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Shaping a polycentric world order

Shaping a polycentric world order

On February 04, amid the spectacle of the start of the Winter Olympics, Chinese President Xi Jinping offered solidarity to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, at a meeting in Beijing amid high tensions of the latter with the West. Both leaders’ first in-person summit in two years marked a new era in ties between Beijing and Moscow that continue to strengthen politically, economically and militarily.
In a joint declaration, Putin and Xi heralded a “new era” in the global order by vowing to show a common front against rising Western pressure amid the Kremlin’s showdown with the West over Ukraine. The two leaders proclaimed a deep strategic partnership between their countries to balance what they portrayed as the malign global influence of the United States. In a joint statement, the two countries affirmed that their new relationship was superior to any political or military alliance of the Cold War era. “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation,” they declared, announcing plans to collaborate in a host of areas including space, climate change, artificial intelligence and control of the Internet.

Although the two countries have moved closer together as both have come under pressure from the West on a host of issues including their human rights records and Russia’s military build-up near Ukraine, the timing of their announcement was highly symbolic, at a China-hosted Olympics that the United States has subjected to a diplomatic boycott. Each went significantly further than before in explicitly backing the other over key bones of contention with the United States and its allies:

– Russia voiced its support for China’s stance that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposition to any form of independence for the island. Moscow and Beijing also voiced their opposition to the AUKUS alliance of Australia, Britain and the United States, saying it increased the danger of an arms race in the region.

– China joined Russia in calling for an end to NATO enlargement and supported its demand for security guarantees from the West – issues at the heart of Moscow’s confrontation with the United States and its allies over Ukraine.

The two leaders decried the influence of the US and the role that NATO and the AUKUS defense alliances have played in Europe and Asia, saying that they have played a destabilizing role there.

They also decried the negative impact of the United States’ strategy in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions on security and stability as well, and they expressed their “concern” about the establishment of a military alliance between the US, UK, and Australia in 2020.

The Chinese-Russian declaration demonstrates that both have officially taken the position that their countries’ stances should be aligned and that China backs its Russian ally against the West, specifically Washington, regarding the Ukrainian crisis. Remarkably, the Chinese newspaper Global Times said that “the close relationship between China and Russia represents the world order’s last line of defense.”

Security alliance
The two countries said they were “seriously concerned” about the AUKUS security pact.

Announced last year, AUKUS will see Australia build nuclear-powered submarines as part of efforts to boost security in the Asia-Pacific region. It is largely seen as an effort to counter China, which has been accused of raising tensions in disputed territories such as the South China Sea.

Meanwhile Russia said it supported Beijing’s One China policy, which asserts that self-ruled Taiwan is a breakaway province that will eventually be part of China again.

However, Taiwan sees itself as an independent country, with its own constitution and democratically-elected leaders.

Tech and Energy
In the technology arena, Russia and China said they were ready to strengthen cooperation on artificial intelligence and information security.

They said they believed that “any attempts to limit their sovereign right to regulate national segments of the Internet and ensure their security are unacceptable.”
Meanwhile Russian state energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft have agreed new gas and oil supply deals with Beijing worth tens of billions of dollars.

The deals capitalise on Putin’s drive to diversify Russian energy exports away from the West, which started shortly after he came to power in 1999. Since then, Russia has become China’s top energy supplier and cut its reliance on the West for revenues.

The Kremlin said the presidents also discussed the need to broaden trade in national currencies because of unpredictability surrounding the use of the dollar.

US President Joe Biden has said Russian companies could be cut off from the ability to trade in dollars as part of sanctions, if Russia invades Ukraine.

Moscow denies any such intention, but has used a build-up of more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border to grab the attention of the West and press its demands for security guarantees.

The Chinese gas supplies are not directly linked with Russian gas exports to Europe, and more Russian gas for Beijing does not automatically mean less for Europe. However, they serve Putin as an addition revenue cushion amid the rising threat of US and EU sanctions.

Political signals
Given these differences, news of apparent security cooperation between the two should be taken with a pinch of salt. While there is growing collaboration between Chinese and Russian armed forces, the primary function of their military cooperation consists in political signalling, rather than in preparing for a joint military action.

For the past few months, Moscow has been explicit in its support for China’s use of military force as an instrument of pressure on its northeast Asian neighbours, Japan and South Korea. In October, the Russian and Chinese navies conducted their first joint patrol around Japan.

In November, strategic bombers from two countries organised their third joint strategic air patrol over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, which demonstrated that Russia and China were willing to jointly counter the US-Japanese alliance. They had also conducted a joint army drill in northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in August.

Beijing did not, however, respond in kind, refraining from support for Russia’s military brinkmanship in Europe. Chinese troops did not take part in the most recent edition of Russia’s strategic exercises, Zapad-21, which were held in western Russia and Belarus. Instead, Russian troops joined their counterparts in China for a joint exercise, organised far away from Europe.

Beijing treads a fine line between targeting individual European states – as with Lithuania, which was subject to Chinese sanctions such as the removal from the Chinese customs system – and portraying itself as Europe’s peaceful partner. Open support for Moscow’s political-military brinkmanship in Europe might well push the EU states closer to the US.

Even the joint declaration – with its warning about Nato enlargement – is ambivalent on Ukraine. While Russia reaffirms its adherence to the One China policy regarding Taiwan, there is no specific mention of Ukraine. Both sides agreed to oppose attempts to undermine security and stability in their “common adjacent regions,” which can only mean Central Asia.

A new world order?
Russia and China’s rivalries with the West are bringing the two countries closer than ever. Putin’s visit to China is primarily about shaping a new world order where Russian and Chinese core interests — whether it be security concerns or territorial aspirations — are respected and can be redefined through mutual support and increasingly coordinated actions in response to the West.
To strengthen their bargaining power and challenge the primacy of the United States, Europe and Japan, the two countries are focused on the issues that they believe have been used against them in the current world order to curb and weaken them.
For China, this is seen in assertive and ultranationalist policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. For Russia, this is about Nato and the orientation of former Soviet countries, with Ukraine being the most notable example.

The exact nature of this dynamic is unfolding in real time, but hints can be seen in the way Chinese officials have defined the relationship. Rhetoric from Beijing often says that China and Russia are supporting each other “back-to-back” defensively in the face of threats, not fighting shoulder to shoulder against the West.

As they prepare for these challenges, Russia and China are minimizing any conflicting positions between them in regions with overlapping investments, interests, and influences such as in Central Asia and the South China Sea.
The current world order is facing a genuine crisis because the current strategic alliances are born out of many changes, shifts and intersecting interests, which could continue. Relying on the United States to be a permanent ally is difficult, not for the powers in the region but even for the Europeans, and the Germans have already said that relying on American foreign policy, which changes every four years, is untenable. As far as Russia is concerned, there is no clear strategy. Instead, there is politicking, one man seizing opportunities. While the Russian president does seek to restore the Soviet Union, he lacks the tools required to make his goals sustainable, and he is now falling into China’s arms.
Beijing itself is a different story. The Chinese have a clear strategy and long strategic breath. According to the diplomatic expert, China has witnessed an “epic economic rise,” adding that “for the first time, two world poles or superpowers, the United States and China, are economically dependent, meaning the collapse of one power’s economy would lead to the collapse of the other’s economy,” which makes it difficult for the United States, for example, to impose the kind of sanctions it could impose on Russia.
And so, it is clear that we are looking at the contours of a new world order taking form, one whose emergence will undoubtedly come at a high cost.

The writer is a member of staff.

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