Regionalism: vanguard of alternative world order

Regionalism: vanguard of alternative world order

Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan May 19, 2024
The author is postdoctoral scholar at the International Affairs Department of Kazan Federal University (KFU) Russia


On 16 May, President Vladimir Putin went on a state visit to China. This was his first Chinese visit after taking over as President for his fifth term in Russia. Both Russia and China are celebrating 75th anniversary of their diplomatic ties this year. Both leaders have met each other many times and are taking the Russia-China relationship to a new level. This friendly relation between the two countries matters a lot not just for the region but for the entire world. Globally, China is seeking to replace the US as global hegemon and Russia is standing right at its back. What both powers seek is the renewal of the concept of peace and security and fairness and justice in the world which is being pushed forward as an alternative world order that both powers represent. The big event that has let down the US global credibility is its support of Israel in the military campaign against Gaza and it has added lot of conviction to what both leaders of China and Russia have to say. Today they sound more convincing and more reliable and the US less and less persuasive to lead the world. Some of the achievements of Russia and China and other countries that are joining them to push the alternative order are important to understand as they are a reflection of how the US is gradually ceding space to them in global governance but also losing its credibility as well.

Both Russia and Iran have to their credit the feat of keeping Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria. It stands out as a great achievement considering what Syria went through after the civil war in 2011. Both the US and Israel desperately wanted a regime change in Syria but Russia and Iran acted together to prevent that. Both Russia and China have also helped Iran against the impact of US sanctions. Together they have shielded Iran and helped it maintain a sustainable economy. China is buying more oil from Iran than it ever did since 2020 and Russia’s exports to Iran have increased by more than 27% since 2022. It is the same Russia which in 2015 helped West to bring Iran into the nuclear deal. President Trump reversed the deal as Israel never supported it and today Iran refuses all US efforts to renegotiate it and continues to enrich uranium. Russia has also unfrozen the Iranian and North Korean assets in the banks in Russia that were frozen due to US sanctions. Russia and Iran have also signed a bilateral agreement in 2023 to trade in future in the local currencies. Both China and Russia made Iran the member of SCO last year raising its status from being an observer to become a permanent member. Iran has also been invited to join BRICS. Put simply, the powers that are the creators and pushers of the alternative world order are doing everything that they can to enhance the Iranian regimes regional and global standing and its legitimacy. The message to the US by both Russia and China is clear that unlike what it has done during the unipolar moment of the world and specially during the Arab Spring — ditching its allies and partners — China and Russia will not do this and stand behind them. This I guess is a good indicator of how the Russian and Chinese power is turning into influence and creating space in the international system for dominance and control.

Let’s not forget that China has rolled out a red carpet for Russia at a time when Russian forces are advancing in Ukraine. Considering that President Putin’s delegation also includes top defence and security officials the message being sent to the US is pretty clear: both powers as strategic partners will stand up to any US encroachment in the region. Russian economy is reliant on China but China also benefits from the partnership. Last year Russia replaced Saudi Arabia as the largest supplier of crude oil to China and mutual trade between the two countries touched $240 billion. Moscow demonstrates the capability to upgrade the Chinese and the Iranian military capabilities. To China, Russia offers submarine technology, aircraft engines and sensing satellites. To Iran, Russia has been able to offer advance fighter aircraft, air defence systems and cyber capabilities to help Iran shield itself against any Israeli aggression. Even North Korea was helped by Russia this year to launch its spy satellite after it had failed to do that twice in the previous year.

Mao once termed North Korea as the “lips that protected the teeth”. Close geographic proximity and strategic and geopolitical considerations have only enhanced the bilateral defence and strategic partnership between the two countries. Economically, North Korea’s reliance on China is huge. It carries out more than 80% of trade with its neighbour. There is a strategic reason why the teeth would never bite the lips. China faces a security dilemma similar to what Russia faces in case of Ukraine. Loss of North Korea would mean China would lose its buffer against West and would allow the presence of American forces right on its door steps and along 1416km of border that it shares with the country. China cannot afford this as it does not want a distraction from its commitments in the East China Sea and the Sea of Taiwan.

Economic security and military regionalisation are the vanguard of the alternative world order that both Russia and China lead. Both powers will first execute a strategic hold in the region before they challenge the US global hegemony. China is likely to showcase 9 aircraft carriers in western pacific and Indian Ocean by the end of 2030. The culmination of CPEC with Pakistan will enable it to use the Gwadar port not only for military purposes but to ensure that the much-needed oil from the Gulf countries is transported through Gwadar to the western part of China which it plans to industrialise and modernise.

Pakistan cannot stay aloof from the fast-developing change in the region. India despite being a defence and strategic partner of the US has signed a deal with Iran to take over the management of Chabahar port for the next ten years. In that is a lesson for us that our foreign policy should not revolve just around the US but we must invest in our relationship with powers in the East.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2024.

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