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Multipolarity is Here to Stay, But Can the Powers Avoid War?

31 Mar 2023
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
 Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks in Beijing with General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of China Xi Jinping. Source: Presidential Executive Office of Russia/

The rhetoric this week from global leaders is moving the narrative of global war closer to reality. Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia hasn’t helped. 

Some geopolitical analysts and much of Australian media devoted thousands of words and chunks of air time to highlighting the significance of the recent three-day meeting in the Kremlin between the indicted war criminal, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and China’s president Xi Jinping.  It was hailed by some as China’s bold attempt to broker a peace deal to end the Ukraine war, an encore to Beijing’s clever diplomacy which persuaded Iran and Saudi Arabia to end to their long and bitter feud only a month earlier. They cannot have read the communiqué with due attention: the terms China offered were unacceptable to either side.

Other commentators suggested that the meeting signalled the start of a new Cold War with China and Russia on one side and the United States and much of the West on the other. What nonsense! It cannot be in the interests of any one of these three world powers to do so. In Washington DC these days, it is widely accepted that the US and China will be at war within two or three years – a proposition often stated as fact. A US Army general made just this prediction in Australia recently. And at the time of submitting this article, a flash on my screen reports Foreign Affairs magazine as quoting Xi as telling the Peoples’ Congress he too is preparing for war.

What is the real purpose of the Putin–Xi meetings? After all, three days is a long time for political discussions, and reported detail was sparse. Xi may think Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a miscalculation, but did not say so, instead making it very clear he sees him as a “strong leader.” Rodger Baker of Stratfor’s Center for Applied Geopolitics points out that Beijing has made considerable efforts in recent years to improve its security situation on its Pacific flank, with very substantial spending on its Navy; but China is mainly reliant on Russia to protect it from an encroaching NATO, particularly with Finland about to swell its ranks, and has also benefited from large imports of Russian oil and gas, and access to Russia’s technologies.

Putin and Xi posed for official pictures sitting, formally attired, in front of an ornate fireplace, either side of a small table bearing a large bowl of white flowers. The “stage” seemed empty of energy and character, perhaps like the meeting itself. The reality is that we are witnessing a steady journey back to a multipolar world. The idea of a world polarised between the West and Russia/China has been engraved on us by the relatively recent memories of two world wars, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, and the so-called Pax America. But we all, and especially Australians, need to snap out of this mindset. The “great divide” no longer exists. Nor is there a clean split between democracies and autocracies. India may be the world’s largest democracy by population, but Narendra Modi is helping Putin to evade sanctions and there are questions even about his commitment to democratic institutions.

The Economist newspaper has produced an interesting analysis of “Putin’s Pals,” which highlights the widespread differences among countries who support him. I have mentioned India; Turkey and South Africa are among others. Turkey, a NATO member, is frustrating its allies on both sides of the Atlantic by seeking to block the organisation’s expansion to include Sweden and Finland. A decade ago, Turkey was seeking to join the European Union, now it is helping Putin’s Russia evade EU sanctions, while at the same time providing drones and missiles to Ukraine.

South Africa is also a conflicted country, freed from the bondage of apartheid by the great African National Congress leader, Nelson Mandela. I first met the great man when he emerged from 27 years in the Robbin island jail.  Since then, the new South Africa has struggled to live up to the hopes and dreams of the world. Understandably, many Africans reflect on the continent’s colonial history and many leaders have been quick to embrace anti-imperialistic views. Over the years, Russia and China, both heavy investors in Africa, have contributed to the diminishing European influence. So, it was not altogether surprising to see South Africa undertaking joint military exercises with Russia off its shores in recent months.

As policymakers, diplomats and observers seek to come to grips with a multipolar world, what should the priorities be? First, the “great powers” should pay their dues to mankind by working to avoid World War III rather than anticipating it. Given the chatter within the Washington Beltway, threats from the Kremlin, intelligence from China, and the news that Iran is only days away from refining nuclear – capable uranium, this is urgent.

Secondly, we need to reform global governance; the present structure of the United Nations is not fit for purpose. There should be a careful assessment of the panoply of UN agencies, some of which are more valuable than others. Just this week, Germany, strongly supported by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, was demanding that the World Bank undertake “fundamental reform as early as next month” of its lending policies to ensure the lender “leads the way on climate action, pandemic control and crisis prevention.” Yellen and Germany’s development minister Svenja Schulze, who is Berlin’s governor on the World Bank board, this weekend will signal they and other shareholders will use the Bank’s spring meeting to push for this change.

There are many other global projects which could benefit from a broader international focus, from an effective G-20 or a G-50, both better alternatives than the narrow Atlantic-centric G7. A good example is China’s much vaunted Belt and Road initiative, designed to transform links and infrastructure between East Asia and Europe through the “Stans.” According to a study supported by the World Bank, Harvard’s Kennedy School, and the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, China has had to bail out 128 operations in 22 debtor countries worth a total of US$240 bn. This huge project designed to build China’s reputation has had the opposite effect in many debtor countries, many of which are also on the International Monetary Fund support list.

The big question for Australians is our dependency on the United States. On the one hand the value of the ANZUS treaty, which for some is pure gold and others questionable, is debatable. Moreover, there are still millions of Americans prepared to vote for Donald Trump, despite irrefutable evidence that he sought to overturn the legitimate election of Joe Biden and openly supported the attack on Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021 where five people died. Until we get a clearer idea of the post-2024 leadership of America, Australia will be best served by continuing to build strong relations with its friends in Asia Pacific.

Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster, public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017. Colin is an editor at large with Australian Outlook.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.