There is no new cold war, the West is just losing influence in Eurasia

Posted: August 6, 2020 in South China Morning Post
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

New piece for the South China Morning Post, exploring the shifting Eurasian dynamics around China. My manuscript looking at China across this space is now with the publisher, so should be landing sometime in the near future.

There is no new cold war, the West is just losing influence in Eurasia

Is there a new axis between China, Russia and Iran against the West? Not quite. Beneath the surface of the anti-US alliance, there are undercurrents of hostility and scepticism. Across Eurasia, there is also a reluctance to take sides

Raffaello Pantucci

Published: 1:00am, 31 Jul, 2020

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A global conflict like the Cold War needs two sides. To the West, a new axis between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran appears to be taking shape. Drawing on the common thread of anti-Americanism, this alignment strengthens the sphere of influence that China has been building across Eurasia.

But in these very places where China has been most actively cultivating allies, underlying fears and concerns consistently undermine Beijing’s approach. Still, the arc of these relationships continues to bend in Beijing’s favour, and little the West offers by way of confrontation has been able to entirely break it. We are seeing less a new bifurcation than a gradual freezing out of Western influence.

The China-Iran-Russia coalition has been a long time in the making. Most recently, it has been expressed in attempts by Moscow and Beijing to protect Tehran from American sanctions. Bilaterally, China and Iran are in the process of signing a 25-year strategic agreement, while China and Russia are parroting each other’s narratives of the United States and advancing similar conspiracy theories about the source of Covid-19.

The three recently established, with Pakistan, a new grouping to focus on Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops. None of this is especially new, as it builds on a long history of cooperation between the three. According to some reports, they may have shared intelligence to take down US intelligence networks within their countries; late last year they held joint naval exercises.

Military sales between the three are substantial, and they have cooperated diplomatically at the UN to stymie Western goals. Yet this coalition masks deep tensions at the official and public levels. Chinese companies may seem willing to step into contracts abandoned by European firms in Iran, but until recently they were more fearful of US secondary sanctions than the importance of China’s relationship with Iran.

As for Russia, its detention of a prominent Arctic academic on accusations of spying for China hints at an undercurrent of hostility in the countries’ hard-power relations.

Iranian officials have complained publicly about China’s Covid-19 information, while Russian officials have targeted ethnic Chinese for racial profiling amid coronavirus fears. And while Russia and Iran might be fighting on the same side in Syria, neither trusts the other’s long-term intentions in the Middle East.

At the public level, scepticism about China is prevalent in both Russia and Iran. With conspiratorially minded audiences, it does not take long to find voices wary of Chinese economic influence. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is trying to ride this wave, ahead of next year’s presidential election.

This translates more widely into other geopolitical relationships that cut across the loose coalition. Both Moscow and Beijing have close relationships with Saudi Arabia, which theoretically contradict their alliance with Tehran. And both Moscow and Tehran have close relationships with India, China’s foil in Asia with whom it is currently locked in an aggressive land confrontation.

But there is a ruthless pragmatism at work across the three countries and the broader region. The heart of Eurasia is increasingly a Chinese-dominated space in which the cold logic of realism reigns supreme. The idealism advanced by liberal Western democratic powers is being crowded out by China’s pursuit of economic prosperity above all else.

And it is striking to see how this logic applies even to relationships in which China seems more bent on confrontation. In Kazakhstan, there appears to be a low-level information war with China, with instances of nationalistic Chinese reporting on Kazakhstan causing friction at an official level. Yet, the two countries continue to want to work closely together.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi still seems uncertain as to how far he can push tensions with China. His decision to ban Chinese mobile apps seems toothless at best, even as his officials continue to actively participate alongside Beijing in multilateral forums like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Russia-India-China grouping.

And while he may have rhetorically moved towards the so-called Quad and Washington, his long-term future remains bound to Beijing, a reality he can hardly change, notwithstanding the current Indian media narrative.

And even if India did shift dramatically and aggressively against China, it is not clear that this would create a Western democratic bulwark within the region. Quite aside from India’s historical hedging strategy with regard to the West, Russia and China, there are concerns about India’s treatment of its Muslim minorities.

Some of India’s Muslim-majority neighbours have escalated these concerns, though they have a habit of doing so only when it suits their interests – much like how the issue of Xinjiang is raised selectively.

This is the reality of the situation in the heart of Eurasia – a complicated mess where idealism is in the rear-view mirror. There is a continuing narrative of a new cold war, but this time, the non-Western bloc is not a clearly unified structure.

Although Russia and Iran are close enough to be willing to overlook their differences in favour of China, theirs remains a skin-deep alliance. In the region, even among the like-minded powers that would more naturally fall on the American-led side, there is a confused picture – and no one really wants bifurcation.

We are not entering a new cold war, just seeing the gradual freezing out of the West in the Eurasian heartland.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

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