'Powerful' Asia Opts to be Powerless

The inability to end the conflict between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel for nearly five weeks reflected the diplomatic powerlessness of the entire world – barring the United States and Israel – under the auspices of the United Nations.

Date of article: 20 August, 2006

Author: Dr. N. Janardhan
Program Manager, GCC-Asia Relations
Editor, Gulf in the Media
Gulf Research Center

The Gulf Research Center (GRC) is an independent research institute located in Dubai , United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The inability to end the conflict between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel for nearly five weeks reflected the diplomatic powerlessness of the entire world – barring the United States and Israel – under the auspices of the United Nations.

In a scenario where Europe, led by France, was the only notable player in working continuously toward achieving a ceasefire, ‘rising’ Asia was conspicuously absent in the conflict resolution process. The response of Asia, which is not a single entity and does not have a single institution like the European Union to represent it, assumes significance in the context of the Lebanese and the overall Middle East crises because of two main factors.

First, nearly one-third of Asia’s population is Muslim, which translates to about 70 percent of the world’s Muslims. A continent, which is such a powerhouse of Islam, has largely remained an insignificant player while dealing with crises in its neighborhood and involving Muslims, who are either the majority community in several countries or form a substantial part of the population in others. In adopting a passive approach, most of the countries have invited more trouble domestically than they would have in case they had tried and failed to help formulate solutions at the international level.

Second, the reason behind the silence and ineffectiveness of Asia has not been just because most of these developing countries lack the diplomatic power to influence events in a region that has the overpowering influence of the United States. In fact, it has been unable to convert its economic and military gains into diplomatic capital – Asia is home to three declared and three undeclared or suspected nuclear powers and is riding on the wave of unprecedented booming economies in China, Japan, India and Korea, among others.

Apart from not being in the thick of things to evolve a mechanism to stop the recent bloodshed, it is tragic that China – which was perhaps the only Asian country to send an envoy to five Middle Eastern countries to drum up support for peace during the crisis – considered the UN Security Council Resolution 1701 halting the standoff as “unbalanced”, but voted in favor of it only because it “noticed that Arab countries, including Lebanon, did not oppose the resolution”.

In the most significant response, some of the Asian countries were only able to voice their frustration at the emergency summit of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) that was convened as late as the fourth week of the conflict. While demanding that the UN implement an immediate ceasefire and investigate Israel’s “flagrant human rights violations”, leaders from Indonesia, Pakistan, and Malaysia voiced support for the Lebanese people “in their legitimate and courageous resistance against the Israeli aggression”.

Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, could only highlight that the “war must stop, or it will radicalize the Muslim world, even those of us who are moderate today…from where, it will be just one step away to that ultimate nightmare: a clash of civilizations.” More inconsequentially, several hardline Islamic groups said they were signing up fighters and suicide bombers to travel to the Middle East to wage jihad against Israel, with at least two claiming they had dispatched dozens of men. Malaysian foreign minister even said Muslim countries should consider the call to supply arms to Hezbollah.

Among the most constructive measures, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia said they are ready to send soldiers to Lebanon to join the soon-to-be-formed international peacekeeping force to police the Lebanese-Israeli border.

India’s fence-sitting and inconsistent diplomacy, perhaps conditioned by its roots in the Non-Aligned Movement, was also evident during the crisis. Its first official response was critical of Israel’s “excessive and disproportionate military retaliation” and condemned the “abduction of two Israeli soldiers by Lebanese militants” and called for their immediate release. Later, in a more traditional stand, the parliament passed a unanimous resolution expressing concern over the violence and condemning Israel.

Intriguingly, the reason for such passive involvement is that while most of the Asian countries share warm or close ties with the Middle Eastern countries, many of them are also either locked in with the United States or Israel, and, in some cases both, for varying reasons, which has enraged people on one hand, and forced the governments to compromise and restricted their diplomatic maneuverability, on the other.

China is dependent on several countries of the Middle East for its oil supply. But even before formal diplomatic relations were established in 1992 and despite consistent criticism of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, China benefited immensely from Israel in its process of military modernization, especially in a theater of American-Chinese animosity, and continues to do so. On the flip side, China supplies Iran with arms. And, it is only in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program with the international community that China has been playing a proactive role in the region.

While Pakistan has tremendous potential to play a hands-on role in the Middle East, it is on a sticky wicket. While fighting to crush Taliban and Al-Qaeda in its own territory and the Afghan border in cooperation with Washington, it is also considering improving relations with Israel, both triggering a domestic backlash. Indonesia and the Philippines are cooperating with the US in the war against terror in their respective countries as well.

Among the domestic factors conditioning India’s contradicting response is the fact that India is home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Further, the central government survives on the support of Left parties, which even sought international sanctions against Israel. Externally, New Delhi has given teeth to a new alliance with Tel Aviv and Washington during the last decade. As a result, the three-dimensional relationship India has with the main parties involved in the conflict and its resolution has also contributed to a grey patch in its foreign policy – one, Israel is India’s second biggest arms supplier; two, India is keen to see through the deal with the United States involving the transfer of civilian nuclear technology, which is considered crucial for its economic growth; and three, it has been a long political and economic friend of the Middle East, including Iran.

Notwithstanding these, it is still very likely that India, which is the largest contributor to the UN peace-keeping operations worldwide, will be a part of the new international force in Lebanon.

Looking ahead, Asia has to wake up from its slumber. It will not become a significant player in the Middle East purely on its economic strength. It has to quickly learn to diplomatically leverage this power, and perhaps even show signs of engaging its growing military might in the region. It should also ensure that the peace process in the Middle East resurfaces as an important part of its domestic agenda not only to contribute to peace in the region, but also to guarantee better stability in its own territories.

Published: 29 Aug 2006


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