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  Opinion   Columnists  23 Apr 2023  Saeed Naqvi | Russia-China and West: Who’s on top as new world order emerging?

Saeed Naqvi | Russia-China and West: Who’s on top as new world order emerging?

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi
Published : Apr 24, 2023, 12:50 am IST
Updated : Apr 24, 2023, 12:50 am IST

Mr Macron’s persistent advice to Europe has been to disengage from US policies, whether in Ukraine or in Taiwan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: AP)
 Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: AP)

When my first khaki uniform, web belt, beret and army shoes were packed in a black trunk in readiness for my coverage of Chhamb in the western sector during the 1971 Pakistan war, my great aunt, Nani Ammi, lifted the Quran in her right hand, a sort of holy gateway under which I was to pass.

She then produced two Imam Zamins, or amulets. One she tied around my right arm as guarantor of my protection. The other amulet I was to carry for my cousin Akbar, a major on the other side, who she was convinced would meet me at night when the guns fall silent.

My great aunt’s touching naivete about warfare came back to me as if it were yesterday. A cocksure anchor, updating the Ukraine conflict, rolled her eyes and asked knowingly: “Who is winning the war?” These are the facts: Volodymyr Zelenskyy hasn’t yet thrown in the towel. Vladimir Putin hasn’t faced an anti-war rebellion in the Kremlin. President Joe Biden can’t be losing since he’s thinking of a second term. So, which way has the war gone? Is it at a deadlock? Has nothing happened in over a year since Russian troops crossed into Ukraine on February 24, 2022?

This war was about a world order that would end Western hegemonism which I dare say is in its last throes.

The date of the Russian invasion will be prominent in history books for millennia. But there are even more important dates which, according to my lights, begin with the partnership “without limits” signed in the Kremlin by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, plus the “new era” in ties between the two spelt out by Mr Xi during Mr Putin’s visit to Beijing on February 4, 2022. While the pretty anchor is trying to come up with a victor in Ukraine, may I suggest she cast her eyes across the globe, even West Asia, where signs of victory and defeat are already under way.

China, with Russia’s robust backing, is altering the key dynamics in the region. Take the Saudi-Iran rapprochement. I remember Henry Kissinger giving the Palestinian issue relatively low saliency because the Arab world was riven by the Shia-Sunni divide.

The West never juxtaposed the Shah’s Iran as Shia versus a Sunni Arab world. They were both allies. The “godless” Chinese understood the divide as a political ploy, which could only be resolved politically. 

Yaroslav Trofimov’s brilliant book The Siege of Mecca details Juhayman al Otaybi and his followers’ siege of Islam’s holiest mosque in 1979 as the revolution was toppling the Shah in Tehran. The book established what the Chinese also knew: the existential threat to the Saudis was from the Otaybi variant of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was at the root of what subsequently bloomed as Al-Qaeda. It was easy sailing during the “sole superpower” moment. As the Saudis sensed Washington’s grip on the world order slacken, it clasped with alacrity the new future with Iran.

Just as one assassination in Sarajevo led to a chain of events that became the First World War, an unexpected breakthrough for peace between apparently implacable foes leads to a chain reaction.

A lasting peace is very much on the cards between Yemen and Saudi Arabia after an elaborate exchange of prisoners. The consolidation of this peace is because of the Saudi-Iran deal, owing to Chinese diplomacy. The Houthis of Yemen will have time to attend to other details of the regional mosaic. Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza are now relatively free of their Saudi and other GCC anxieties and can focus on Israel and, of course, the US bases in the area.

Some days ago, Turkish, Syrian and Iranian officials were in Moscow. While a Syria-Turkish rapprochement suits Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he faces elections on May 14, Bashar al-Assad’s advisers do not wish to shut the option for an opening with the multi-party alliance in the Opposition. As part of the frenetic activity, the Syrian foreign minister was in Riyadh on the day when Iranian technical teams were negotiating details on the exchange of ambassadors. 

So far, so good. But Riyadh’s real nervousness is with the Akhwan, or the Brotherhood, who are simmering under Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s repression in Egypt. The US was divided over the election of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012. The White House and state department favoured a gamble on democratic openness, but the Pentagon, where Israel is rather more influential, dug its heels in for Mr Morsi’s ouster. The Saudis, pleased as punch, turned up with $8 billion to stabilise Sisi. That was then. Radical changes have gripped the region since. In the midst of so much change, will the Sisi dictatorship survive? The possible re-emergence of the Brotherhood will give them coherence with Hamas in Gaza, much to Israel’s chagrin. 

These are the stories the anchor at the outset of this column may like to mull over as she looks for victors in Ukraine. 

French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beijing would have been a breach in the Western façade by itself, but the breach is much more pronounced as EU president Ursula von der Leyen, a Western hawk on Ukraine, also accompanied Mr Macron’s peace mission. Mr Macron’s persistent advice to Europe has been to disengage from US policies, whether in Ukraine or in Taiwan.

I hope this is a wide enough gap in the much-touted Western unity which the anchor of our narrative must begin to realise indicates success or a setback. She will justifiably complain I have not balanced the story. True. After all, the US has opened an embassy in far-off Vanuatu to further encircle China.

Tags: russia ukraine tensions, president vladimir putin, emmanuel macron