The question of which State holds the most power and influence in global geopolitics is a complex one. The nature of international relations – how sovereign, equal States relate to each other – is continually dynamic. The spheres of influence, alliances, and enmities are incessantly waning and waxing, rendering it difficult to locate stable and predictable power in any one State. The concept of polarity is generally utilized to better understand the nature of the international system at any given time by identifying how power is distributed between the States. Though scholars have delineated three main kinds of polarity – unipolarity (one centre of power), bipolarity (two centres of power), and multipolarity (several centres of power) – it has proven difficult to clearly define what the nature of the international system is at all times. For each of these types of polarity, there have been accompanying factors that have complicated these simple categorisations and ‘true’ types. Thus, even if some scholars have analysed global relations as unipolar at some point in time, others have found instances of States mobilizing power and resources in varying degrees that would render unipolarity impossible. In general, however, there is significant consensus on some instances of unipolarity and bipolarity. For some, the contemporary emergence of the USA as a significant polar actor (or ‘pole’) such that it imposes overarching influence over global geopolitics is an instance of unipolarity. After the Cold War and the long détente, the American primacy in commercial power and military expenditure swiftly bolstered its position as the global hegemon in international relations. For various realist scholars, this was because of a variety of reasons. The U.S. dollar emerged as the global reserve currency, dominating international financial and intergovernmental organizations. American defense spending is nearly half of all global military expenditures, combining a powerful blue-water navy, nuclear first-strike capabilities against Russia, a hefty defence research and development budget, and unparalleled capabilities of power posturing in international relations. Though there is sufficient disagreement about the continued stability of American unipolarity, most scholars agree that in the years immediately after the Cold War – with the Soviet Union economically crippled, ideologically marooned, and finally disintegrated – the U.S. had no capable challengers to its global influence. On the other hand, the international system during the Cold War was predominantly bipolar, with competing spheres of influence divided between the USA and the Soviet Union – each with contrasting economic, political, cultural, and ideological perspectives on how to organize geopolitics. In general, most Western and capitalist States adopted the influence of the U.S. and the NATO, while communist States fell under the power of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, with both attempting to seize predominance in ‘third areas’ like Africa and Asia. Even this instance of bipolarity, however, was not permanent. While on the one hand, some scholars believed that the USA emerged as a unipolar actor, others believed that the Sino-Soviet split of 1960 fomented the rise of China as a third (and later, second) superpower, along with a constellation of other international actors rapidly growing in significance. They opined that the international system became restructured and increasingly multipolar, with numerous spheres of regional influence exerted by powerful international actors like India, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, and South Korea – with geostrategic perceptions of the Indo-Pacific broadening the influence possessed by South and East Asian States.
The purpose of this article is to assume a fresh perspective of the nature of the international system, distinct from existing perceptions of American unipolarity. It will specifically analyze the emergence of a new pole in global relations, comprised of the China-Pakistan-Russia-Iran axis. It will evaluate the possible areas of cooperation and collaboration tying this pole together – including coordinated foreign policy interests, similar values of political leaders and national society, similar polities, aspirations for control over Indo-Pacific and emerging alternative trade routes, and coordination regarding international terrorism. It will study whether China has the capability to effectively counter the pole lead by the USA, and to lead the new emerging pole. It will examine the broad political and economic strategies undertaken by China to augment its regional significance and translate it into global preeminence, especially with the emergence of more States diametrically opposed to the American perspective of international relations. It will also focus on the role of Pakistan in cementing this new pole, as Beijing pursues more integrated ties with Karachi in the economic, military, and cultural arenas.
Scholars are not yet unanimous on whether China would be able to challenge the USA sufficiently to establish a new bipolarity, at least of the ‘pure form.’ However, for the international system to be ‘loosely bipolar’, it is not essential that China equal the USA in all spheres; it simply needs to command enough power assets, global reach, and influence capabilities to stand apart from the rest of the world. The Chinese-USA bipolarity will differ from the Soviet-USA experience, perhaps most importantly because the relations between China and USA are marked by patterns of both economic competition and cooperation and because the degree of ideological hostility between them is relatively lesser. Indeed, after China opened up its economy in the 1970s, the U.S. sought to institute close ties with it to restrict Soviet access to the international economy and to cultivate a regional partner who would be a “responsible stakeholder” friendly to America in the decades after the Cold War. As a challenger to U.S. global hegemony, China also compares more favourably than the Soviet Union across a wide range of indicators, including material assets and capabilities. More than 15% of the global gross domestic product is presently accounted for by China, which also accounts for 13% of global military expenditures – second only to USA. It has also aggressively pursued the development of a powerful arsenal with multiple warheads capable of reaching the American coast, as well as the determined expansion of regional connectivity and infrastructure through the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative that has thrust it into regional hegemon status. For some, the rapid rise of China as a new ‘polar actor’ in global politics may be explained by the complexity of its strategies for resistance against U.S. hegemony – pragmatically accommodating it on the one hand and contesting its ideological legitimacy on the other. Rather than engaging in a direct confrontation, it has utilized the existing global economic system to gradually amplify its political influence and prestige through active participation. Because China is aware that it would find very scarce international support for overt hostilities directed at America, it has undertaken tactics such as challenging American unilateralism and promoting multilateralism among its growing regional allies, founding and actively participating in international organizations through both soft and hard power diplomacy and voting against the USA in various international organizations. Having realized that its relative economic and military capabilities currently pale in comparison with the USA, China has relentlessly challenged the ideological legitimacy of a US-led world order. For most scholars, this is the primary basis for the emergence of China as a new pole. First, though China was initially sceptical about regional multilateral organisations before the mid-1990s and preferred bilateral associations instead, it has actively participated in most of them since 2000. It has emerged as a driving force of Asian regional cooperation, through its engagement with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations +Three (ASEAN + China, Japan, and South Korea), and ASEAN + One (ASEAN + China). Second, it has cultivated a deep involvement with major international institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has earned it short-term economic advantages. Whatever be the concessions that China made for a seat at the table in such organizations, its purpose was twofold – to project power through setting an agenda for a gradualist reform strategy; and to accumulate influence over the structures of global finance, which would allow it to challenge the USA’s international economic outlook. Indeed, after ex-President Hu Jintao’s proposals seeking to reform international financial organizations at the Group of Twenty Summit in 2008, transformations in representation mechanisms and diversification of the international currency regime were implemented. Third, China has utilized its significant financial capabilities to acquire diplomatic and political influence through fostering a critical narrative against the excesses of U.S. hegemony and the danger of the international dependence on the dollar reserves. It has signalled alarm that its vast dollar-denominated foreign exchange reserves – currently valued at over $2 trillion and with most holdings comprised of U.S. Treasuries and other dollar-denominated bonds – would lose value in the future. For America, China’s loss of faith in its Treasuries (which would be followed by other countries as well) is extremely concerning because it would cause large government deficits, inflation, erosion of purchasing power, increased borrowing costs, and more expensive economic stimulus packages and mortgages. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of this occurring has observably increased. Admittedly, the status of the dollar will remain largely uncontested in the near future. However, China has attempted to build a framework for a probable long-term challenge by boosting the international status of the renminbi (Chinese currency) and forming the Chiang Mai initiative in East Asia. This attempts to build a regional reserve that would complement the lending facilities of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) through a $120 billion multilateral currency swap arrangement among ten ASEAN countries and China, Japan, and South Korea, aimed at bolstering the region’s competence to protect against risks and challenges in the global economy. Fourth, China also seeks an ideational advantage over the USA by defining legitimate (opposing) norms in international relations because it is cognisant that the attainment of international legitimacy for its perspectives would allow it to restructure and socialize international behaviour. China’s contemporary objective is to not only to develop militarily but also socially within the international framework. Alongside Russia in the United Nations (U.N.), China has employed improved diplomatic skill and influence within the U.N. to participate widely in the peacekeeping operations and in human rights resolutions in the General Assembly (UNGA). Fifth, China has earned significant prestige and influence through a variety of infrastructure-connectivity-transport development initiatives across East Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East – which have collectively taken shape as the burgeoning OBOR. This initiative has been exceedingly successful as expressions of soft power diplomacy, because it has allowed China to cultivate close economic, social, and even political ties with States in the region and beyond through mutually beneficial agreements. Indeed, in countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan – where China has chiefly developed technologically superior roadways, ports, public vehicles, and other civic facilities – the USA is gradually finding it difficult to command the same level of legitimacy and support. China has utilized its soft power diplomacy by promoting its traditional language and culture as central to Asian civilization; providing an attractive model of development based on its own combination of authoritarianism and gradualist reforms for underdeveloped, non-democratic States; and offering economic aid to developing countries through flexible economic diplomacy without the political preconditions that accompany Western aid – such as democratization or maintenance of a minimum standard of civil and political rights. Essentially, China is emerging as a new pole because it is resolutely constructing an alternate world order opposed to the USA – which is equally capable, influential, and legitimate.
This is evident in how Chinese policy has managed contemporary crises and transformations in its neighbourhood. Instead of isolating itself or attempting to contain other States, it has sought various modes of cooperation with regional partners through existing institutions or created new ones capable of mobilizing a broad range of interests. Scholars believe that China has the potential to lead the new pole and emerge as a global hegemon due to its ability to offer an alternative to Western perspectives in Asia – politically, ideologically, culturally, and economically – and to occupy the power vacuums that are often left behind by USA.
After the hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2021 and the equally swift takeover of the Afghan State by a resurgent Taliban, China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan came together with representatives from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in Tehran in October 2021 to unify their approaches to confront the imminent humanitarian, economic and security crisis. Though China did not formally recognize the Taliban government, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with members of the Taliban interim government in Qatar in October 2021. It was apparent through Yi’s broadcasted statements as well as those of President Xi Jinping that China would work in concert with Iran, Russia, and Pakistan to develop bilateral and multilateral frameworks to counter terrorism in Afghanistan – especially the U.N. and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Xi also called for the utilization of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group to encourage a “broad-based and inclusive political framework” in Afghanistan, and to strengthen cooperation mechanisms like the Convention on Countering Extremism and other legal instruments to enhance coordination in counter-narcotics and border control. He also implied that SCO countries and Afghanistan should reject the Western pressure to explore “development paths and governance models” that are incompatible with their national specificities, in essence, presenting a challenge to the Western ideals of democratic governance that has cost it the support of many States. It is evident that China is emerging as a leader of the China-Russia-Pakistan-Iran axis, utilizing all ideological and diplomatic tools to create blueprints for coordinated action in its neighbourhood. This call for unity was echoed by Yi’s Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, who offered the support of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – a Moscow-lead alliance also comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – to send aid and assistance to Afghanistan, and to prevent USA and NATO from establishing its presence elsewhere in the region. The involvement of Iran is also important. This is not only because the new Ebrahim Raisi government has earned the ire of the West and has aligned political perspectives with China and Russia, but also because Iran has historically countered the Islamic State-Khorasan’s (I.S.–K) attacks in Iraq and Syria and has managed crippling U.S. military sanctions as well. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian also emphasised the need to undertake multilateral action to safeguard the rights of ethnic minorities oppressed by the Taliban. The need collective action to achieve the “shared objective” of a “peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan” was also reiterated by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. China was also the first to provide over 200 million yuan in emergency humanitarian aid – food and medical supplies (especially COVID-19 vaccines) – to Afghanistan and funded a construction project in the Ministry of Justice compound. It has effectively cultivated friendly relations with the Taliban administration through direct bilateral and international communication, with the latter viewing the former as an important partner with the economic capabilities required for Afghan reconstruction. China has also urged international support for the rebuilding of Afghanistan and has called for the lifting of sanctions and unfreezing of Afghan assets by the West to aid this process. Because it views terrorism, separatism, and religious fundamentalism as threats to its national security and is afraid that radicalism would spill over into the contentious Xinjiang province China has a demonstrated interest in ensuring that the Taliban is urged to break ties with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other terrorist forces. It has also found it crucial to develop a constructive security paradigm to bolster a stable Afghanistan, to protect its economic interests in the OBOR – especially the substantial investments made in in Central Asia and Pakistan through the China-Central Asia-West Asia and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Taliban has also been encouraged to reduce drug trafficking to maintain its ties with China, which may prove difficult as the former relies deeply on drug revenue for its operations. China has suggested that special security forces be deployed to protect Chinese assets in Afghanistan (similar to Pakistan), or to hire Chinese private security companies with a marked presence in the region. As the USA transfers its focus to the Asia Pacific, the Afghanistan-China-Pakistan axis has deepened mechanisms for strategic cooperation. China has sought to bridge the differences between Pakistan and the Taliban, while Pakistan has facilitated Russian and Chinese contacts with the Taliban. For most scholars, Chinese efforts for peace and stability in Afghanistan would form the foundation of Chinese global ascendency, as it continues to resolutely use soft power diplomacy to combat a crisis that could destabilize the region.
As the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) – which sought to counter China in the Indo-Pacific, and to develop strategic security ties in the Asia Pacific between USA, India, Japan, Australia through joint military exercises – weakens due to differences in geopolitical perceptions, proposals are underway for a China-Russia-Pakistan-Iran-Turkey regional security arrangement to counter the former’s influence in the region. This new arrangement has at its core, varying degrees of opposing strategic interests and complaints against the countries in the Quad and is poised to offer a regional alternative to it. This would be another factor that could potentially cement China’s role as the leader of the new pole. Russia and China have several reasons for convergence, most importantly, their anxieties about being isolated and contained if the Quad is not balanced in the region. While the former criticised the “enclosed small cliques” that it believes would dismantle the international order in the first Quad meeting in 2021, the latter – reeling from heavy Western-led economics sanctions – argued that the Quad was engaged in “Anti-China games” that are detrimental to regional security. While Iran-USA relations have continued to worsen due to the paralysing sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, China has emerged as a key partner defying these sanctions and continuing to import oil from Iran. In March 2021, China, Russia, and Iran concluded a $400 billion strategic pact designed to purchase Iranian oil while deepening military cooperation. Indeed, the China-Russia-Iran economic and military axis could redefine the geopolitics of Central Asia. The Trump administration’s decision to impose sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for importing S-400 Russian missiles in 2020, served to seriously deteriorate USA-Turkey relations, though the latter is a member of the NATO. India’s criticism of Turkey due to its internationalization of, and interference in Indian internal affairs also seems to have pushed Turkey into allying with the anti-Quad group. Pakistan is an important participant in this arrangement due to its multi-layered relationship with China, aiming to balance Indian influence in the region. Because Turkey is an extremely vocal supporter of Pakistan in Kashmir, it is evident that it would support Turkey’s ambitions to lead the Islamic world. Indeed, as USA-India relations have bettered, Pakistan has moved towards China and its strategic allies. All these countries share similar proclivities on the nature of their political system, it is extremely probable that this arrangement would be successful.
Coordination on maritime security and cooperation is also the basis for the joint maritime exercises that will be conducted by China, Russia, and Iran in the Persian Gulf in early 2022. According to the Russian Ambassador to Iran Levan Dzhagaryan, the safety of international shipping routes from piracy is crucial to all these countries because international trade accounts for a large percentage of its economy. Most of Russian international trade is transported by cargo ships. Iranian oil is also exported through shipping. Chinese imports of oil and gas are dependent on these shipping routes as well. As strategies for these joint military drills were formulated during the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, scholars also noted that close ties between these three countries would serve to create frameworks that would prevent the West from interfering in Iran’s and the Persian Gulf’s regional affairs. Indeed, both Russia and China have protested the sanctions imposed upon Iran by the USA and have championed the need for Iranian legitimate foreign trade to be protected. The mutual benefits involved are numerous – Russia and China would improve Iranian naval capabilities through these drills, Iran may provide China with much-needed hydrocarbon resources, and this would further benefit Iran’s economic growth.
Powerful China-Pakistan relations are of special importance to India, which continues to combat an adversarial neighbour with differing political perceptions on its borders. For China, close ties with Pakistan serves to balance against India’s influence in the region, to further justify its territorial aggressions into Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, and Sikkim, and to hedge against the American re-pivot to the Asia Pacific. China regards Pakistan as key to sustaining an advantageous regional balance of power, to countering violent extremism, and to reducing energy insecurity. At the core of Chinese investments in Pakistan is the CPEC, which was introduced in 2015 during Yi’s visit to Pakistan, and which connects Kashgar in western China to Gwadar Port on the Baluchistan coast in Pakistan through a vast network of rail, road, oil and gas pipeline, and fibre optic cables. It is apparent that China views Pakistan as a partner in its aligned energy interests in the region and has developed special economic zones (SEZs) and energy projects along the route. China has realized that a friendly and stable Pakistan is essential for its ambitions toward superpower status. The CPEC would augment China’s Western Development Strategy by revitalizing the economy of southern Xinjiang, thereby reducing the ongoing instability there. It would also provide an alternative energy supply route that could bypass the Malacca Strait. More than 80% of Chinese trade passes through here, and it continues to be wrought with complications due to China’s aggressive aspirations in the region. Concerned about the damaging implications of a possible maritime blockade along this route, China has planned to construct oil storage facilities and a refinery at Gwadar, and transfer oil to Xinjiang via road or pipeline. Encouraged by Pakistan’s increasing forays into energy, China entered Eurasian gas pipeline politics, and is considering plans to export LPG to Pakistan through coordinated measures between Petroleum Brunei and Petronas of Malaysia, led by PetroChina – a subsidiary of subsidiary of China National Petroleum Company (CNPC). A 700 km-long gas pipeline is currently under construction which would transport LNG pipeline from Gwadar to Nawabshah in the Sindh province, eventually integrating with Pakistan’s native gas distribution network. China also plans to construct a second pipeline joining Xinjiang and Gwadar to the Iranian border, where it will connect existing stretch at the South Pars gas field in Assaluyeh.
Thus, because it has skilfully utilized both hard and soft power to cement its influence and power in the region, China seems poised to lead the new pole comprised of Pakistan, Russia, and Iran, through the reconstruction of the present geopolitical milieu.
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