Source of photo: https://www.president.ir/en/138074. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin In Tehran on 19 July 2022.
Some argue that the Ukrainian war accelerated de-Westernization, along with emerging prospects of “regional multilateralism” versus the current Western “global multilateralism”. For Kayhan BARZEGAR, Chair of the Political Science and International Relations Department of the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University, Western sanctions following the invasion could push Russia closer to Asia, potentially creating an “Asian geopolitical alliance”. In such a situation, a new bipolar world order would emerge, with the non-Western world on one side and the Western world on another.
The war in Ukraine is the result of an older geopolitical conflict in the world’s power structure, that started with the collapse of the Soviet Union and led to the dominance of Western liberal democracy. Prior to this war, developments such as NATO’s expansion to Eastern Europe, 9/11, resulting wars in the Middle East, and regional crises following the Arab Spring all added to the significance of geopolitics globally. Yet, the Ukrainian war is a turning point in that it introduced questions of territorial conflict after the Second World War that challenged the philosophy of European peace (based on Western superiority in the world order). A nuclear superpower attacks a sovereign nation, and the West, especially its military arm that is NATO, is strategically confused about how to react.
Although the war created a powerful unity among European countries and transatlantic relations, the main dilemma is how long this unity lasts. In this respect, one might note that the issue of imposing sanctions both in practical and emotional terms, will eventually split the Western world. Although Western mainstream media consciously, and often pointedly, emphasizes the Russian inability to win the war, one should not forget Russia’s geopolitical and economic power in resisting sanctions. It is also skilled at building a coalition with the non-Western world to survive and plays its traditional global role.
At present, most Asian and African countries are not supportive of Western sanctions against Russia – containing Russia, a nuclear, energy, and commodity “superpower” will hence be very challenging. Indications of this geopolitical change can be perceived in the shifting direction of the main subjects of international relations toward the world’s current economic, political and military trends. Economically, emerging economic blocks such as BRICS are strengthening, aiming to accelerate the process of de-dollarization and the formation of national mechanisms for financial transfer. At the regional level, patterns of energy import and export from Russia to Europe are shifting toward the Persian Gulf, and toward South and East Asia.
Russian foreign wealth is flowing toward Dubai and Istanbul. Regional supply chains of commodities are gradually replacing Western global supply chains. Patterns of tourism and migrations are changing at the regional and global levels. Countries’ tendency to strengthen their sources of national power through increased bilateral and multilateral relations in their neighborhood zone, which directly relates to their security, is enhanced. All this points to a geopolitical transformation, where the world order tends to be more focused on regional multilateralism to safeguard states’ economic growth and national security.
Politically, the issue of how to deal with Russia is dividing Eastern and Western Europe. Due to the geographical attachment and historical background of the Soviet presence, Eastern European countries are more exposed to Russian threats, thereby reacting in a tougher way to encircle Russia and contain its expansion. In contrast, Western European countries and the US, which are more profit-oriented, seek a rather faster compromise with Russia in the war. The US arms preserve its strategic interests namely strengthening internal unity in NATO and enhancing the transatlantic relationship, on top of securing European dependency on US energy. This changing geopolitical situation provides an opportunity for many emerging global and regional powers such as China, India, Iran, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, etc., and even the West’s conservative regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and GCC countries to realign and diversify their interests, out of the current dominant Western world order.
Militarily, the reality is that the West has no interest in confronting Russia, a nuclear superpower; this could result in a Third World War. The Ukrainian war redefined the concepts of “security guarantee” and “military deterrence.” At present, European countries give more weight to these concepts in their defensive strategies. Military deterrence and tackling security threats in light of geopolitical equations are a constant for all states. In fact, the primitive philosophy of establishing NATO immediately after the Second World War was to protect flourishing Western economies against the Eastern bloc during the Cold War.
The war in Ukraine has also changed patterns of military advancement, as well as the strategic constraints of great military powers (Russia) in conducting a prompt victory in the field. In terms of arms control, this conflict has shown that the employment of nuclear weapons in a war, even a tactical one, is limited. Yet, benefiting from new instruments such as satellite networks and technology, drones, cyber war, proxy war, artificial intelligence, etc., has taken a new form. Geopolitical situations of conflict and post-conflict eras are affecting the outcome of wars and the great powers’ political, military, and economic positions.
The West’s attempt to isolate Russia through sanctions and political pressure will lead to an Asian geopolitical alliance, consisting of Russia, China, Iran, India, Central Asia and the Caucus, and even Turkey. The logic behind this alliance is centered on “regional supply chains of commodities”, “transit diplomacy”, and the formation of “new economic corridors” which will connect the landlocked Eurasian regions to the Persian Gulf and South Asian regions, and through that, to China and East Asia.
In the new geopolitical encounter, China will be the main winner, as it will absorb global capital and flow of energy, exchange of commodities, and labor force toward the East at a faster pace, thereby weakening the US status in the world order. From a realist perspective, China would need Russia in world politics to strengthen its own position. With the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) linked to the “North-South Corridor” (INSTC) that connects Russia to India through Azerbaijan and Iran, China will gain further economic and political significance in global politics.
The recent Shanghai Cooperation (SCO) summit held in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) on September 15-16 2022, further strengthened the emergence of an Asian geopolitical alliance. The SCO’s success concept was the promotion of multifaceted cooperation through ensuring regional security. Russia attempted to use the SCO summit to break free from its Western-imposed isolation and signal to its neighbors and close allies, especially China, that the SCO could serve as an instrument to change the Western-run international order. China, on the other hand, was somewhat divided: while supporting Russian geopolitical expectations at the summit, China attempted to balance its support for such a new non-Western world, mostly due to its existing vast economic exchanges with the West.
For China, the SCO includes both geopolitical and technological functions. It is a tool through which it can secure its neighborhood zone, as well as safeguard its economic interests through increased bilateral and multilateral economic relations and land and sea connectivity of the SCO member states’ infrastructures. By this approach, China would be able to enhance regional supply chains of commodities within Eurasia, South, and West Asia regions in order to boost the unity and competency of these regions in its own favor in the non-Western world order.
In such circumstances, Russia and China, as well as other SCO members, would need Iran, India, and Turkey to complete and enhance their geopolitical position to connect with South and West Asia respectively. Interestingly enough, as a result of the Ukrainian war, Iran is becoming a place for Russian sanctions evasion, energy swap to Asia, and military and technology support. Iran is also exporting military drones and gas turbines to Russia. European countries that previously viewed the Chinese BRI positively, given the new geopolitical developments, are now referring to it as expansionist and detrimental to Western interests. In such circumstances, geopolitics is gaining greater significance in parallel to elements of technology and economy in the world order.
India will also benefit from the instigation of the INSTC to open a new trade gate for exchanging and transferring commodities from Southern Asia to Northern Russia, in St Petersburg, and in the crossroad historical cities throughout Iran and the Caucasus region. Indian foreign relations are designed as such to align the country to new geopolitical situations emerging from any regional or international development. India is well aware of the potential of a Russia-China-Iran coalition. Russian oil exports to India at a lower price are on the rise, helping Indian economic growth. As a country situated between the world’s two most important chokepoints – the straits of Hormuz and Malacca – India is becoming the hub of energy and commodities transfer in Southern and Eastern Asia.
With geopolitical developments following the Ukrainian war, Turkey has found an opportunity to simultaneously balance its relations with both Russia and the West. The country has no interest in showing that it is an extension of the US in NATO’s Southern East front, and is seeking a so-called “strategic autonomous” policy. President Erdoğan is the only NATO leader member that is bargaining and negotiating with President Putin. The Turkish President is more willing to show himself to the Turkish public as an anti-Western leader, mostly to influence the June 2023 presidential and parliamentarian elections in his own favor (the Turkish public is mostly anti-American, so Erdogan can collect more votes by this policy).
Turkey follows a pro-Ukraine policy, concurrently increasing its traditional relations with Russia. This is due to the fact that Turkey depends on Russian wheat, energy, tourism, nuclear technology, the presence of Russian oligarchs and the flow of their financial assets to Turkey. The Black Sea region has been solely steered as a condominium between Turkey and Russia after the war in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the economic and geopolitical relations between Turkey and China are increasing. Turkey sees a rising China as an opportunity in terms of economic exchanges, transfer of technology and investments. Turkey extended the import of gas from Iran for another 25 years; and the two countries, beyond their traditional trade exchanges, are reaching some agreements in their respective geopolitical influence spheres in Syria and Iraq. In the July 2022 Astana Security Process held in Tehran, Iran and Russia pressed Turkey to resort to a political solution for settling its problems on the Syrian refugees, the Kurdish issue, and the issue of the Syrian government’s opposition forces, opting for reconciliation with Damascus.
With these new geopolitical developments, Iran is also benefiting from its geographical centrality, connecting regional sub-systems in Eurasia, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia through to China. Russian commodities and energy could be transferred through Iran’s route. Imposing sanctions on Russia has increased Iran and Russia’s economic ties meaningfully for the first time. Russia’s Gazprom has signed a $40 billion MOU with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) in order to flow investment into Iran’s energy sector. Previously, Iran and China signed a “25-Year Comprehensive Partnership” economic cooperation agreement. The instigation of a “North-South Corridor” will accelerate the process of regional supply chains and energy between Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and India. This development is an opportunity for Iran to follow active economic diplomacy in its neighborhood and access landlocked Eurasian regional markets, as well as sideline routes in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Indeed, Iran could act as a connecting sea and land point through the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf in this emerging Asian geopolitical alliance.
The Ukrainian war and the return of geopolitics in world affairs have redefined the world order: a new bipolar world order is emerging in which the non-Western world is on one side and the Western world on another. The arrival of a prospective Asian geopolitical alliance will be the focus of the new geopolitical competition. Under such circumstances, the logic of geographical attachment and historical connectivity directs southern and regional countries, the so-called “Global South” bloc, towards increased relations with the world’s non-Western powers, as they seek to adjust their economic, political and military trends in an equal situation. In the great powers’ conflict, regional powers find an opportunity to stress their own geopolitical interests, implementing their independent role in the world order. The Ukrainian war has diverted the focus of great powers’ conflict from the regional conflict zones, paving the way for the emergence of regional multilateralism and cooperation.
Copyright: Alexey DRUZHININ / AFP
The article was published firstly at https://www.institutmontaigne.org/en/analysis/towards-asian-geopolitical-alliance
About the author:
is a Senior Academic Advisor at the Institute for Political and International Studies. He is also a Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the SR Branch of Azad University in Tehran. Dr. Barzegar is the former director of the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran (2010-2020), a former Research Fellow at Harvard University during 2007-2011, and a Research Fellow at LSE during 2002-2003. His works on regional and global affairs have been published widely, including in Foreign Affairs, the Washington Quarterly, Middle East Policy, World Policy Journal, and numerous English and Persian policy and academic journals. His latest publications include, "Iran’s Understanding of Strategic Stability in the Middle East," (2021), and the book entitled, Iran Regional Policy in Time (2019).