Connect with us

Politics & Security

Watching in Asia: Trouble Everywhere for the United States

The US imagined it would never face a serious enemy again. But trouble in global hotspots calls for a reassessment and for other free nations to step up.



Chinese warship Luyang III sails near and crosses in front of the US destroyer USS Chung-Hoon. This image is taken from the deck of US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait on June 3, 2023. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andre T. Richard/Handout via REUTERS)

A foreign reporter (back when the expression meant something) once gave me some good advice: "Look where everyone else isn't looking." A Japanese General offered similarly good advice: "Look at the whole map." These are worth remembering when watching current events and trouble in the Middle East

Today's focus is on the IsraelHamas war that may easily expand. Ukraine is no longer the center of attention but it hasn't gone away. These two fights are plenty for a super-power, the United States, to handle. Even if it's not directly involved in the fighting – yet. 

But trouble can easily brew up elsewhere on short notice – with the Indo-Pacific being the prime candidate.

Not surprisingly, China pays attention to the whole map – looking to maximize its interests. With the Americans tied up in the Middle East and Ukraine, Beijing perhaps sees an opportunity in its immediate neighborhood. And with Taiwan in particular. 

Smoke rises in the aftermath of rocket barrages that were launched from Gaza, in Ashkelon, Israel October 7, 2023. (©REUTERS/Amir Cohen)

US Military Overstretched

The US military has not forgotten about the Indo-Pacific and it is on-scene. But it can only handle so many wars at one time. 

In fact, it probably hasn't been able to fight two major wars at the same time (as it is required) for a few decades now.

Ukraine was already enough of a distraction and drain on resources.  Now add in an Israel–Hamas fight that might expand to include Hezbollah and Iran. This drains off finite US military resources and attention – that are already dangerously overstretched. 

There's been plenty of talk about beefing up military forces in the Asia-Pacific since 2011 when the Obama administration announced the "Asia Pivot." But this has never quite happened – or at least not on the scale imagined or needed.

Indeed, there's something about Europe, the Middle East, or just about anywhere that isn't the Indo-Pacific that attracts – and distracts American policymakers and the US military.

So now that the Middle East has heated up again (on top of Ukraine) it will be much harder to bolster US forces in the Asia-Pacific. And if US forces get directly involved in the Middle East fighting, the Indo-Pacific theater will get even shorter shrift when it comes to hardware and manpower – and even brainpower.


But can't allies such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea make up the difference? In theory, yes. In practice, not even close.

The People's Republic of China can "do the math." 

Palestinians react at the site of an Israeli strike on a house, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Gaza City October 21, 2023. REUTERS/Mutasem Murtaja

The Political Angle

There's also a political angle to all this. The Biden administration (or any administration) can only focus on so many problems ー and Taiwan might be a lesser priority.  

For one thing, in the United States, there is more actual and latent support for Israel than there is for Taiwan. Taiwan doesn't have as much of a political constituency. (Think votes and funding.) 

And far more Americans at least know of Israel and have a sense that it is important. This is despite the emergence of a vicious anti-Jewish constituency in the United States – and in Congress.

Few Americans know much of Taiwan. It takes a lot of effort and political will for an administration to sell the idea of risking nuclear war for "Taiwan." 

Would Team Biden make the effort if it's tied up in Ukraine and the Middle East? That's anybody's guess.

A Chinese warship sails off the coast of Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China, near the main island of Taiwan, on April 8. Military exercises and patrols were held around Taiwan on the same day, according to a statement by the Chinese military. (© Reuters via Kyodo)

China Watches

China is presumably sizing up the US response to the Israel–Hamas war in order to gauge a likely American response to an assault or serious pressure on Taiwan.

The jury is still out, though. For now, the Biden administration is mostly backing Israel. However, there are indications it wants Israel to pull its punches. And now that Israeli forces have gone into Gaza, wait a couple of weeks. We'll see if Team Biden tells the Israelis that they've "defended themselves enough" and it's time for a ceasefire or so-called humanitarian pauses to let Hamas catch its breath.

If so, Xi Jinping will take note.

Unfortunately, Xi will also note the Biden administration's initial reaction to the Hamas massacres on October 7. It was ambiguous and seemed to consider Hamas and Israel as equally at fault.

Applied to a Taiwan scenario one imagines the State Department issuing a tweet hours after the People's Liberation Army hammers Taiwan: 


"Taiwan, don't respond. Violence solves nothing."

If Beijing reckons an attack on Taiwan will result in some tut-tutting and faux outrage and then a move to double down on diplomacy, well, that'll be fine. And if it has to wait a couple of weeks as Washington makes a show of trying to aid Taiwan before letting it go, that will be fine too.

Demonstrators take part in the Iran solidarity rally in London, Britain January 8, 2023. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Why Were We Placating Iran?

Beijing also must be considering what happened before the Hamas attacks. 

Specifically, I'm talking about the Biden administration's dealings with Iran. Relaxing sanctions and handing over $6 billion US dollars. All in all, just a continuation of President Obama's efforts to appease if not strengthen the Iranian regime. 

China might fairly think, "If you'll fall over yourself to placate the Iranians after what they've done to you and your interests for decades, well, the sky's the limit in what you'll do for us after we take Taiwan."

Team Biden was keen to see nothing – and still is. Insisting there is no direct evidence of Iranian involvement in Hamas' attacks. The US intelligence community appears to be in the bag as well – unable to reach a conclusion on Iran and Hamas – despite an $80 billion USD a year budget – and Hamas publicly thanking Iran for its help.

Add in the Biden administration's tepid, if not timid response to Iranian proxies' ongoing attacks on US forces in Syria and Iraq and Beijing has even further reason to doubt American resolve.

And the penalties for Chinese support for Iran in the form of oil purchases and all-out political support? None. Indeed, the Biden administration and the Pentagon are falling over themselves to engage with the PRC and "stabilize" relations.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (©Kyodo)

Looking Out for Taiwan

And there are other places on the map where China's friends just have to make threatening moves that will stretch the Americans even thinner and make focus on Taiwan even harder.

Think of the Korean Peninsula, the Baltic states, the Persian Gulf, and Cuba and Venezuela. And some "DC-sniper" fifth-columnist activities throughout the US will do nicely too.

The United States is now paying for the "peace dividend" and "the end of history" – and the idea it would never face a serious enemy again.

And the other free nations erred in counting on the Americans to take care of things. 


Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Canberra, Ottawa, Wellington, and every country in Europe… I'm talking to you. 

Are things that bad? 

An experienced gentleman involved in US government defense matters since the 1960s told me the other day:

Looking at the thing objectively from Beijing's point of view, they have to see us in near total disarray, the "Taiwans" asleep, and Tokyo dithers as always. The Phils (the Filipinos), of all people, seem to be agitated against them (China) and the ROKs (South Koreans) are awake, but in the scheme of things, they would die valiantly but they would die. I cannot imagine, under the circumstances, that the "If not now, when?" voices aren't gathering volume over there (in Beijing).


Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.

Our Partners