool head and controlling frictions that threaten to erupt.

The region is at an advantage of having no predominant system of government, religion or ethnicity, thus diminishing the type of polarising ideas embedded in European and Middle East violence.

For their part, these troubled regions can learn from the Indo-Pacific by examining how compromise and pragmatism underpins so much of what it does. The unifying value of the region is not democracy or autocracy. Nor is it any principal race, religion or culture.

Those driving current European and Middle East conflict should read up more about how the many Indo-Pacific disputes have been contained or settled.

They should learn how the single, unifying value of the Indo-Pacific, one that is attracting positive global attention and money, is that of commerce, business and trade, even with a political enemy.