The start of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine was supposed to give the US a hitherto unavailable opportunity to re-unite the Western alliance under its leadership and maintain the US-dominated post-Second World War global order. While the Biden administration has got some success in forcing Europe to renew its allegiance to Washington – and drop its ambitions of strategic autonomy as an independent player in the international arena – it has not really had any powerful impact on Russia and China in terms of deterring them from pushing for their core objective of alternative world order. As it stands, the leading factor is that Washington’s success is itself largely limited to the West – a fact not lost on Russia, China and other countries outside of Europe. Outside of the occident, Washington’s ability to control anti-US forces has considerably decreased. This is especially evident in the Middle East, a region long known for its ‘deep’ alliance with the West but increasingly following a path that does not converge with the US.
For Russia and China, this is an encouraging sign – not only because visible and deep cracks have emerged in the wider US-led alliance, but also because countries outside of the Transatlantic Alliance are showing greater acceptability of the Sino-Russia bid to establish a multipolar world order not vulnerable to US manipulation. The initial success in charting the alternative course means that both Russia and China have every reason to continue illuminating this path.
This was also at the heart of Vostok drills held in Russia in September. This was a military exercise that, apart from Russia as the host country, included China, India, Tajikistan, Belarus and Mongolia. Whereas the decision of India and China to participate in these drills shows the drastic limits of the extent to which Washington can dictate global politics, the fact that these drills were held despite US sanctions on Russia and its politics of imposing “isolation” on Moscow shows, once again, that the politics of alternative world order is fast gaining traction.
How this exercise is tied to global politics can be understood from the way Russia’s Vladimir Putin contextualised it. A day before China confirmed its participation, Putin called for, in a speech he delivered to the 10th Moscow Conference on International Security, “a radical strengthening of the contemporary system of a multipolar world.” This is necessary, as Putin stressed, to stem the Western tide to “expand its bloc-based system to the Asia-Pacific region, like it did with NATO in Europe.” Putin’s remarks were precise enough about US geopolitics around Taiwan as well. To quote him, “The US escapade towards Taiwan is not just a voyage by an irresponsible politician, but part of the purpose-oriented and deliberate US strategy designed to destabilise the situation and sow chaos in the region and the world.”
Putin’s views are not idiosyncratic. In fact, the Chinese are echoing the same in a powerful fashion. Global Times, an official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, recently said that,
“The US has been spiralling upward in its all-encompassing containment of China, and there seems no high point at which it will stop and take a break. It is like a runaway horse running wildly to the precipice of war.”
The conclusion that this commentary drew is that the ultimate aim of Washington is to establish its own hegemony in the region – and ultimately in the world – by “squeezing” China out. This conclusion is strikingly similar to how Russia sees the US bid to expand NATO to Eastern Europe – in particular Ukraine – to squeeze Russia in Europe. This conclusion is resonating globally now – from the Middle East to Africa and the Pacific.
The reason why this is spreading is that the idea of a multipolar world is attractive to many other states as well. The emphasis on multiple power centres means that the centre of gravity will neither be Washington nor Beijing or Moscow. In fact, the idea of a multipolar world order underpins a system that is fundamentally different from today’s misweighted and misguided rules.
In this context, India’s decision to participate in the multinational military exercise shows how close New Delhi is to the idea of a multipolar order that this drill represents. India is a country that has always aspired to global power status. For years, it has been striving for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council. Its ambitions are unlikely to be realised in a system dominated, unilaterally, by Washington. Within this system, New Delhi is likely to remain a player following, uncritically, the US in its footsteps. It is only by stepping out of this system – which New Delhi partly did by refusing to condemn Russia and/or deciding to buy Russian oil despite US sanctions – that New Delhi can push for its great power status more freely than has been the case.
There is no dearth of states in Asia and elsewhere aspiring to play a bigger role. Turkey, for that matter, is another prime example, with Saudi Arabia in the Gulf Arab world emerging as the latest champion of strategic autonomy. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia’s refusal to exclude Russia from the G20 summit has proven, yet again, that exercising unilateral hegemony in today’s world is not the same as it was in the 1990s.
Given the scenario, what can Washington do? First, it can continue to ignite conflict and hope to attract more and more allies. This will, however, continue to backfire, as more and more countries are likely to fall out with Washington’s geopolitics of conflict. Secondly, it can safely reach the conclusion that the world has already changed, and that Washington needs to adjust itself to the changing global structure and the possibility of multiple power centres. Washington cannot fight everyone. Period. With more and more countries seeking to trade in currencies other than the USD means that the US ability to macro-manage global economics through its financial control is diminishing fast as well. It cannot sanction everyone and everything. Period.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.