THE WORLD SCHISM’S MILITARY-STRATEGIC CONFRONTATION
Like during the Cold War, the global schism has a military component that is gradually intensifying. The emerging East-West military standoff is building on the energy of the polarization exacerbated by the Russo-Ukrainian war for NATO expansion. Action in this military schism spans the globe—from Taiwan in the Pacific to Iraq in the Persian Gulf to Syria on the Mediterranean to Ukraine on the Black Sea. The core of the conflictive nexus is the West, in particular the U.S., countering Russia on the western part of the Eurasian ‘world island’ and countering China in eastern Eurasia and the eastern ‘world ocean’, the Indo-Pacific.
Washington and Brussels (NATO and EU) now view Russia as the immediate military threat that must be dealt with before the West can confront Beijing. China is “the more serious and long-term threat to the global order,” as U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, against which the Biden administration seeks to create a “more broad coalition.” The most recent counter-initiatives to the Sino-Russia network of networked IOs, perhaps intended to be integrated with NATO in some way, are AUKUS alliance of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region and the QUAD security dialogue forum consisting of the U.S., Australia, Japan, and India, which remained near moribund during Donald Trump’s presidency and the Biden administration has sought to invigorate. A new U.S. strategy review proposes placing “a premium on growing the connective tissue on technology, trade and security between our democratic allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific and Europe because we recognize that they are mutually reinforcing and the fates of the two regions are intertwined” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/10/12/fact-sheet-the-biden-harris-administrations-national-security-strategy/). This is becoming concensus thinking in DC policymaking and think tank circles as a way of re-consolidating American’s weakening hegemony (https://www.cnas.org/publications/commentary/enlisting-nato-to-address-the-china-challenge and https://www.csis.org/analysis/natos-pivot-china-challenging-path). Although QUAD can be seen as an Indo-Pacific regional structure meant to counter China in a broader way, it also may serve as the geostrategic world ocean’s effort to wean India away from the Eurasian ‘world island’ being organized by China and Russia.
On the eve of Putin’s new special military operation, Beijing and Moscow declared an “unlimited” strategic partnership. Moscow and Beijing are intensifying the military and intelligence components of this near-alliance and have been conducting joint military maneuvers routinely now for several years. Although China has been careful not to appear too supportive of Moscow’s operations in Ukraine, Beijing has blamed Washington and Brussels for provoking Russia. For Russia’s part, Moscow has been morally supportive of China’s claim to Taiwan and condemned U.S. policy regarding the breakaway island.
The extent of the military partnership’s expansion can be seen in China’s participation in Russia’s annual ‘Vostok’ (East) military exercises and the intensification of that participation since its inception in 2018. As a first-time participant in the Vostok exercises in 2018, China sent 3,200 soldiers, along with more than 1,000 pieces of weaponry and 30 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. In Vostok 2022, building on a “no limits” pact their presidents signed this year, the Russian and Chinese militaries will drill side-by-side in what is their second joint show of force in the region this year. In May bombers from both countries conducted a 13-hour drill so close to Japan and South Korea that the latter two nations scrambled jet fighters, all as President Biden was visiting Tokyo. In a preliminary phase of Vostok 2022 held in August, the Russian ministry said that units of its Eastern Military District, in the nation’s Far East near the borders of China and North Korea, as well as airborne, long range aviation and military transport aviation personnel and equipment, would participate in training maneuvers along with military contingents from other unnamed states. (https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/china-to-join-russia-military-exercises-as-u-s-rivals-deepen-ties/ar-AA10LyBL). China’s participation in the Vostok-2022 drills reportedly encompassed 2,000 military personnel but also twenty-one fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, and 300 vehicles and other pieces of military equipment (https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/why-russia%E2%80%99s-vostok-2022-military-exercise-so-controversial-204632). Chinese J-10B aircraft were used to support ground operations, and the exercise was supported by joint patrols from Russian and Chinese warships (https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/vostok-2022-are-china-and-russia-practicing-war-against-america-204778).
SCO members also joined in Vostok-2022. The Russian Defense Ministry reported that over 50,000 troops and 5,000 pieces of military equipment, including 140 aircraft, sixty warships, and most importantly military contingents from various SCO members and partners—Azerbaijan, Algeria, Armenia, Belarus, India, Kyrgyzstan, China, Mongolia and Tajikistan—acting as a coalition group conducting a joint strategic counter-operation (https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/why-russia%E2%80%99s-vostok-2022-military-exercise-so-controversial-204632). Of course, countries like India and Mongolia are very unlikely to ever join a Sino-Russian war with the West, but other partners just might under specific circumstances, and their participation demonstrates that they see not just military training experience in general but such experience with Russia and China as advantageous and a potential investment in developing cooperative military relations, which could someday become alliance relationships as participation in SCO suggests.
The Biden administration’s provocative statements on Taiwan and arms shipments to China’s breakaway island add further to the global polarization as do joint Sino-Russian naval maneuvers in the region. Russia has strongly defended China in tensions with Washington over Taiwan, and there can be little doubt that in a major confrontation or war over Taiwan that Moscow would back Beijing morally and materially, though pеrhaps not militarily beyond weapons and intelligence support. Moscow has been very supportive of China’s claim to Taiwan and critical of U.S. meddling there and in the Asia-pacific region. And in response to U.S. Congress Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s late summer visit to Taiwan, China responded with heightened military preparedness and land, sea, and air exercises, with Russia participating in the naval component, which included a demonstrative firing of weapons in the direction of Taiwan. Conversely, it is not difficult to see Beijing intervening in important, perhaps significantly in military and intelligence ways on Moscow’s behalf, if Russia is on the verge of a disastrous military defeat against NATO and Ukraine. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated in late October that “China will firmly support Russia in international politics and in the work of strengthening its status as a great power (https://www.ng.ru/monitoring/2022-11-02/7_8581_monitoring.html). Beijing understands that Russia is China’s ally against NATO in and around the ‘world island.’ It is perhaps indicative of all this that in early October, three Russian and four Chinese warships were noticed operating in unison off the Alaskan coast in international but also U.S. economic zone waters, if Washington still has not seen the picture clearly enough (www.westernjournal.com/us-coast-guard-discovers-3-chinese-4-russian-military-vessels-operating-single-formation-off-us-shore/).
The new global schism’s military confrontation, building on the background of an already hot war between the West, on the one hand, and the ‘Robin’ (Russia) to the ‘Batman’ (China) of the rest, is becoming as geographically expansive and dangerous as was the world split apart during the Cold War.
The New Cold War Beyond Greater Eurasia
The ‘new cold war’ in the environment of a world split apart more globally has the potential to spread and indeed is beginning to spread from Greater Eurasia to the southern and western hemispheres. In these other regions, there is mounting competition and growing military strategic confrontation between Russia and China, on the one hand, and the West, in particular the U.S., on the other hand, that goes far beyond Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and the Transcaucasus (Georgia). In the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, Russia, the U.S., and their proxies find themselves, for the most part, on the other side of the front. The U.S. has ‘lost’ and withdrawn for Afghanistan, and China and Russia are moving in to pick up the pieces. One can imagine Afghanistan as a SCO member and certainly an OBOR participant. China and Russia are expanding there economic, political, and in some cases military cooperation with other states in the global South, including Latin America in the western hemisphere. The most important elements of the Sino-Russian advance against the West in the South are the tripartite military-strategic alliance with Iran and the Sino-Russian-led international organizations (IOs) attracting states in the southern and American hemispheres into economic, political, and military cooperation: SCO, BRICS, and OBOR.
Iran is probably the most anti-Western regime of the three leading anti-Western actors, now partners and half-allies. Teheran has been quietly supportive of China’s Taiwan policy and has supported Moscow in Kiev by providing it with Shehad attack drones, with more assistance on the way, as announced on 1 November 2022. Beijing and Moscow have robustly supported economic and diplomatic ties with Iran, supporting the latter’s positions at the UN, and both are major weapons suppliers to Teheran. They have helped Iran overcome the effects of sanctions, and Iran is advising Moscow on how to do the same. Last year Iran and China institutionalized the close binds on the basis of a 25-year treaty of strategic partnership, and Iran figures centrally in China’s OBOR.
The Russo-Iranian partnership has up until now at least been an even deeper relationship, especially in military-strategic affairs. Russia has helped develop Iran’s space satellite and civilian nuclear programs, the latter of which threatens to become a military program and capability every year. Teheran and Moscow have been close allies against the Syrian opposition and jihadists in defense of the Bashar Assad regime in Syria. The Western-backed front of Muslim Brotherhood-led opposition and part of the Kurdish separatist movement opposes the Assad regime backed by Russia, while both Iran and Russia, but most of all Russia, carry on counter-terrorism operations against ISIS and affiliates of Al Qa`ida. The West’s and Russia’s partners stand on opposite sides through proxies of their partners in the Yemeni civil war, Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively. As two of the world’s leading natural gas powers, Moscow and Teheran, are also aggressively pursuing the organization of a gas OPEC, a global gas cartel to control prices and presumably counter Western economic power. Russia, Iran and Qatar control 60 percent of the world’s gas reserves, and all three have long-term gas contracts and projects with China as well as Pakistan (https://inosmi.ru/20220825/gaz-255672976.html?in=t).
The Sino-Russian-led IOs bring in southern and American hemispheric powers and lesser powers such as India, Brazil, South Africa, Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico, and Venezuela, among others. The limitations on support among the rest for the West in its war for NATO expansion to Ukraine were starkly demonstrated on 20 July 2022 when the MERCOSUR summit of Latin American states Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay refused to allow Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy address the gathering (https://www.barrons.com/news/mercosur-trade-bloc-denies-zelensky-request-to-address-summit-paraguay-01658343307). In a ‘we can too’ move, Russia signed a military cooperation agreement with Venezuela, and China, Russia, and Iran conducted naval military maneuvers in Venezuela with a focus on a fictional U.S. invasion on behalf of Columbia in late summer, mirror-imaging the activity of NATO in Eastern Europe and southwestern Eurasia (Transcaucasus) (https://10news.org/2022/07/for-the-first-time-russia-iran-and-china-will-conduct-military-maneuvers-in-venezuela/). Mexico has refused to join sanctions against Russia and proposed a Ukrainian peace plan to the UN.
Sino-Russian-Western confrontations in southern regions remain limited to economic competition and military maneuvering, but it may be just a matter of time before China and Russia will be able to forge broader IOs bringing in southern states willing to separate themselves and even undermine Western economic and financial hegemony and interests and to support military countermeasures and counter-alliances against the West.
Although China and the rest of the rest have no desire to get involved militarily in support of Russia’s efforts in Ukraine, there can be no doubt that they view Russian efforts to halt NATO expansion and deal a blow to American hegemony as laudable. Beijing is likely to step in and join Teheran in providing military aide and if necessary military force should Russia be in danger of being seriously weakened or endangered existentially by the war, as Moscow remains an important source for technology, natural resources, Eurasian autonomy, and UN Security Council voting support for China. The war in Ukraine is seen in Beijing and some other countries almost as much as in Moscow to be a defense against the Western bridgehead in Eurasia.
Swing States and the Potential for a Third Pole or Non-Aligned Movement
Several regional great powers possess sufficient power and influence to be in a position either to move from straddling the West-rest divide, fundamentally transforming the West-rest balance of power, or continue straddling in more robust by forming a new non-aligned movement rather than make the great leap to one or the other camp. In Greater Eurasia, India and Turkey are such powers.
India has been careful to maintain a more or less neutral position on the NATO-Russian Ukrainian war, urging immediate negotiations and a ceasefire, and is deepening its ties with the Sino-Russian-led IOs. Even as New Delhi is a member of BRICS and SCO and an OBOR participant, it has joined QUAD and is negotiating with the U.S. a deal on joint production of microchips, which Washington will not permit to be sold to Russian companies. Any Indian decision to side clearly with a Sino-Russian-led rest or the West would clearly be a game-changer.
NATO member Turkey is playing a double game, to be sure, at least for now but appears to be gradually moving to support Sino-Russian global initiatives. In addition to seeking SCO membership and, as noted above, adopting a position of limited support for Ukraine, providing Bayrakhtar drones but undertaking the most robust efforts of any country to arrange a peace agreement, which was almost accomplished in Istanbul in April 2022. Erdogan also brokered the first Ukrainian grain export agreement, allowing transport through the Black Sea to the world, and played a role in restoring the agreement in November 2022 when a Ukrainian attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet caused Moscow to withdraw from the agreement. Erdogan’s pan-Turkic ambitions require entering the great Eurasian game driven by current events, not least of all the rise of China. Ever since the Soviet collapse, Turkey has pursued expanding influence in Central Asia. Now Ankara is developing military ties to ‘Turkish states’ across Russia’s southern arc, supplying Bayrakhtar drones to its ally Azerbaijan for use against Armenia (used in September 2022 ) and to Kyrgyzstan against Tajikistan (September 2022), both key allies of Russia in the CSTO, EEU, and SCO (https://realtribune.ru/esli-turki-poluchat-sjunik-rossiya-okazhetsya-na-obochine-istorii?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop&utm_referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fdzen.ru%2Fnews%2Fsearch%3Ftext%3D).
Nevertheless, Erdogan has maintained good working relations with Putin, and Ankara has drastically increased imports from Russia and purchased S-400 air defense systems from Moscow, provoking Western sanctions against itself. In the wake of the apparently U.S. and/or UK-led attack on Russia’s NordStream 1 and 2, Putin proposed and Turkey has agreed to develop an alternative route for gas export to Europe that will run through Turkey. Ankara has even joined tentatively Sino-Russian de-dollarization efforts. In 2019 the Turkish Central Bank signed an agreement with China’s own establishing currency exchange and swap arrangements for trade accounts with Beijing. In 2020, the latter were used for the first time. Five Turkish banks have joined the Russian payment system ‘Mir’, though Ankara was forced to suspend that cooperation under the threat of secondary U.S. Ukraine sanctions. At the recent Samarkand SCO summit, however, Erdogan and Putin agreed that Turkey will pay in rubles for 25 percent of natural gas sales to Ankara (https://inosmi.ru/20220906/kitay-255943984.html?in=t).
India and Turkey are plagued by being vulnerable to their own regional conflicts, which might force them to join one or the other camp in order to achieve their goals. These are India’s conflicts with China and Pakistan and Turkey’s conflict with Greece over Cyprus and Ankara’s continuing battle with Kurdish separatists ensconced in Syria and Iraq. Turkey, along with Hungary, is blocking Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO; Ankara doing so because of Stockholm’s and Helsinki’s support for Kurdish dissident emigres.
Other Greater Eurasian states that could sway the balance of power include Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. Other powers not located on the Greater Eurasian world island might be better positioned to organize and lead such a movement. Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Saudi Arabia could potentially play such a role, but their distance far from the Eurasian ‘front’ dictates or at least makes it easier to maintain neutrality for the foreseeable future.
EU and NATO member Hungary and EU member Serbia are minor swing states that could play a pivotal role of sorts. Both are hesitant to join the West’s coalition of sanctioners and NATO efforts to support Ukraine militarily. Hungary—to take just one—has refused to join in natural gas and other sanctions against Russia and recently blocked EU sanctions on Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill proposed by Lithuania. Budapest, like Ankara, is refusing to sign the NATO accession protocol that will finalize Finland’s and Sweden’s entry into the alliance, because of Ukraine’s violations of its Hungarian minority’s language rights.
All the state’s mentioned in this section could be organized by a great power such as India to form a third, unaligned pole in the international system. This a very real prospect.
Since the end of the Cold War, the West has embarked on self-righteous and messianic democracy promotion and an unsettling power expansion campaign. This comes on the background of a neocolonial policy that seeks to dictate the form in which developing states—many former colonial holdings of these Western states—will take by imposing by developmental models that ensure financial and economic dependency on Western-led international institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF, and international corporations based in the West. This neocolonialism and hubristic cultural and political expansion, moreover, were accompanied in western Eurasia by a provocative NATO expansion that drove Russia east.
Over the course of nearly three decades, Russia gradually has intensified its resistance to NATO expansion and come to reject the values of its sponsors, suspecting that those values were compromised or at least that they threatened Russia’s political and ontological sovereignty and security. Simultaneously, China’s encounter with the West has seen a still harshly authoritarian regime never entertain the idea of repeating the USSR’s perestroika or Russia’s democratization. Yet unlike Russia, China was never confronted with world history’s most powerful military alliance creeping towards its borders, despite a NATO promise not to expand beyond Germany. Western, especially American businesses stormed China’s party-state market, fueling China’s economic and military rise. But this then bumped up against the West’s power-maximizing democracy promotion and influence expansion aspirations. As a result of Western policies and Russian and Chinese security vigilance traditions vis-à-vis` the West, the post-Cold War Western drive to unlimited hegemony has sparked a Sino-Russian backlash and strategic partnership. That partnership is now aimed at reconstructing the world into a multipolar or bipolar world in which their own pole is insulated from Western interference. In order to insulate from Western pressures, Russia and China have begun to institutionalize an alternative global infrastructure for economic, financial, monetary, military, and political affairs in a series, a network of networks of international organizations, attracting tens of countries into their orbit, including great powers such as India.
On the Western front in this ‘new cold war’, Russia is in the vanguard, placing Russia ahead of China on the front line. Despite the more forward position, being on the front line does not make Russia the leader of the rest. As in the old Cold War there may emerge some competition between Moscow and Beijing for the top leadership position, but in the ‘new cold war’ Russia is ill-equipped to win such a contest. The leader is China, and Russia in decades to come may indeed tire of bandwagoning with and functioning as Beijing’s potentially threatened second fiddle player. On the eastern front, China continues its long march to superpower status and challenger to U.S. hegemony, aided and abetted by Russian resources and technology.
The Sino/Russian-West confrontation is becoming increasingly ideological, delineated along authoritarian-republican (democratic) lines, despite the creeping authoritarianization now unfolding in the West as a result of the COVID pandemic and now exacerbated by security concerns prompted by the new cold war. In this regard, the world may become less split apart, and the ideological component will fail to be consolidated, leading to a brutal battle for global supremacy in lieu of mature political leadership in the West, China, and Russia.
Jonathan Hillman has noted that there are constraints on the Sino-Russian partnership—trade concentrated in Russia’a energy and resource sectors, investment impinged upon by Russia’s corruption and poor infrastructure, joint digital infrastructure construction compromised by each side’s restrictions on information flows, and both parties’ fixation with control–arguing: “(A)s China and Russia’s economic connections strengthen, their partnership will become even more unequal. Russia’s junior status will become more of a liability, and Russian officials could be incentivized to reduce the risk of greater reliance on China. China’s sheer mass, proximity, and willingness to economically coerce its partners could eventually compel Russia to look again to the West, where most of its trade remains despite its growing ties with China” (Hillman, https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/200715_ChinaandRussia.pdf, p. 2). The current reality, however, is that as long as security threats emanate from the West, especially those now perceived by Russia in Ukraine and elsewhere, Moscow is unlikely to step out from behind Beijing’s reassuring economic, political, and military stature and come hat in hand seeking rapprochement with the West. And with the prospect of a powerful Sino-Russian strategic partnership or alliance, other states in Eurasia and elsewhere around the world will have reason to rally around the Greater Eurasian project and expand the extent to which the world is split apart.