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China, Russia and Iran for a New World Order

Dinesh Dubey 

Strange are the ways of international politics. Four decades ago, Russia was another Super Power in a bi-polar world.  Today, most of the world prefer to call Russia as a junior partner of China. Likewise, Russia was backing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran during the ten-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Today, Iran is supplying Drones to Russia and the two have joined hands against the U.S. and its protégé in the Middle East, Israel.

Early this year, the troika of China, Iran and Russia conducted joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman from March 15-19. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian visited China a week before the joint drills while it’s president was meeting his Russian counterpart in Moscow around the same time. The troika started joint naval drills in 2019, and are continuing with regular joint exercises with the stated purpose “to strengthen security and its foundations in the region, and to expand multilateral cooperation between them.”

The visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Beijing on October 16-17 at a time when China was hosting international conference of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum, therefore, evoked much interest and curiosity in international circles. The mega event was marked by the attendance of twenty heads of states and about 130 representatives from the developing world.  

Putin and his “old friend” Xi, both called for an “immediate” cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas conflict. In response, American Senate’s Minority Leader Mitch McConnell branded China, Russia and Iran the new “axis of evil,” advocating that this “immediate threat to the United States” must be dealt with an “emergency basis.”  He employed the controversial phrase famously used by former President George W. Bush in 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, referring at the time to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as axis of evil.

Much on the expected lines, however, the leaders of China and Russia hailed each other as “old” and “dear” friends and took swipes at the United States while depicted themselves as the architects of a new world order which is “fairer and multipolar.”

China’s Belt & Road Initiative

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, used the Beijing-led conference of leaders from mostly developing countries to showcase his ambitions to reshape the global order, as the world grapples with a war in Ukraine and a fierce Israel-Hamas battle in Gaza. He cast his country as an alternative to the leadership of the United States. And he gave a prominent role to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, underscoring how central their relationship is to Mr. Xi’s vision.

The event, celebrating ten years of the Belt and Road Initiative, is centered on China’s signature foreign policy initiative, which aims to expand Beijing’s influence abroad with infrastructure projects. President Putin was treated as the guest of honor and often pictured by Xi Jinping’s side. The two leaders also met for three hours in Beijing on October 17.

The BRI was founded a decade ago to use the country’s economic might to enlarge its geopolitical heft and counter the influence of the United States and other industrialized democracies. China has since disbursed close to $1 trillion, largely in loans, to mostly developing countries to build power plants, roads, airports, telecommunications networks and other infrastructure. Xi has used China’s cash and infrastructure expertise to tie together countries across Asia, Africa, Latin America and parts of Eastern and Southern Europe.

The BRI has established for China a role in global development rivaling that of the United States and the World Bank. But for all the influence it has brought for Beijing, the initiative has contributed to unaffordable levels of debt for dozens of poor countries. China also directed contracts to its own companies and in some cases built expensive subpar projects that have not spurred economic growth.

On Middle-East Conflict

Analysts underline the state of war in Israel has cast its shadow on the ambitious India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), announced last month by the leaders of India, Saudi Arabia, United States, United Arab Emirates and Europe last month at New Delhi G20 summit. Much to the chagrin of China, the IMEC was perceived as a highly ambitious project to connect India with the key nations of the Middle East and Europe. American President Joe Biden called the project a “game changer” in the region.  

While Putin and Xi huddled in Beijing, U.S. President Biden landed in Israel on a visit aimed at preventing the war between Israel and Hamas from spreading. Though Xi did not publicly remark on the war, Putin blamed the U.S. for increasing tensions in the Middle East by sending warships to the region. He said that such regional conflicts were “shared threats that only strengthen Russo-Chinese relations.”

Beijing and Moscow have avoided condemning Hamas for its attack on Israel this month. They have, however, criticized Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and called for a revival of talks for a Palestinian state.

For China, its criticism of Israel reflects its rising assertiveness and desire to curry favor with countries in the Middle East, analysts say. China has tried to play a bigger role in the Middle East to fill a vacuum left by the exit of U.S. troops, most notably in Afghanistan. In March, China helped broker a deal to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two archrivals. Beijing has also offered to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians, though efforts have failed to gain traction.

The UNGA Resolution 

The UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution piloted by Jordan last Friday, which mustered massive support with 120 votes in favour, demonstrates a well charted out strategy of the troika to unite Islamic world and the countries of global South in their bid to make the U.S. presence in the region irrelevant. 

India decided to abstain along with 44 other countries who were insistent on pushing the idea to insert the condemnation of Hamas for initiating the war in the first place. To keep it straight, China is so openly supporting the UNGA resolution on Israel-Hamas conflict is not guided by any love to Palestinian cause, but is largely intended to keep Arab people on their right side for pure business motivations.  So is the case with Putin’s Russia that needs to compensate its economic looses as well as  its fast-dwindling political influence. 

In both Moscow and Tehran, President Xi sees like-minded partners driven by shared grievances toward the West what they call American hegemony. Xi sought to tout China as a force for stability in the world, with Mr. Putin alongside him though this was Russia that upended European security when he invaded Ukraine 21 months ago.

This anger is reflected in a speech by Xi Jinping at the opening of the BRI forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing:  “Ideological confrontation, geopolitical rivalry and bloc politics are not a choice for us…..What we stand against are unilateral sanctions, economic coercion and decoupling and supply chain disruption.”

Xi had visited Moscow in March as part of a flurry of exchanges between the two countries. China has condemned international sanctions imposed on Russia, but hasn’t directly addressed an arrest warrant issued for Putin by the International Criminal Court on charges of alleged involvement in the abductions of thousands of children from Ukraine.

Alternative World Order

The Israel-Hamas war has given a fresh opportunity for China, Iran and Russia to unite for an alternative world order. Iran as the most vocal opponent of the United States and Israel in the oil-rich Middle East plays the much needed ally for Russia and China. Its role in funding terrorist groups Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis in Yemen and twin Shia militias operating in Syria and Iraq has spoiled the regional peace.  

Despite the fact that Iran and Russia are under severe sanctions of the U.S. government, China is the largest buyer of Iranian oil and Russian arms and nuclear technology.  Among the three players, while China is expanding its footprints in much of South, South East and Central Asia, Russia plays the biggest challenger to the rising influence of the U.S. in Europe.  Likewise, Iran is poised to scuttle the American influence in the Middle East. 

Given to the new equations, India needs to play its diplomatic cards deftly and cautiously.  India’s relations with Iran and Russia have been quite friendly, and it has never been interested in antagonising China—it’s more powerful neighbour with whom it shares a huge disputed border. 

India didn’t criticise Russian invasion of Ukraine and diplomatically worked out a consensual resolution to avoid a direct hit on Russia.  It has taken a balanced position on the raging Israel-Hamas war despite the fact that Israel is a key supplier of arms and defence equipment to India.

Facing two wars in a row, the world needs more and more sane and sobering voices.  This is the high time for India to be the torch-bearer of peace in a world beset with violence, hatred and war. 

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( Author is a renowned foreign policy commentator)

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