Articles and Commentaries |
July 1, 2024

POWER PLAY: THE CHINA, RUSSIA, IRAN, NORTH KOREA AXIS (CRIK)

Written By: Lt Gen Raj Shukla

Abstract

The world is in the throes of an intensifying contest between what seems to be a crumbling old order (USA-led West) and a rivalrous new Axis that is struggling to be born: China-Russia-Iran-North Korea (CRIK). This article seeks to analyse the nature of the emerging power play in terms of the following:

  • Geo-Strategic Context
  • CRIK as a Geopolitical Conglomerate
  • The Wider Karma Bhoomi: BRICS & The Global South
  • Pushback by the USA led West
  • Prospects for the Future
At the Kremlin on 22nd of March 22, 2023
Forging A New Strategic Compact

Xi Jinping: “There are changes happening, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years. Let’s drive those changes together.

Vladmir Putin: “I agree.”

 

Geo-Strategic Context

Award-winning journalist John Pilger recounts Chairman Mao’s fervent appeal to Washington in 1944: “China must industrialise; this can only be done by free enterprise. Chinese and American interests fit together economically and politically. America need not fear that we will not be cooperative. We cannot risk crossing America; we cannot risk any conflict.” He received no reply[1].

Mao’s successors, a while later, decided to join the system and beat the USA at its own game—capitalism & innovation—and are now in bed with its bête noire Russia to challenge the American-led order. Russia and China sense opportunity, perhaps even smell blood, at the prospect of a visible decline in American power and are coming together in the hope of hastening the latter’s fall. We are, therefore, in a new kind of Cold War—one in which to quote Henry Kissinger, we are now closer to the mountain passes than the foothills[2] (he said this in 2020). By 2021, in Dr. Kissinger’s view, the Cold War had moved “through the mountain pass,” and was now “on a precipice.”[3] In this war, one protagonist is the USA-led West. In the antagonist camp, China has replaced the Soviet Union, and is partnering with its successor, Russia (the prickly past, notwithstanding), in a very consequential ‘friendship without limits.’ Iran and North Korea (the hop over of Iran is significant because not very long ago, when the JCPOA was being negotiated, Russia, USA, and China were on one side while Iran was on the other) have strengthened the sinews of this New Axis significantly. Three decades after the end of the first Cold War, the USA finds itself in a volatile rivalry with the two other nuclear powers—China and Russia, in a world far more complex and dangerous than it was a half-century ago[4]. The evolving power play has created the precise construct that Kissinger had warned about—a Bear-Dragon tandem in such delightful synchrony, that the USA is now faced with a humongous challenge: that of the Russian storm and the Chinese climate change, all together and all at once.

The New Axis has not only performed well in the Ukrainian and West Asian theatres of war but is also looking towards the global south (125 countries, 80% of the global population, 40 % of global GDP) as its wider ‘Karam Bhoomi’ with a rapidly expanding BRICS (the five original members have become ten and as many as fifty-nine from Thailand to Nigeria and Turkey are waiting to join) as the chosen instrument of delivery.

The state of global dysfunctionality today is so severe that there is a real possibility of the world getting divided into two sets of rules, orders, economies, and the internet. This potential division could have far-reaching implications for global affairs.[5]

What, then, is the nature of the New Axis? Is it merely a short-term convergence of interests, or are we witnessing the birth of a new, long-term geopolitical conglomerate? What are its objectives? What has it achieved thus far? What are the possible pointers and prospects for the future? These questions invite us to delve deeper into the complexities of this emerging global power axis.

 

CRIK As a Geopolitical Conglomerate

The centrepiece of the Axis is China, where, behind the patina of capitalism, there is still a Communist Party in charge, one driven by Marxism and Leninism.[6] Yet, the Axis seems to be driven less by ideological congruence and more by a desire to challenge the USA, its worldview, and what some analysts describe as ‘a hyper power stomping all over the world.’[7] Noted Chinese commentator Eric Lee, claims that Chinese ambitions are modest in relation to its weight – “We do not want to run the Asia-Pacific, let alone the world. All we want is that America should stop dominating the Asia-Pacific and the world”. Aggression and hegemonic ambitions are not Chinese culture, he asserts. “We built the Great Wall to keep the barbarians out, not to invade them.”[8]

Putin and Xi have met more than forty times; they are focused on combining their power and influence to stand up to the United States, frustrate US ambitions and speed along what they believe is America’s inevitable decline.[9] The Sino-Russian relationship is closer than at any time since the Korean War. It was in 2014 that the proximity began to grow – Russia, under sanctions after the annexation of Crimea, was looking for friends, and Xi was beginning to get more assertive about his foreign policy. Between 2013 and 2021, China’s share of Russian external trade doubled from ten to twenty per cent; between 2018 and 2022 Russia supplied 83 % of China’s arms imports – helping the Chinese military grow its air defense, anti-ship and submarine capacities significantly to make it a formidable military instrument in the Western Pacific.[10]

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 accelerated the process; the meeting in the Kremlin of March 2023, alluded to at the head of this article, may have sealed the romance with a kiss. North Korea, Iran and China, cumulatively, have contributed in substantial measure to the military resurgence of Russia in the Ukraine conflict. North Korea has supplied Hwasong-11A missiles and artillery munitions (2.5 million rounds), while the Iranians have supplied more than 3,700 low-cost Iranian drones. Three hundred thirty of these drones are now being manufactured locally, in Tatarstan (in Russia), every month for use in the Ukrainian theatre. The Iranians have leveraged the data generated in the Ukrainian theatre, carried out qualitative upgradations, and demonstrated the consequential prowess on Apr 14, 2024 (the missile-drone barrage on Israel). China, too, it is now clear as daylight, has supplied an array of military equipment to resurge the Russian war effort and re-invigorate its military-industrial complex: engines for drones, parts for jet fighters, radar & communication jamming equipment, precision machine tools, micro-electronics (for use in missiles & glide bombs) as also CNC machines (while the technical translation is ‘computer numerical control’ in practice the terms alludes to computer-controlled instruments used for metal processing and manufacture of munitions and aircraft).

In the first six months of 2023, Russia received drone shipments from Chinese trading companies valued at USD 14.5 million, while Ukraine received only USD 200,000 worth of similar shipments. The performance of Russian airpower having been denied the supply of tailor-made, high-end components from the West, due to sanctions, was for a long-time under-whelming. Due to a successful transition to dual use, cheaper, Chinese electronics, it has made a strong comeback in the Russian counter-offensives in Avdiivka and Kharkiv.[11] Russian reciprocity has been equally noteworthy – it is helping North Korea, for instance, in the launch of satellites/spaceships and has de-frozen North Korean financial assets lying in Russian banks. President Putin’s visit to North Korea in June 2024 (his first to Pyongyang in 24 years) is more than a propaganda coup for Kim – the strategic partnership that has been concluded is one of Moscow’s strongest security commitments in Asia, one that pledges “military and other assistance” if one of the signatories is invaded or in a state of war. Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute, a think-tank in Seoul, has compared the Kim-Putin pact with the South Korea-US mutual defense treaty.[12] In reaction to the pact, South Korea has said it is considering supplying weapons to Ukraine, while an American senator has called for the re-deployment of nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula.[13]

Meanwhile, North Korea has been upping the ante, along both the land (DMZ – Demilitarised Zone) and maritime frontiers (NLL – Northern Limit Line) with South Korea. North Korea could also prospectively play a very significant role in the Taiwan contingency – activating the Korean peninsula, so as to keep the South Koreans tied down. If South Korea follows up on its offer to supply arms to Ukraine, given its deep stockpiles of howitzers and artillery munitions, it could be critical for Ukraine’s war effort. In sum, the Putin-Kim pact will have grave implications – not only for stability in the Korean peninsula but also for the trajectory of the war in Ukraine.

The other areas of collaboration namely food supplies, energy, space and the nuclear domain also sends signals that Russia is prioritising Pyongyang over the international non-proliferation regime and Russia’s obligations as a member of the UN Security Council. Russia has also vetoed the renewal of a UN panel that monitors compliance with Security Council sanctions against North Korea.

Iran and Russia, similarly, came together to keep Syrian President Bashar-al-Assad in power, in the wake of the civil war in 2011. Russia has signed major energy agreements with Iran to shield Tehran from the effects of US sanctions; it is now among the top suppliers of weapons to Tehran and is its largest source of foreign investment. Russian exports to Iran rose by 27% in the first ten months of 2022. China, too, has stepped up oil purchases from Iran significantly since 2020. Iran has been purchasing North Korean missiles since the 1980s; more recently, North Korea has supplied weapons to Hezbollah and possibly even the Hamas. There also is evidence to suggest that Chinese engineering know-how has been used in the design of the Hamas tunnels in Gaza. China, Iran, and Russia have held joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman for three years, most recently in March 2024. Trilateral naval drills involving Russia, China, and North Korea in the Seas of Okhotsk, Japan, and the East China Sea are also on the anvil.

More importantly, the deepening cooperation between the Axis nations has helped to circumvent the foreign policy tools (sanctions) that the West crafted to contain them; it has provided political top cover at forums like UN and is also being used to sharpen the information narrative through instruments like TikTok. It is becoming increasingly difficult to isolate the CRIK nations individually when they work together. The collective nuclear arsenals of the CRIK nations, it may be noted, in a few years are estimated to be twice as large as that of the United States.[14]

There is also wider contestation, driven strongly by the desire to shape what comes next. With Western sanctions blocking Russian access to European markets, Russian businesses have turned to China –industrial valves used mainly in the oil & mining sectors, offer a low-cost alternative to the European brands. Bilateral trade between Russia and China was USD 240 billion last year with the Chinese shipping cars, industrial machinery and smartphones to Russia. Russia, in turn, has replaced Saudi Arabia as the largest oil supplier to China.[15]

Russia has transmuted into a war economy that is now churning out more munitions than the USA and the entire West put together. While Russia’s annual defense spending has grown to USD 386 billion, the economy is also growing at 5.5% annually; with inflation running high at 7.4%, foreign investment has collapsed, and with trade with the West having been cut off, Russia has been pushed deeper into China’s economic embrace[16]. According to President Zelensky, at the Russian prompt, China used its considerable influence to sabotage the recently held, Ukraine Peace Summit in Burgenstock.[17]

While the slogan is multi-polarity, in practice, we are seeing the Axis challenging the foundational precept of American power – the freedom of the American Military to roam the globe, especially where such freedom intersects with the perceived spheres of influence of the Axis nations: Chinese ‘core interests’ in Taiwan and the South China Sea; Russia’s ‘near abroad’ – Novorossiya, so to speak; the Iranian proxy enterprise in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria & Yemen; as also the Korean peninsula. Concurrent escalation in the four theatres is fragmenting American power in significant ways. For example, whether this is a consequence of skilful CRIK statecraft or a series of geopolitical coincidences, is of course a matter of speculation. The dilemma before the Americans is whether they fight in three theatres or focus on winning in one. The USA must prioritise its strategic engagements – it does not have the military bandwidth to fight in two, let alone three theatres.[18] With a debt pile of USD 35 trillion and debt servicing pegged at USD 1 trillion (that which exceeds its defense budget at $950 billion), there is little wriggle room for the Americans to grow that bandwidth across multiple theatres.

The Russo-Chinese pitch is for a new polycentric, multi-nodal (nodes that engage and not poles that are in perpetual contest) world order that is more reflective of the globe’s diverse cultural and civilisational identities, as opposed to a monochromatic, Western view of the world. The Axis is not a formal grouping, yet it is one that is growing in strength and co-ordination. The growing intensity of the Sino-Russian co-operation is clear from the joint manifesto signed between Presidents Vladmir Putin and Xi in early 2022 that spoke about a ‘friendship without limits’ and called for ‘international relations of a new type,’ in other words, a multipolar system that the United States no longer dominates.

During President Putin’s recent visit to Beijing in May 2024, there were references to a ‘new era.’ A sweeping joint statement laid out roadmaps for the countries’ alignment on a host of issues including energy, trade, security, and geopolitics with specific references to Ukraine, Taiwan and conflict in the Middle East. The statement proclaimed that China-Russian relations have stood “the test of rapid changes in the world, demonstrating strength and stability and are experiencing the best period in their history,” the two leaders calling each other “priority partners.” Quite symbolically, Putin attended trade and cooperation forums in Harbin, the capital of China’s northeastern Heilongjiang province bordering Russia’s Far East. This region erupted in conflict between China and the Soviet Union in 1969. Putin also met with the students and faculty of the Harbin Institute of Technology; a university sanctioned by the US government in 2020 for its alleged role in procuring items for China’s military.

In terms of outcomes and delivery however, the Axis has been far more effective than even formal alliances, certainly more effective than NATO, it would seem; the ‘arsenal of the Axis’ is doing far better than the ‘arsenal of democracies.’ China’s industrial production capacities (value added) in 2004 were half that of the USA; today, they are two times larger. In natural consequence, the Chinese military- industrial complex today, is 5-6 times more efficient than its American counterpart. Cognisant of the renewed potency of the Russian war machine, the Americans have decided to undertake manufacture of artillery munitions on a war footing. Even with full scaling up they shall be able to deliver only 1.5 million rounds/month to Ukraine by the end of 2025; the Russians are currently producing 5 million rounds per month. Two days before the fall of Avdiivka, an operational audit of two Ukrainian brigades was carried out: one had a bare 15 artillery rounds left, the other had a mere 42 mortar rounds in its kitty.

A conceptual battle between the two systems, framed within the dynamic of democracy vs delivery, has also begun.[19] The Chinese argue that while the West champions individual freedoms, the Chinese prioritise broader societal order over personal liberties. They posit that in the USA, politicians are at the mercy of capitalists; China they argue, while it fosters the spirit of free thinking, innovation and enterprise, is not hostage to capitalist greed. That should explain the party-market standoff and the taking down of Big Tech to include big names like Jack Maa. In terms of poverty alleviation and social delivery, the Chinese system, they claim, is better than the West. The Axis nations reject the Western brand of democracy, while insisting that individual states have the right to define democracy for themselves. They oppose external meddling in their internal affairs, the expansion of US alliances, the stationing of American nuclear weapons abroad, and the use of coercive sanctions[20].

Though the current alliance may not be permanent, the shared goal of challenging the U.S.-led world order serves as a strong enough glue to keep it together for the foreseeable future, perhaps the next decade.

 

The Wider Karma Bhoomi

China and Russia in particular and the wider Axis, are also moving the game for impact and influence to other areas of the world, including the Global South. In Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, the Axis is making significant inroads. Look at how CRIK in general and China in particular, are chipping away at American attempts at containment, through some very smart, agile, fleet-footed responses. When ASEAN was formed in 1967, it was seen as a pro-West grouping. Yet, it was China that proposed an FTA with ASEAN in 2000. While ASEAN’s trade with the US grew from USD 135 billion in 2000 to USD 450 billion in 2022, trade with China boomed from USD 40 billion to USD 975 billion in the same period. Today, the ASEAN-China trade relationship dwarfs the EU-US relationship, valued at USD 950 billion.[21] China is the top trading partner for over 120 countries, including those traditionally aligned with the West and, more importantly, those seeking economic independence from Western dominance.

The BRI, RCEP, and AIB are the instruments of the alternate economic corridor that China is seeking to create—one designed ingeniously to tether China’s phenomenal manufacturing capacities with the material/needs of the world. We can gauge the success of such a strategy from the rapid expansion of BRICS and from the number of countries wanting to join the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Turkey, a member of NATO, has evinced interest in joining BRICS,[22] due to slowing economic growth in Europe and to the expanding opportunities in BRICS. The contribution of the BRICS economies to the global economy at 36%, exceeds that of the G-7.

There are other contests, too, though still in their relative infancy: De-dollarisation and new avenues of Energy Convergence. The re-set of the petro-dollar by Saudi Arabia, which has moved away from trading in oil exclusively through the dollar, could be an indicator of things to come. At the recent St Petersburg International Economic Forum (05-08 June 2024), President Putin said that the BRICS would soon develop an alternate payment system immune to unfair sanctions from the West.[23] China is a good market for Siberian gas now that Europe is not buying energy from Russia- described by Western commentators as a ‘gas station.’ In fact, Russia seems determined to prove that it is far more muscular and influential strategically than a mere ‘gas station.’

 

The Pushback: USA-led West

The above notwithstanding, it needs to be noted that the USA continues to be formidable: it accounted for 25% of the world’s GDP in 1980, and it still does.  The Chinese economy has grown at the expense of Europe and others, not the United States. Seven of the world’s largest big tech companies continue to be American. America still has the world’s largest, technologically most adept military, albeit one that of late has been delivering sub-optimally: a grand initiator of conflict but a rather poor finisher. The Liberal Order, we must remind ourselves – USA, Europe, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore still account for 65% of global GDP, 75% of global military spending and 95% of ideation/global agenda setting.[24]

There is an attempt to ingest the hub and spoke alliance-partner framework with a fresh dose of energy and resolve: the USA-South Korea-Japan Tri- lateral, Quad, Squad, the resilience of the Filipinos in the Second Thomas Shoal are pointers to the fact that Chinese maritime prowess will not be allowed to break out from the first island chain with ease; IPACOM meanwhile, has been talking of a ‘hellscape’ to deter a prospective Chinese invasion of Taiwan. ‘Brain dead’ NATO also seems to be regenerating to life. On June 19, 2024, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned that, “when they are more and more aligned – authoritarian regimes like North Korea and China, Iran, Russia – then it’s even more important that we are aligned as countries believing in freedom and democracy.”[25] NATO trendlines seem to be in synch with the sentiments of its Secretary General: by the end of this year, 18 NATO member states will enhance their defense expenditure to 2% of GDP. NATO is also debating the prospect of making 3 % the floor of defense spending.

The West, in general, is gearing up for the prospect of war; there is talk of a draft in Europe. So, the fight for ascendancy will be grim. Nobody has greater respect for the Americans as a comeback nation than the Chinese themselves. They know that it is way too early to proclaim victory. Xi’s challenge, therefore, is not only deeply thought through but also firmly undergirded by an order of his own making—CRIK is just the beginning.

 

Prospects for the Future

The next decade is critical. The two conflicting orders, one led by the USA-led West and the other defined by CRIK, are poised for intense competition, multiple crisis as also an intense clash of wills, which could also spillover into conflict. Great sagacity & wisdom will be needed to avoid wider war, as also considerable acumen to craft what may at best may an uneasy peace. Either way, we must brace up for the greatest show in human history.

In Cold War 1.0, a number of countries to include India, chose to be non-aligned and kept a distance from either bloc; while the moral persuasions of the non-aligned were strong, since they lacked geo-strategic heft, their material influence was not quite as material. In the current Cold War, countries like Brazil, South Africa, and India have reflected a new reality with sufficient heft, influence, and strategic autonomy to shape outcomes meaningfully. The salience of these global swing states in the ensuing contest between the two orders will be potent.

An assessment of the relative strengths of the two orders suggests that while the West, particularly the USA, will retain its supremacy, it will lose its hegemony. The USA needs to make strategic adjustments whence it is no longer the undisputed numero-uno. CRIK is not asking for a seat at the table; they are looking to build their table, one with their own rules. Therefore, the world could be headed towards an unusual experiment – one where a liberal international order sans a hegemon and CRIK learn to co-exist. The hazards arising out of the challenges of climate change, a nuclear catastrophe and now the horrific consequences of irresponsible AI, must drive the contest towards a thoughtful modus vivendi. Détente 2.0 – a smart admixture of engagement, deterrence and containment – may be the wisest way of stabilising Cold War 2.0.[26].

 

Author Bio: Lieutenant General Raj Shukla, PVSM, YSM, SM, is a former General Officer Commanding-In-Chief – Army Commander – of the Indian Army’s Training Command (ARTRAC). He is presently ‘Member UPSC,’ w.e.f. 18th July, 2022.

 

References:

[1]China vs. United States | Cold War | Nuclear Threat | Investigative Journalism (youtube.com) , accessed on 18 May 2024

[2]Niall Ferguson, Kissinger and the True Meaning of Détente: Reinventing a Cold War Strategy for the Contest With China (foreignaffairs.com), accessed on 30 May 2024

[3] David K. Sanger, New Cold Wars, Crown Publishing Group, 2024, page 446.

[4]David E Sanger, New Cold Wars, Crown Publishing Group, 2024, Inner Flap

[5]Antonio Guterres, UN Chief: We Must Avoid US/China Cold War, Associated Press, 25 Sep 2021, www.youtube.com

[6]Niall Ferguson in conversation with Urs Gehriger, The New Cold War, Die Weltwoche (Swiss weekly magazine based in Zurich), 03 May 2024

[7]Putin meets Xi Jinping in Beijing | Carl Zha Reacts (youtube.com) accessed on 17 May 2024

[8]China vs. United States | Cold War | Nuclear Threat | Investigative Journalism (youtube.com) , accessed on 18 May 2024

[9]David E Sanger, New Cold Wars, Crown Publishing Group, 2024, p 9

[10] Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Richard Fontaine, The Axis of Upheaval, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2024

[11]Frank Hofmann, How China indirectly supports Russia’s war in Ukraine – DW – 05/16/2024, accessed on 01 June 2024

[12] Song Jung-a in Seoul, Kana Inagaki in Tokyo and Joseph Leahy in Beijing, Japan and South Korea sound alarm over Putin-Kim pact, Financial Times, 20 June 2024

[13] South Korea considers sending weapons to Ukraine in response to Russia-North Korea deal | DW News (youtube.com), accessed on 21 June 2024

[14]Robert M. Gates, The United States now confronts graver threats, The Dysfunctional Superpower, Foreign Affairs, 29 Sep 2023

[15]Joe Leahey, Kai Waluszewski & Max Seddon, China-Russia: an economic ‘friendship’ that could rattle the world, Financial Times– The Big Read, 15 May 2024

[16]Jennifer Sor,Russia’s economy is so driven by the war in Ukraine that it cannot afford to either win or lose, economist says (msn.com), accessed on 01 June 2024

[17]Zelensky Says China Is Helping Russia Undermine a Peace Summit on Ukraine (msn.com), accessed on 02 June2024

[18]Elbridge Colby, Why Should We Care About America’s Defense Priorities? (youtube.com) accessed on 02 June 2024

[19]Nicholas Burns, US Ambassador to China,us china rivalry taiwan and hongkong 60 minutes – Search Videos (bing.com). accessed on 02 June 2024

[20] Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Richard Fontaine, The Axis of Upheaval, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2024

[21] محاضرة رفيعة المستوى | اتجاهات العلاقات الأمريكية – الصينية بعد الانتخابات الأمريكية 2024 (youtube.com), Kishore Mahbubani on Prospects for US-China Relations, High Level Lecture at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies & Research, ECSSR, accessed on 22 June 2024

[22] Why Turkey Joins BRICS and How This Will Impact the World – YouTube, accessed on 20 June 2024

[23] Western Empire Facing Same Collapse as Rome in its Final Days: Martin Armstrong – YouTube, accessed on 21 June 2024

[24] London Conference 2024: Dr Fareed Zakaria and Bronwen Maddox (youtube.com), accessed on 22 June 2024

[25] Song Jung-a in Seoul, Kana Inagaki in Tokyo and Joseph Leahy in Beijing, Japan and South Korea sound alarm over Putin-Kim pact, Financial Times, 20 June 2024

[26] Naill Ferguson, Kissinger and the True Meaning of Détente – Reinventing a Cold War Strategy for the Contest With China, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2024

Latest News

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

six − 1 =

Explide
Drag