[Column] A third war mustn’t be allowed

Posted on : 2023-11-16 17:11 KST Modified on : 2023-11-16 17:11 KST
There’s no ruling out that this world of chaos and disorder could see the eruption of a third war
Israel’s air defense system intercepts missiles over Ashkelon, Israel. (Reuters/Yonhap)
Israel’s air defense system intercepts missiles over Ashkelon, Israel. (Reuters/Yonhap)
By Kim Yang-hee, professor of economics and finance at Daegu University

While some 1,200 Israelis have died in the war between Israel and Hamas that began on Oct. 7, more than 12,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have lost their lives, including around 4,000 innocent children.

There’s no doubt that this conflict that has engulfed the Middle East is a humanitarian tragedy, just like the war between Russia and Ukraine that began in February 2022. But the reaction around the globe has been more complex, with some mourning the tragedy and others finding cause to rejoice.

In the short term, the biggest beneficiary of the Israel-Hamas war is Russia. The war has instantly turned the world’s attention from Europe to the Middle East, allowing Russia to tighten its grip on Ukraine.

As for China, all it has to do is sit back and enjoy. China may not welcome unrest in the Middle East, which it relies on for 40% of its oil imports, but it will certainly welcome chaos that’s sure to keep the US preoccupied.

The US-led international order after World War II was only possible because the old European powers were embroiled in the global war. Now the US finds itself in the place of the UK, while China has taken the seat that used to be reserved for the US.

The tragedy of the Middle East is, tragically, not a tragedy for Russia or China.

On the opposite pole from them are the countries of the West. There, the war between Israel and Hamas has been causing profound traumas and fractures.

The biggest victim has been Ukraine, another tragic battleground that has been overshadowed by the horrific events in Gaza. Slovakia and Hungary have declared suspensions of their military aid to Ukraine, while the countries of Western Europe are experiencing deepening fatigue with their support to Ukraine.

While its attention is being pulled between the two wars, the US also cannot afford to ignore Asia, where a third conflict could end up erupting.

The double standard displayed by the West, which has spared Israel the sort of invective and economic sanctions that are directed at Russia, has boomeranged back by stoking internal sentiments of anti-Semitism. Those have led in turn to pro-Israel demonstrations, which only exacerbate the divisions.

So far, the effects of the Israel-Hamas war on global energy markets have been limited.

The World Bank has said that the current situation is different from the environment surrounding the oil crises of the 1970s, thanks to the global economy’s reduced dependence on crude oil, diversification of crude oil import sources, increased crude reserves, and more advanced futures trading in the crude oil market. Concerns about stagnation in the global economy have also been keeping oil prices from rising.

But if things were to escalate to the point where Iran blocks off the Strait of Hormuz — where one-third of the world’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) and one-sixth of its crude passes through — this would leave the global economy reeling. It’s another reason for praying for peace in the Middle East.

The two wars have had another beneficiary. Following the eruption of conflict between Israel and Hamas, an exchange-traded fund made up of stocks from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Northrop Grumman and other major arms companies jumped around 7%, an upshot of the global scarcity of weapons. Antsy about what this scarcity may mean for it, Ukraine has come out and called for increased arms production, but the problem appears likely to go unresolved in the short term.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, last year’s world military spending (US$2.2 trillion) reached its highest since the Cold War. Now, countries in the Middle East, including the biggest buyer of US arms, Saudi Arabia, will also put pedal to metal on increasing armaments. But this defense industry boom will only mean more powder kegs.

The two wars currently underway have laid bare the reality that international law is powerful against the powerless and powerless against the powerful. The air is thick with the possibility that the rise of the Global South, the decline of the West, and the increasing divisions will lead to a prolonged era of conflict. In other words, there’s no ruling out that this world of chaos and disorder could see the eruption of a third war.

Even Korea wants to use these two wars to reinvent itself as a defense industry powerhouse. That’s in part because, at this point in time, South Korea is really the only country left that will provide weapons for a ground war fast, in large quantities, and at a great bang for the buck to the West.

We’re seeing how the tragedy of division has paradoxically turned Korea into the West’s weapons depot and witnessing the breakneck speed at which protectionist blocs are being created in the defense industry. Fired up by these developments, Korea’s presidential office is going around saying that it will use weapons exports as a growth motor and boasting about how much of which weapons it’s sold to whom, but this is a seriously short-sighted plan that will harm Korea’s own security.

When we consider the intricately tangled geopolitics of Europe or the Middle East and squarely face the tinderbox of security threats at Korea’s doorstep, it becomes apparent that weapons exports need to be carried out with great care and with less fanfare.

What we need now isn’t a more-the-merrier approach to arms exports, but defense cooperation that serves the Korean people and the Korean territory, and protects Korea’s sovereignty. Two wars is already too many. Let’s not allow there to be a third.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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