OPINION: Emerging economies are now flexing their muscles as competing centres of power, and the rest of the world will have to make tough choices as to which axis they are allied with, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
Russia has been under fire from the West for some time, but China has been noticeably silent when it came to Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008, or the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
But growing interference by Western powers in China’s own sphere of influence has given China and Russia common cause, and they have finally come out standing shoulder to shoulder against Western military encroachment.
Last week the two powers made public a 5 000 word agreement between them heralding a new era of friendship which “has no limits.”
The leaders of China and Russia had met ahead of the opening ceremony of the winter Olympics in Beijing, and it was the first meeting President Xi Jinping had held in person with a foreign counterpart in two years.
The agreement stated that “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in common adjacent regions…both nations intend to counter interference by outside forces in international affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose colour revolutions, and will increase co-operation”.
China further said that the world should not be divided into the kind of power blocs that defined the era when the Soviet Union and the US were dominant superpowers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin characterised the China-Russia relationship as having taken on an unprecedented character, and the two countries were committing to supporting each other’s development.
While the China and Russia have often tended to take common positions on issues relating to international peace and security, their most recent display of unity in the face of hostile positions taken by the West is somewhat of a watershed moment. It sends a message to the West that an attack on the other will not be tolerated.
This ups the stakes in the escalating tensions over Ukraine, and makes a potential military conflagration all the more dangerous.
China has long been aggrieved by Western interference in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and the undermining of its “one China policy”.
China has also been frustrated by what it perceives as attempts by the West to reduce China’s control over the South China Sea, which it maintains it has historical sovereign rights over, and it has consistently reiterated its commitment to freedom of the seas.
Nato’s attempts to encircle China have been perceived as a real threat to China’s national security interests, and the moves to position Nato forces and missiles in Russia’s backyard presents just as much of a threat to China. Hence a united front between the two powers was inevitable.
Solidarity against perceived Western aggression is now being formally articulated. The China-Russia agreement states, “The sides oppose further enlargement of Nato and call on Nato to abandon ideologised and Cold War approaches.”
China has made an unprecedented clarification of its position by siding with Russia on its key security demand of the West - an end to Nato expansion to the east and closer to Russia’s borders.
In discussions with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was categorical when he said that Russia’s security concerns about Nato expansion are legitimate and must be addressed.
Russia maintains that the US is exaggerating when it talks about the possibility that Russia may invade Ukraine. Russia’s overarching concern remains the fact that the West has ignored its demand for security guarantees.
What is also significant is that China has undertaken to help Russia evade punitive Western sanctions. The US State Department has responded by issuing a warning that the West has an array of tools to deploy against foreign companies, including in China, that help Russia evade punitive sanctions.
Despite Western threats, China and Russia are moving forward in strengthening their co-operation, not only on security matters, but in a host of other areas such as in space, on climate change, the internet and in artificial intelligence.
They have also made clear that there is not a “one size fits all” type of democracy. The areas of collaboration are explicitly spelt out in their recently signed agreement. Both countries are also forging ahead with their joint military exercises and naval operations.
The latest developments are of particular interest for South Africa considering that China and Russia are our BRICS allies as well as important trading partners.
What these developments signal is the emergence of a new world order in which the US is being challenged as a global hegemon, and Nato is not seen as the cornerstone of international peace and security as much as the West wishes it was.
Emerging economies are now flexing their muscles as competing centres of power, and the rest of the world will have to make tough choices as to which axis they are allied with.
* Shannon Ebrahim, Group Foreign Editor