For the past year, Nato countries, led by the US, have strived to nudge the rest of the world into providing military aid for Ukraine and sanctioning Russia, in the hope of isolating the latter. They have, by and large, failed on both counts. Western officials might point out that 141 of 193 countries supported a recent UN resolution demanding Russia withdraw from Ukraine, but the 32 abstaining countries included China, India, Pakistan and South Africa — which alone account for around 40% of the global population.
Despite the West’s attempts to “globalise” the conflict, only 33 nations — representing just over one-eighth of the global population — have imposed sanctions on Russia and sent military aid to Ukraine: the UK, US, Canada, Australia, South Korea, Japan and the EU — in other words, those countries that are directly under the US sphere of influence, which in many cases involves a significant US military presence. The remaining nations, comprising close to 90% of the world’s population, have refused to follow suit. If anything, the war has actually strengthened Russian relations with a number of major non-Western countries, including China and India, and accelerated the rise of a new international order in which it is the West that looks increasingly isolated, not Russia.
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Since the invasion, China has hugely increased its purchases of Russian oil, gas and coal, while exporting far more machinery, manufactured products and high-end electronics in the other direction; they have boosted their bilateral trade by more than 30%. The two countries have also committed to significant investment and infrastructure projects through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the world’s largest regional grouping in terms of geographic scope and population, which also includes India, Pakistan, Iran and all the major Central Asian republics. Moreover, as a result of Western sanctions, they have been forced to rely on rouble-yuan trade instead of using the dollar, which has enhanced the yuan’s reserve currency status.
On last month’s anniversary of the Russian invasion, Wang Yi, Beijing’s most senior diplomat, said that China was committed to “strengthen[ing] and deepen[ing] the Sino-Russian friendship” and “promot[ing] mutually beneficial cooperation in all areas”. Even more significantly, the two countries have increasingly been speaking with one voice about the need for a more balanced international order, explicitly framing their collaboration as one aimed at weakening the West’s dominance in global affairs. China, in particular, has implicitly embraced Russia’s view, espoused by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, that “this is not about Ukraine at all… It reflects the battle over what the world order will look like”. In this context, it should come as no surprise that Beijing and Moscow have maintained the steady pace of their joint military exercises, nor that Xi is due to meet Putin in Moscow today.
America’s increasingly aggressive posture towards China has only fuelled the perception, among Beijing’s elites, that they are united with Russia against the West in an existential fight for survival. Xi recently issued an unusually blunt rebuke of US policy, in which he accused Washington of being engaged in a campaign to suppress China: “Western countries — led by the US — have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country’s development,” he was quoted as saying by state media. This represents a significant departure from China’s traditionally measured approach. It followed the publication, by China’s foreign ministry, of an unusually critical document titled US Hegemony and Its Perils, which claimed that America has “acted… to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, pursue, maintain and abuse hegemony, advance subversion and infiltration, and willfully wage wars, bringing harm to the international community”.
The problem for the US, and for the West, is that this message is starting to resonate around the world. Many non-Westerners feel that the US is in no position to lecture other countries about the sanctity of sovereignty, territorial integrity, international law and the so-called rules-based order. They recognise that the US has violated these principles before — most recently with the disastrous invasions and bombing campaigns against Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. This is why the West’s attempt to frame the conflict in Ukraine as a moral struggle of “good versus evil” elicits unease among many non-Westerners, especially in those countries that have been on the receiving end of Western colonial endeavours.
For instance, The Washington Post marked last month’s anniversary by publishing a series of interviews with people in South Africa, India and Kenya; it concluded that they hold “a deeply ambivalent view of the conflict, informed less by the question of whether Russia was wrong to invade than by current and historical grievances against the West”. It is one of several African countries that have refused to side with Kyiv.
For several countries, it’s not just that they’re unwilling to sacrifice their own interests for Ukraine; it’s partly about taking a stand against the West. As Clement Manyathela, a popular South African radio host, explained: “When America went into Iraq, when America went into Libya, they had their own justifications that we didn’t believe, and now they’re trying to turn the world against Russia…. I still don’t see any justification for invading a country, but we cannot be dictated to about the Russian moves on Ukraine. I honestly feel the US was trying to bully us.”
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that South Africa is among those countries which have chosen to strengthen ties with Russia. During a visit by Lavrov in January, the South African foreign minister Naledi Pandor referred to the two nations as “friends” and hailed their “growing economic bilateral relationship”, along with their “political, economic, social, defence and security cooperation”. Most conspicuously, South Africa joined last month’s military exercises with Russia and China.
India has also openly defied the West on Ukraine. It recently announced that its trade with Russia had grown 400% since the invasion, mostly due to a 700% increase in its import of petroleum-related products — a result of its refusal to abide by the Western-imposed Russian oil price cap. Russia also remains India’s largest arms supplier. In an effort to justify these decisions, India’s government has assumed an explicit narrative about the historic significance of its break with Western foreign policy diktats. As Venkatesh Varma, India’s former ambassador to Russia, wrote last month: “In not accepting the Western framing of the Ukraine conflict… India stood its ground and that ground raised India’s global stature.”
How long will this last? Recent developments certainly aren’t tipping the global balance in favour of the West. On the one hand, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Nato’s strategy in Ukraine isn’t working: not only is Ukraine facing heavy losses, while the West unable to keep up with Ukrainian demands for ammunition and equipment, but the sanctions have hurt Western countries, as well as developing ones. On the other, the financial crisis triggered by the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank is yet another reminder of the intrinsic instability of the West’s hyper-financialised brand of capitalism.
Only last week, America’s global standing took another hit with the signing of a historic agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia brokered by China (while, it should be noted, the Saudi foreign minister was in Moscow). As part of the deal, Iran has agreed to stop arming Houthis in Yemen, potentially paving the way to a resolution to the nine-year-long Yemeni war. Writing in Newsweek, David H. Rundell, a former chief of mission at the American Embassy in Saudi Arabia explained that the deal will be seen as “a watershed moment for Chinese influence in the Middle East”, while further eroding America’s already poor reputation in the region.
All these developments suggest a radical geopolitical realignment is underway which is hastening the demise of American global supremacy. This is confirmed in a recent global study carried out by the EU-funded European Council on Foreign Relations — tellingly titled “United West, divided from the rest”. It found that, while the US and Europe are growing closer, they are increasingly politically alienated from the rest of the world. The proxy war in Ukraine “marks both the consolidation of the West and the emergence of the long-heralded post-Western international order”, characterised by a strong desire for a more even distribution of global power among multiple countries — namely, multipolarity. It concludes that, even if Ukraine somehow managed to win the war, “it is highly unlikely” that a US-led liberal world order will be restored. Instead, “the West will have to live as one pole of a multipolar world”.
It confirmed the findings of a second study, carried out by the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy last October which was based on data from 137 countries that represent 97% of world population. While some upper-income countries in South America, the Asia-Pacific and Eastern Europe have become more pro-American, it concluded that “across a vast span of countries stretching from continental Eurasia to the north and west of Africa, we find the opposite — societies that have moved closer to China and Russia over the course of the last decade”. For the first time, China and Russia are now narrowly ahead of the US in their popularity among developing countries — that is, among the overwhelming majority of the world’s population.
Today, as Xi and Putin sit down to discuss the future of Ukraine, the implication of this is clear. China and Russia are not decoupling from the West; rather, the West is decoupling from the rest of the world.
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