Teetering Domino: Implications of the Israel-Hamas War for the Taiwan Strait

Teetering Domino: Implications of the Israel-Hamas War for the Taiwan Strait

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Teetering Domino: Implications of the Israel-Hamas War for the Taiwan Strait

By now, images have been seen around the world of the savage assault that Hamas terrorists unleashed on the Israeli population on October 7. President Biden, reflecting the will of the vast majority of the American people, swiftly condemned the acts of terror and affirmed America’s commitment to stand squarely with Israel, with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and with the Israeli people in the face of unspeakable horror. To be clear, Hamas is waging a war of annihilation against the only free democracy in the Middle East—and America’s strongest ally in the region, and some would say the world. Yet, a vocal minority—including in the US Congress—have influenced American media and have forced the Biden Administration to attempt to unduly impose some constraints on the IDF. Other world powers might see the attacks as openings for them to undertake their own wars of aggression. 

What does This Foretell or Forebode for Simmering Conflicts around the World? 

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many observers believed that the next authoritarian attack on democracy would be from China in the form of an effort to invade or otherwise gain control of Taiwan. However, it turns out that the next instigator would in fact be the Islamofascist regime in Iran—acting through its proxies Hamas, Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Houthis, and other terrorist hangers-on.

Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中國共產黨) General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) has been given another opportunity, in real-time, to evaluate how global conflict plays out, observing what works and what does not. There should be no doubt that Xi is evaluating the Hamas terror attack with Iranian support in the context of his ultimate goal: the takeover of Taiwan. Xi is not just looking for ways in which China can insert itself as a power broker in the Middle East, he is also looking at the role China (with the subjugation of Taiwan) can play on the world stage. 

International Forums

This month (November) China sits as the president of the UN Security Council. We should expect a flurry of anti-Israel activity to flow from the Council’s agenda, along with language that condemns the West and its support for Israel.

It is telling to look at the UN General Assembly Resolution introduced in October by many of the world’s Muslim-majority countries, Russia, Venezuela, and a scattering of countries that are bound either to Russian and Arab revanchist ambitions or to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, formerly known as “One Belt, One Road,” 一帶一路). The resolution called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war一something Israel and the United States have stated publicly that they do not support, as it would give Hamas a chance to regroup and re-arm. The final vote was 121 countries voting in favor, with 14 against, and 44 abstentions. 

Looking at the states who voted either against the resolution or abstained (the two together can be viewed as votes aligned with the United States and Israel) is similarly telling. Of the 13 countries with UN seats that recognize Taiwan (the Vatican does not have a seat in the UN General Assembly), four voted against the resolution and three abstained. Of the total votes either against the resolution or as abstentions, 15 countries view China as a threat—either to their political/economic stability, or as a threat to the regional order. Interestingly, India, usually a stalwart leader of the non-aligned movement who could typically be counted on as a vote against Israel, abstained. This is likely due in part to the investment Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made in building a strong bilateral relationship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, it is also linked to India’s very real concern that China is a regional threat. Thus, its decision to vote against China, as much as helping out Israel, represents a newly minted realpolitik approach to international relations.  

Additional countries voting against or abstaining include regional powerhouses like Japan, South Korea, and Australia, the Philippines, as well as Pacific Island countries such as Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Kiribati, Palau, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. The message is clear and stark, and these countries understand it: Israel, like Ukraine, is a domino that is teetering. Neither can be allowed to fall, as such a development would empower the third axis of the authoritarian triad, China, to act aggressively toward Taiwan.

Xi as a Dealmaker in the Middle East

Earlier this year, General Secretary Xi fancied himself a rising power broker in the Middle East when he facilitated the renewed relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a newcomer to the region for anything other than oil, surveillance technology, and cheap Chinese exports, Xi has little understanding of who the players are or how to work with them. However, Xi perceived a clear American effort to disengage from the Middle East during the Biden Administration, and he saw this as an opportunity to exert his influence and expand his desire to be a kingmaker. Xi also fancies himself something of an expert in the area of global economic strategy. His Belt and Road Initiative has ingratiated dozens of leaders from developing countries to him through the CCP’s assistance in building vital infrastructure including bridges, roads, soccer stadiums, etc. He has had some success with a few of the poorer Middle East countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. But he has also made inroads with wealthy Gulf countries, with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait signing up for the BRI.

What Xi has certainly seen since the barbarous, Iran-backed Hamas massacre of Israelis on October 7 is that he does not understand the Middle East. His “make nice” efforts with all sides are largely stage-managed operations, designed to ensure the free flow of oil to China in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the attendant uncertainty surrounding Moscow’s ability to export. Does Xi Jinping have what it takes to be a kingmaker in the Middle East? To date he has not been able to demonstrate the agility or understanding to flex the CCP’s muscles in this arena. Like the mullahs in Tehran, Xi is betting that the conflict between Israel and Hamas intensifies, and that support for the Palestinians among Sunni Arab Muslims will force leaders to denounce Israel. They hope that the US-led Abraham Accords will be derailed and that countries that normalized relations with Israel—the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco—will stray from their commitments (to date, the UAE and Bahrain have made statements condemning Hamas). China’s grand vision is that America’s role will diminish and the CCP will be able to export its vision for regional security as articulated in its February 2023 Global Security Initiative.

What Does the Hamas Attack Mean for Taiwan?

Taiwan’s chief lesson in the wake of the sudden and brutal assault in southern Israel is that constant and vigilant intelligence is key. In the early hours of October 7, 2023, it appears that there was some sort of colossal intelligence failure in Israel, likely due to an Iranian—or, while speculative, Iranian-Chinese—takedown of Israeli communications and surveillance in and around Gaza. Israeli intelligence was blinded, and that is when the massacre began.

American intelligence, too, failed. Indeed, under the Biden Administration, many intelligence assets have been relocated to the Asian or European theaters, especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The simultaneous failure of two of the world’s greatest intelligence services was key to the brutal success of the heinous Hamas terror attacks. As soon as intelligence was back online and there was a clear picture of what was happening, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared war. There will be plenty of after-action reports from which Israel and the United States will glean information about intelligence failures.

Taiwan should pay close attention to these after-action determinations, and it should heed the warnings. Taiwan’s Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) stated that the conflict between Israel and Hamas has forced Taiwan to enhance its ability to forecast possible threats. Yet apart from military preparedness, Taiwan needs to focus on better understanding the nature of its enemy and predicting its moves.

Cost-Benefit Analysis of a Taiwan Invasion

The Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping himself take a more calculated approach to their interest in Taiwan’s “reunification” with the mainland. It is more of a cost-benefit analysis, and less of a scorched earth approach. In fact, Xi hopes that Taiwan will be pressured to join the mainland without the need to fire a single bullet. His goal is coercion, which is very different from the objectives of Putin or the Iranian mullahs. This coercion will come through social media, through hacking, and through attempts to manipulate the psyche of the Taiwanese population through disinformation to weaken its will to resist. Indeed, Xi’s approach may be more like what has unfolded in the United States rather than what has unfolded in Israel.

In the United States and, indeed, across much of the civilized world, what has unfolded is something far more insidious, something that has been decades in the making. Flagrant displays of antisemitism throughout university campuses have shocked the free world. Over 100,000 pro-Palestinian and Hamas sympathizers demonstrated in London, thousands of pro-Palestine demonstrators in New York, Sydney, Copenhagen, Wellington, Berlin, and Rome. Indeed, the gates of the White House in Washington, DC were nearly breached by protestors throwing red paint at the President’s residence.

In the case of China, infiltration is well-documented and has come under scrutiny from federal and state governments. Confucius Institutes have been kicked off of campuses, with only five remaining in America, Chinese researchers have been unmasked as agents of the CCP or People’s Liberation Army, and the theft of intellectual property from research labs has been documented. That said, should China threaten Taiwan, it is all but certain that the tide of anti-Taiwan rhetoric will be massively amplified by PRC-centered efforts across academia on a level that is on par with anti-Israel protests seen on campuses and in major cities today. The advantage the CCP has is, frankly, its massive scale–even if its other, more nefarious efforts such as united front penetration are only sometimes effective.

Taiwan needs to understand that winning the hearts and minds in civil society, whether on university campuses, in the media, or within the United States and allied governments, is just as important as preparing for a full-on Chinese military assault.

The lesson Israel learned is that intelligence is not enough. Vigilance and relationships are key.

The main point: As the Hamas attack on Israel has made clear, Taiwan cannot afford to relax in its confrontation with China. Already, China is working to shape global narratives and undermine networks of support. Taiwan must be vigilant and active in building up its defense and its relationships with democratic partners.