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US-Iran crisis spells opportunity for China and North Korea

Latest clash in Middle East again stalls America's military pivot to Asia

From left: U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Source photos by Reuters/AP)

TOKYO -- Rising tensions in the Middle East recently brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war. Although a full-blown conflict was averted, the world is not out of the woods yet, as the two adversaries show no signs of resolving differences.

Even if U.S. President Donald Trump and Iranian leaders have no intention of waging war, history shows that minor skirmishes can sometimes have catastrophic consequences. World War I was triggered by the assassination of the heir to the Austria-Hungary throne. A shooting at the Marco Polo Bridge in 1937 resulted in the Sino-Japanese war.

If the Middle East crisis continues, the U.S.-led order could erode to the point where it affects the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, three ominous signs have already emerged.

First, the U.S. now has to deploy additional troops to the Middle East for longer stays.

For more than 10 years Washington has tried to gradually disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan in order to counter an increasingly powerful China. Former President George W. Bush decided to deploy six aircraft carriers and 60% of the U.S. submarine force to the Pacific, while his successor, Barack Obama, stationed American troops in Australia and the Philippines.

Trump has soldiered on as well, broadening America's Asian interests into an Indo-Pacific strategy. But if tensions in the Middle East persist, this strategy will falter. The U.S. military decided to pour an additional 750 troops into the region at the end of last year, and on Jan. 3, added 3,000 more to that number.

U.S. soldiers inspect the site of an Iranian missile strike at an air base in Anbar Province, Iraq on Jan. 13. No American troops were injured in the attack.   © Reuters

By continuing its high profile in the Middle East, Washington risks seeing the balance of military power in the East and South China Seas shift to China -- a scenario that would be accompanied by an increase in Beijing's political influence there as well.

According to a former high-ranking official in the Trump administration, this is something that the U.S. Defense Department and military have tried to avoid. Both have consistently objected to an attack on Iran in favor of more firmly countering China. As a result, they often locked horns with Iran hawk John Bolton, who resigned as national security adviser last September, the former official said.

The second worry is how recent events in the Middle East affected the Korean Peninsula. Some believe that the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has frightened North Korean leader Kim Jong Un into toning down his dangerous provocations.

But if so, it has not made efforts to denuclearize North Korea any easier. On the contrary, Soleimani's demise has undoubtedly heightened Kim's fear that he could be next, strengthening his resolve to keep his nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, the leader has likely noted in Trump's speech on Jan. 8 that the U.S. will not use military force against Iran, as there were no American casualties in Iran's retaliatory missile strikes.

Kim probably concluded that he can provoke the U.S. and its allies militarily without worrying about war as long as no Americans are hurt.

If involvement in the Middle East continues to sap the strength of the U.S., it gives North Korea more time to advance its armament programs.

Moreover, Iran and North Korea are widely believed to have cooperated in developing missiles and nuclear arms for years. In light of the quagmire in the Middle East, some U.S. security experts now say that the two countries will deepen ties in these areas.

Lastly, more worrying than America losing military clout in the Asia-Pacific region is its loss of political influence here. Asia is home to about 60% of the world's Muslims, who comprise 40% of Southeast Asia's population. Islam is the dominant religion in Indonesia and Malaysia, where Muslims account for 90% and 60% of the populations, respectively.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reportedly said that the killing of Soleimani was "unlawful" and as bad as the "Kashoggi murder."   © Reuters

America's continued military intervention in the Middle East risks inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment throughout the Muslim world. In fact, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad publicly criticized the U.S. on Jan. 7 for the Soleimani assassination, saying it was a violation of international law.

Unlike in Iran -- the region's Shia power base -- Southeast Asian Muslims are mainly Sunni. Still, it is widely assumed that as regards the U.S.-Iran standoff, their sympathies lie with the latter.

As a result of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which have been smoldering for about two decades, Muslims in Asia have become increasingly resentful of the U.S. This has, in part, allowed China to gradually expand its influence in the region.

According to annual surveys conducted in Indonesia between 2005 and 2018 by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center, the U.S. was viewed less favorably than China by the Indonesian people every year, excluding 2009 and 2010. The survey was not conducted in 2012.

It is believed that Malaysia harbors similar feelings.

"There has been anti-U.S. DNA in the Muslim world in Southeast Asia from the beginning," a Southeast Asian diplomatic official warned, expressing concerns about U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

As the U.S. presidential race heats up, Trump will have to devote more time to domestic issues. This makes it imperative that Asia-Pacific leaders convey to him the danger of blowback in their own region as the result of events in the Middle East.

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