Ukraine-Russia: Those who are not with us ….

China, Geopolitics, and the Global South

Uwe Hoering, May 4, 2022

For its answer to the war against Ukraine, the Western world is looking for partners all over the world. But after the unexpectedly widespread support in the United Nations for Russia’s condemnation, many countries of the Global South have since taken a rather more neutral attitude, because the escalation of the conflict goes against their own interests. There are signs of a new alliance emerging, which could benefit China in particular.

In the second half of April, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen paid their respects to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in close succession. Modi then made his way to Berlin for a flash visit to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, where he was carefully shielded from potentially unpleasant questions about the political situation in India. All the meetings were about trade agreements and cooperation in the arms sector, as well as about European offers in the fields of digitalisation and technology, with which Europe wants to position itself as a partner against China and as an alternative to Russia.

Sitting on the fence

India is one of the nearly three dozen countries that abstained from the UN resolution on Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Nor is it willing to participate in the sanctions imposed by the West – on the contrary: in November last year, it agreed to further expand its cooperation with Russia in the field of armaments. At the same time, the dialogue with Beijing is being worked on. And Delhi expects little constructive support from Europe’s engagement in the region or in its conflict with China. The European attention is therefore welcomed in the Indian capital, as it is a boost for the increasingly authoritarian and fundamentalist government, but it is unlikely to change the principle of “strategic autonomy” that has been practised for decades.

In Central Asia, a vital hinterland for both Russia and China, several countries abstained from the UN vote too, such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Tajikistan, as well as Mongolia to the east, also sandwiched between Russia and China. These countries will have to continue to co-exist with both powers. If anything, the Ukraine conflict is cementing their dependency, while they are likely to move increasingly into China’s sphere of influence in view of Russia’s weakening, a development that Western countries can hardly influence any more.

Also in Africa, the anti-Russia alliance has failed to gain a sweeping endorsement: One in two governments condemned Russia’s invasion, while the other half abstained from voting, apart from Eritrea. Similarly, in Asia, many governments did vote in favour of the UN resolution because national sovereignty is a precious good for them. The principles of the Non-Aligned Movement, which refused to be assigned either to West or East, to NATO or to the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, still hold true for them: No borders to be shifted, no interference in internal affairs, particularly not militarily. Beyond this, however, the active opposition to Russia remains restrained.

My enemies, your enemies

This positioning is not necessarily because many of the contemporary ‘non-aligned’ countries are authoritarian, not democratically legitimised governments, as some Western interpretations suggest, or because their voting behaviour can be explained by their dependence on Russian arms supplies or mercenary forces. For both among the abstentions are more or less democratic countries like India and South Africa, as well as authoritarian regimes among the supporters. Above all, when it comes to sanctions policy, many if not most countries from the Global South do not go along. The arrogant Western view from its high horse tends to ignore their very interests, which they do not want to sacrifice for a Western crusade. Accordingly, Nelson Mandela declared this geopolitical neutrality policy in 1990, which is still significant for many countries even today: “Your enemies are not necessarily our enemies”.

“Your enemies are not necessarily our enemies”

Nelson Mandela, 1990

The list of these considerations is long and varied. It includes anxiety about the effects of further escalation on their own economies, including the thumbscrew of sanctions, knowing full well that Western countries will hardly compensate for them, but also expectations of benefitting from the shortage of supplies due to the war, for example, with their own food exports. This includes daunting experiences of the methods with which the West waged its own wars, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya, under the label of defending freedom, human rights and democracy. It also includes the disapproval of a spiral of rearmament and escalation as it is currently being pursued: South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, for example, justified the decision to remain neutral by saying that it could help mediate an end to the war. 

The overwhelming support for the UN resolutions does not signal any fundamental shift in the geopolitical constellation of forces in the often invoked ‘systemic competition’.

The satisfaction over the overwhelming support for the UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion and excluding it from the UN Human Rights Council ignores the fact that the vote does not signal any fundamental shift in the geopolitical constellation of forces in the often invoked ‘systemic competition’.

A new block grouping?

An important event for clarifying the future multilateral cooperation of the Global South will be the G20 summit of the most important industrialised and emerging countries, including Russia, Brazil, India, South Africa and China, in Indonesia in November. A meeting of the G20 finance ministers in Washington recently was boycotted by the USA and several allies in protest against Russia. In the last week of April, Indonesia, which holds the presidency this year, invited Russia despite strong opposition from the US – and President Putin has already announced his attendance. To balance things out, Volodymyr Zelensky was also invited. The tug-of-war over the attendance list is sure to continue and will shed light on how the geopolitical balance of power is shaping up. The further course of the war will undoubtedly play an important role in this.

But the grouping of the countries of the Global South will also be intriguing. If Brazil were to make a political shift towards a more positive attitude towards China than under President Bolsonaro, the other BRICS countries Russia, India, China and South Africa, together with many like-minded countries of the Global South, could well opt for a bloc with Russia and China – especially if the West confronts them with the choice: It’ s us or them!

For such institutional and organisational consolidation, there are already a number of other rather loose associations in Central Asia existing, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) with its members Pakistan, India, China, Russia, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which intervened in Kazakhstan under Russian leadership at the beginning of the year. In Africa, too, with FOCAC and the African Union, and in Southeast Asia with ASEAN, there are groupings that formulate regional economic and political interests and coordinate them among themselves.

In many of these existing alliances, networks and organisations, Belt&Road continues to function as an effective tool for linking, in line with the words of Tolkien’s  ‘The Lord of the Rings’: ” To find them all, to bind them all”. With its updated expansion of the Digital Silk Road and the Health Silk Road, it has gained additional appeal. Western countries still have little to counter this magic formula, despite B3W or Global Gateway.

Translated with (free version)