Why Asian Countries Are Keeping a Low Profile in the Israel-Hamas War

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Diplomacy

Why Asian Countries Are Keeping a Low Profile in the Israel-Hamas War

Platforms for the Global South, like BRICS, have stepped up their rhetoric. But don’t overestimate what they can – and are willing to – do. 

Why Asian Countries Are Keeping a Low Profile in the Israel-Hamas War

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar attends an extraordinary joint virtual meeting of BRICS members, Nov. 21, 2023.

Credit: Indian Ministry of External Affairs

Can Asian countries make a difference to the Israel-Hamas war? In recent weeks, different entities from across the Global South have tried to do so. 

In Riyadh, countries from Asia and Africa which are members of either the Arab League or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) or both met to condemn Israel’s military actions in Gaza. This was followed by a delegation of ministers from several of the countries touring the capitals of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to demand a ceasefire. 

Meanwhile, South Africa, as current chair of the BRICS group, organized an online summit with old and new members, from China and India to Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE. During their meeting they expressed their positions on the ongoing conflict and advocated for a cessation of hostilities.

These diplomatic maneuvers underscore a broader international discontent with the escalating conflict, triggered by the October 7 surprise attack by Hamas. Hamas staged a shock invasion of Israeli territory in the south, resulting in over 1,000 Israeli casualties and more than 200 Israeli hostages – including women, children, and the elderly – being taken into Gaza. Israel’s government soon declared war on Hamas, with the intention to eliminate the group entirely. While Western governments aligned closely with Israel and justified its military actions, the violence unleashed by Israel resulted in the displacement of 1.7 million people in Gaza and – by the time of writing – nearly 15,000 dead.

For many in the Global South, the solidarity of the West with Israel revealed its hypocrisy. Governments of Global South nations, many of which were swift to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine a year and a half ago, now scrutinize the West’s commitment to democracy and human rights in the wake of the Israeli military campaign.

The recent actions of the Arab League, the OIC, and the BRICS summit reflect this shifting perspective. However, it’s crucial not to overstate the significance of these developments and what Asian countries can do to make a difference. 

First, notwithstanding the broad call for a ceasefire from the Arab League, OIC, and BRICS, there are substantial differences among them. At the BRICS summit for example, Iran called Israel a “terrorist” regime, but Saudi Arabia was more circumspect. Russia and China focused their ire more on the United States’ role in the conflict, while India – which has strong ties to the U.S. and Israel – was more reserved. Not only was it more reticent than other Asian countries in condemning Israel, but New Delhi also had its foreign minister represent the country at the virtual event, in contrast to other countries’ heads of state and government.

Second, the Global South’s response so far has been a largely rhetorical one. The joint Arab League-OIC meeting and the BRICS summit only came after earlier efforts through the United Nations. For weeks the one international body that might have enforced demands for a ceasefire – the UNSC – was hindered by division, with the United States and its allies vetoing such calls, opting instead for “humanitarian pauses.” That failure led to states pursuing the ceasefire call in the U.N. General Assembly – where many Global South countries are represented – and resulting in a non-binding resolution being passed by 121 votes to 14 against, with 44 abstentions on October 27.

Yet despite the strong support for the fighting to stop, there has been little sign so far that governments of Asian countries in the Global South will translate their abhorrence at the war and into tangible pressure on Israel. 

Russia and China have potentially significant influence in this regard. For example, Russia could end its “deconfliction mechanism” with Israel in Syria, whereby the two sides meet regularly and coordinate to ensure that Israeli attacks on targets in that country do not lead to incidents or accidents with Russian materiel or personnel. China is Israel’s third largest trading partner and an important investor in both the country’s infrastructure, construction and hi-tech sectors. Were Beijing so inclined, the withdrawal of cooperation and pressure on its private sector to disinvest from Israel could have potentially far-reaching consequences. 

Meanwhile, among the Gulf states, the UAE, which normalized relations with Israel through the Abraham Accords in 2020, shows no sign of wanting to renege on them, while the general view is that Saudi Arabia has only delayed rather than abandoned prospects of normalization with Israel.

Third, the bigger picture is not as conducive for the Global South as it first appears. While it is certainly the case that American – and wider Western – primacy is waning, the international system has not been replaced by a fully multipolar one; that is, where power is more or less evenly distributed. Instead, global politics appears a hybrid of multipolarity, alongside emerging bipolar competition between the United States and China – but where the U.S. still remains the predominant economic and military power; China in second place is some distance behind. The structure of today’s international system, then, suggests that pressure from the wider Global South may therefore be insufficient in itself to force a change in the Israel-Hamas war by itself.

Certainly, the Global South and its current demands for a ceasefire could have a potentially meaningful role in adding to the pressure on Israel’s government to curb its military operations sooner than it intends. But arguably, such pressure is unlikely to be direct and instead weigh more on Israel’s Western backers, like U.S. President Joe Biden, who may feel emboldened in his talks with Israeli leaders. 

While the Global South’s discontent provides essential moral pressure on Israel to halt the fighting, its ability to effect substantive change will not come from words alone. Rather, it will hinge either on governments’ capability to persuade others to put more substantive pressure on Israel – or, if they wish for a more direct approach, then it will require countries in the Global South to translate words into action.

South Africa, which hosted the recent online BRICS summit, provides one such case for the Global South. South Africa’s experience of apartheid in the past arguably gives it a moral weight when it condemns Israel’s actions against the Palestinians along the same lines. That was given fuller expression when Pretoria joined other states to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes. More recently, its Parliament voted to break diplomatic relations with Israel, although it falls to President Cyril Ramaphosa to implement that decision or not. 

Yet at the same time, the impact of South Africa’s words and actions have had minimal impact, either on Israel’s prosecution of its war in Gaza or the eventual agreement for a four-day truce to exchange Palestinian prisoners for hostages. To this may also be noted the relatively modest weight of South Africa’s actions in the world system. In sum then, if pressure is to be felt in Israel to end the war, it will come from more powerful states in the Global South – like China – or the West.

Yet even if states like China and other Asian governments were to follow South Africa’s example, taking this approach is not without risk and could present real costs, even beyond the potential for damage to relations with Israel. Not only would the impact of such actions expose Asian countries’ relative weight (and weakness) in today’s unbalanced international system, but it could also have wider adverse consequences in their relations with Israel’s still significant Western backers.