“The world is on the verge of radical change. We see how the European Union is gradually collapsing, as is the US economy — it is all over for the new world order. So, it will never again be as it was before … in 10 years we will have a new world order in which the key will be the union of China and Russia. I believe that Russia and China could create an alliance toward which NATO will be powerless and which will put an end to the imperialist desires of the West.” — Chinese president Xi Jinping
In today’s rapidly changing world, the relationship between China and Russia has emerged as the model of a modern strategic partnership. The ‘bromance’ we are witnessing between the Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is, perhaps, the warmest-ever seen between any two world leaders. Russia-China cooperation is expanding, buttressed by several high-profile energy and arms deals in recent months. Beijing and Moscow are also united in condemning US unilateralism and Western liberal interventionism. And they appear to hold near-identical views on international issues ranging from Ukraine through Syria to the South China Sea. Such is the impression of Sino-Russian harmony that many in the West have come to view their partnership as an alliance in all but name, and as an existential threat to the US-led global order.
After the World War II, the world has largely been under a simple, uncomplicated world order with power divided somewhat equally between the two superpowers: the United States and the Russian Federation. The power equations were on ideological lines with the US championing democracy and Russia professing communism. Both superpowers waged proxy wars across the globe against one another like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Afghanistan War. This equation continued for nearly four decades and the unending hostilities and proxy wars culminated into the dismemberment of the USSR. The spectacular implosion of the Russian Federation in the early 90s shook the world and the world became unipolar with the US as the sole superpower. It was Pax Americana all the way with no contender in sight.
During this period of a relative calm, Russia was struggling to re-emerge from the debris of the Soviet Union and was facing huge economic and political problems. And, China, the sleeping dragon, was focusing on its economy and was biding its time, the European Union was firmly in the US camp and major organizations like the UN and NATO completely under US control.
However, change is a law of nature. It was, perhaps, the arrogance of the US leaders that precipitated the decline of once sole superpower of the world. Feeling itself a hegemon of the world, it decided to invade the Middle East. First, it plunged into Kuwait in the early 90s against Saddam Hussein’s ‘invading forces’ and then stayed put in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Then came the fateful aircraft-laden strike on the twin towers on September 11, 2001 (9/11). With that strike, the world stage changed, paving the way for the coming order.
Blaming Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 attack, and claiming that he had been living in Afghanistan, the United States vengefully invaded Afghanistan and plunged into the quagmire of an unwinnable war that has, till now, devoured countless lives. But, yet again, the US made a cardinal mistake by invading Iraq in 2003, looking for non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Besides throwing the US to a terminal decline, these six trillion dollar wars have, directly or indirectly, contributed to the global terrorism we are trying so hard to combat now.
With the US getting mired into these conflicts, a lot of strategic space was provided for other contenders to rise. Harping on the opportunity, China emerged as an economic and military powerhouse and began asserting its nationalism. Russia, under a vehemently nationalistic Putin, too began flexing its muscle as it moved into Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The disintegration of Iraq provided fertile soil for the ISIS monster to rise and spread terror across the globe. With the advent of the Arab Spring, states like Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan and Syria were in turmoil and Syria plunged into a vicious civil war which caused 2,50,000 casualties and created over 11 million refugees. The flood of refugees into adjoining Europe coupled with the rise of home-grown terror, fuelled Islamophobia and created a dangerous divide.
For over six decades now, the world order has been used to seeing the US take a lead in world affairs. But, now as the eagle retreats, the dragon and the bear have gained ground across the geopolitical realm. China has already emerged as a ‘near-peer’ to the US and its economic footprint perhaps exceeds that of the US. China is likely to cross the US to become the leading economic power by 2026 or so, as per estimates. China has already emerged as the leader in a slew of alliances like the SCO and BRICS and its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative can tie down regional economies, irrevocably, to it. At a time, when Trump is focusing on ‘America First’, in spite of his antipathy toward China, he is unlikely to divert large resources to checkmate it. And, in the meantime, China would rise from ‘near-peer’ to ‘peer’, and would become the dominant power centre of the Asia-Pacific.
Moreover, the United States has lost much of its influence after it proved unable to win the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. If Trump wants to clamp down on Islamic State (IS), as he has promised, he seems to consider Russia as an ally in this war. But Russia will extract exorbitant concessions for its role and it will be a short-lived marriage of convenience. In the long term, a balanced, sustained campaign would have to be waged to fully eliminate it, but it seems unlikely that the Trump administration would be able to do so. If this administration is viewed as being anti-Islamic, as it is already perceived to be, it could precipitate the clash of civilizations that Samuel Huntington had prophesied.
What we are seeing emerge is the rise of three power centres; the US, China and Russia. The US would look to shore up its influence with allies in the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the Middle East. India would be a ‘preferred ally’ as would traditional allies like Japan, UK and South Korea. But just how much the US is now willing to contribute to its allies and how much will they demand in return remains to be seen.
The equations between the US, China and Russia will be marked by the relations with each other. Any US-Russia rapprochement in the near future is highly unlikely. In spite of the recent push by President Trump, a US-Russia conclave is unlikely to happen. There is too much animosity and mutual suspicion and their national interests clash. What could happen at best is a year or two of thawing off, before contradictions resurface and then, perhaps, a further deterioration of ties.
A more likely alliance that is going to upend the existing world order is that between Russia and China. They have already been coming together as a natural counter to the US and that would only increase. Their economic and nationalistic agenda are markedly alike and their domination of forums such as the SCO and BRICS gives them a platform to assert their joint interests. The flexing of their nationalistic muscle too is likely to increase with time, especially if the US proves unwilling to intercede effectively.
It seems plausible that China and Russia will try to create a New World Order, as the Russian Foreign Minister declared at the Munich Security Conference: “Let’s think of a Post-West world.”
The Russians and the Chinese are concentrating on augmenting their defence capabilities and their budding political alliances with a host of other countries can oppose the power of the West. It is important to understand that the Russians are envisioning a future world order whose contours hark back to the 19th century. Russia and China are now inseparably wed for reasons of mutual economic and security interests on the global stage.
As Trump struggles to survive the cumulative attacks on his fledgling administration, he is also distracted from the reality of a rapidly changing world. If and when he does get to concentrate on the geopolitical situation, he may well have to play catch up with Russia and China as they make deals with other regional players and fill the vacuum left by the ongoing American political disorder.
The international political structure is at the apex of transformation. An erstwhile improbable entente between Russia and China is now changing into a powerful realignment either intended to bring a greater bipolarity in the world affairs or to challenge the hegemonic power of the US in the world. Strategic dimensions of the geopolitical world change at an astonishing speed, sometimes without the states knowing the repercussions it brings in the coming years.