The February 4 summit in Beijing between President Xi Jinping of China and President Vladimir Putin of Russia underscored their growing strategic affinity. This assumes significance in light of the two leaders’ serious contestations with the West on a range of issues from Taiwan to Ukraine, and from security and economy to technology. Earlier in 2021, the separate summits attended by President Joe Biden of G7 leaders and NATO leaders as well as the Summit for Democracy hosted by Biden were astute endeavours to rally allies and partners against the West’s major adversaries, China and Russia.
So, has global geopolitics turned multipolar, or has multipolarity become tinged with bipolarity?
Trajectory in brief
Conventional wisdom suggests that for much of the Cold War period (1945–89), the world was bipolar, divided into the Western bloc led by the U.S. and the communist camp led by the Soviet Union. Even then, though this was accompanied by important multi-directional trends: the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) represented ‘the third way’; France, in its Gaullist colours, often followed an independent line; and following the Sino-Soviet rift, Mao’s China functioned both as a partner and competitor of the USSR, especially after the Nixon-Kissinger team deftly executed a great U.S. opening towards Beijing in 1971.
After the Cold War ended with the demise of the Soviet Union, the 1990s saw the U.S. enjoy its ‘unipolar moment’, presiding over world affairs with no rival in sight. But this was short-lived. As the 21st century opened, the rise of China, coupled with the consolidation of Eurasian powers under the Russia-India-China (RIC) forum and emerging economies under BRICS as a platform representing the new forces of South-South cooperation, brought in the brave, new multipolar world.
Another wave of change appeared after the financial crisis of 2008–09, which gathered momentum after the emergence of Xi Jinping as China’s supremo in 2012. This nation’s assertiveness began to turn into aggressive behaviour all along its periphery and globally, enhancing inter-state tensions in Asia and beyond. The Covid era (February 2020 till date) has accentuated it.
This complex political pattern has made multipolarity quite wobbly and unstable. Today’s geopolitics is like a table with two big, though uneven, legs – the U.S. and China – and several medium-sized and smaller legs such as Russia, EU, Japan, India and others.
Against the above backdrop, the Biden Administration adopted a policy that is both similar and yet different from the line of his predecessor Donald Trump who preferred to keep the U.S. focused on its internal economy. With Biden, Washington has gone for re-engagement with the world, emphasising that ‘the U.S. is back’ as the leader and reliable partner for its European and other regional allies and friends.
On the Indo-Pacific – the central theatre of global politics today – the new administration rapidly went beyond Trump’s measures. It took initiatives to develop the Quad (comprising the U.S., India, Japan and Australia) into a broader and more substantive partnership designed to tackle the China challenge in multiple domains covering security, economy and technology. That is what the two Quad summits hosted by Biden in March and September 2021 achieved. The creation of AUKUS, involving a military alliance among the U.S., UK and Australia, added strategic heft to the increasing resistance to China. The Quad foreign ministers’ meeting in Australia on February 11 will factor in new developments, including the impact of the Ukraine crisis on security in the Indo-Pacific.
Washington had foreseen the complexity and potential for differences with Russia over an array of global and European security issues. The Biden-Putin summit held in Geneva in June 2021 sought to address them. For a while, it created the impression that the U.S. was ready to implement ‘the reverse-Kissinger’ strategy in order to wean Moscow from its close embrace with Beijing, through creative diplomacy. But this effort went nowhere. That, along with NATO’s provocations on expanding its membership in formerly no-go areas, resulted in Putin deploying over 100,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, considered a buffer state for Russia. Putin demanded a ban on Ukraine’s entry into NATO and a reduction in NATO’s deployments and activities in other states bordering Russia. Not all NATO powers are in favour of the U.S. hardline. For example, Germany is concerned about its energy dependency and Ukraine does not want to become a casualty of U.S.-Russia rivalry. Multi-layered negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, NATO and Russia, and under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have remained largely unproductive so far.
In this impasse, Russia’s turning towards its strategic partner China, is expected. The message from the Beijing summit is clear: neither Russia nor China is alone, and acting in concert they represent a formidable challenge to the U.S.-led western camp which stands divided on its approach towards the two powers. The joint statement issued on the occasion stresses that relations between the two are “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era,” and adds: “Friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”.
Three key elements of the joint statement reflect a sophisticated understanding of the current reality. First, it sees the world going through momentous changes and rapid developments that amount to “multipolarity” and transformation of the world order. It blames some “actors” who are in a minority in the world to advocate “unilateral approaches to addressing international issues and resort to force.” The veiled reference is to the West, while the charge about unilateralism applies to the two signatories too, especially China.
Second, considerable space has been devoted to projecting the credentials of China and Russia as “long-standing democracies” and defenders of human rights, but such spurious claims lack credibility. Third, the statement swears by the older term ‘Asia-Pacific Region’, thus eschewing and opposing the wider use of the new coinage ‘Indo-Pacific’ favoured by the Quad powers and ASEAN. China and Russia have both expressed serious concern over the formation of AUKUS as a security partnership and called on its members “to fulfil their nuclear and missile non-proliferation commitments in good faith.”
This summit was noteworthy for Russia reiterating its support to China on the Taiwan issue, and China extending support to Russia on the Ukraine question. The People’s Daily portrayed the strengthened relationship as “an important guarantee for maintaining international strategic balance, world peace and stability.” A Russia-focused view reveals two important perceptions, according to a Carnegie paper: i) Moscow is keen “to push back on U.S. primacy in areas that it considers within its sphere of privileged interests”, and ii) “The relationship with China is at the top of Russian priorities in Asia.”
In the China-Russia sphere, bilateralism wins over multilateralism. This deep partnership, just short of a formal military alliance, is the outcome of exceptional coordination. Its fundamental motivation could be a defensive posture to confront an aggressive West, or a calculated move by the two powers, now forming a new axis, to expand their influence in Asia and Europe respectively at a time when they see American power on the decline.
China and Russia are not alone in confronting the West. Pakistan has been a time-tested partner of China’s. Prime Minister Imran Khan too was present in Beijing for the Winter Olympics and used the opportunity to conclude an agreement to finalise the second phase of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. Imran Khan is set to visit Russia soon and President Putin is likely to reciprocate, reflecting Pakistan’s moving even closer to the China-Russia axis. Iran is another strategically-placed nation that is enmeshed in long-standing disputes with the U.S. and has, therefore, built economic and energy ties with China and Russia. This emerging group of four nations portrayed as China’s Quad is another face of new multipolarity.
It is a complex multipolar world where different power centres are coalescing under two leading nations – the U.S., the No. 1 power and China, the No. 2 power. India, with its NAM heritage and lingering commitment to strategic autonomy, is faced with new challenges. Three decades after the Cold War, New Delhi finds itself participating in the summits of BRICS and Quad, in the Summit for Democracy, in the summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) dominated by authoritarian member-states, of the G7 as a special guest as well as in RIC meetings. This is how India’s policy of multi-alignment has evolved. So far, it has adequately served the country’s interests.
But what happens if the fault lines between the western camp and the emerging China-Russia-Pakistan-Iran camp widen further? This is likely if the current diplomatic impasse on Ukraine degenerates into a military conflict, or if China chooses to take Taiwan by force.
India, already handicapped by China’s refusal to resolve the border crisis in Ladakh through negotiations, needs to sharpen its diplomacy while focusing its national energy and attention to augment its military, economic, and technological power as well as soft power and social harmony.
Sharpening diplomacy should include i) further consolidation of the Quad, ii) safeguarding political, defence, energy and space cooperation with Russia, iii) deepening a strategic partnership with France, iv) persisting with a line that blends military resolve with diplomatic resilience towards China, and v) expanding its cooperative ties with willing partners in the extended neighbourhood and other regions.
This is what will keep India’s fundamental goal in constant view: to make Asia multipolar, which alone will pave the way for genuine multipolarity in the coming decades.
This article was first published in HT Insight.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House.