A NEW NETWORK OF ALLIANCES: MOSCOW-BEIJING-TEHERAN AXIS

The dispatch of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, China’s escalating military pressure towards Taiwan, and Iran’s Navy drills along with these powers in the Indian Ocean, illustrate a possible scenario about the formation of a new axis between Moscow, Beijing, and Teheran. 

THE RISE OF RUSSIA

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has suffered a retraction as a superpower. However, after the beginning of the new millennium, it started to gain more weight on the international scene. Nowadays, Russia is one of the strongest military powers in the world with the ability to challenge the global system

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been ruling Russia since he took office in 2000 in a Machiavellian way with the goal to restore Russia’s former glory. He reformed the constitution several times to remain as head of state and concentrate all power within his figure. But consequently, many people claim that there is a systematic violation of human rights and persecution against political rivals such as Alexei Navaly. 

But Russian strength was shown in the last few years in different ways such as the invasion of Georgia, which ended with the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, its role against ISIS during the Syrian Civil War, and most importantly, the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula after the Euromaidan in Ukraine. Additionally, Russia has a strong influence in the former Soviet Republics through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which is the Eastern equivalent to NATO. In these days, CSTO was used to settle down the riots in Kazakhstan and as a result, hundreds of Russian soldiers were sent there to re-establish order in the country. 

This mobilization has demonstrated that Russia is the strongest nation among former Soviet countries. An influence that Putin used in Belarus in 2021 during the protest against Alexander Lukashenko and most recently, the dispatch of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, which ended in diplomatic and military tensions between the Federation and NATO. The most recent event that worsens this crisis is the Kremlin’s decision to recognize Donetsk and Lugansk as independent countries.

Russia has several military bases overseas in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and it is expected that it will build up new facilities in African countries. Additionally, the former Venezuelan chief of intelligence claims that Russia already has a military base in that country. Indeed, the Venezuelan government uses Russian mercenaries to train its soldiers. Other countries in Africa like Mali and Libya hire mercenaries for that purpose too. 

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Official Russian military bases abroad in 2021. Source: Mapmania.

Moreover, Russia is the largest nuclear power with more nuclear weapons across the globe. In fact, some sources confirm that it has been manufacturing more nukes which ended with the American withdrawal of the INF treaty in 2017. Fortunately, Putin and President Joe Biden agreed to uphold the START treaty in July 2021. Despite that, the tensions between both powers are rising. In fact, Putin threatened French President Macron to carry out a nuclear strike if Ukraine joins NATO and suddenly if it attacks Crimea. 

Russia also has extreme tensions with the West. The massive strike over Ukraine on February 24th shows Putin’s determination to preserve the Russian influence area across the former Soviet Republics. Moreover, this problem shows another Russian deterrence capability. Many European nations such as Germany, Sweden or Poland have a high reliance on Russian gas. This issue is still controversial because some EU nations refuse to increase Russian sanctions in order to keep intact their flow of Gas.

Infographic: Which European Countries Depend on Russian Gas? | Statista
Europe’s dependence rate on Russian Gas. Source: Statista (2020)

THE AWAKE OF CHINA

After Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, China began a continuous economic development that made it the second largest economy across the world in the mid-2000s. Current Chinese Paramount Leader Xi Jinping has new plans for China’s expansion through new economic programs, technological developments, and military programs. 

On the economic side, the communist regime has the One Belt, One Road Initiative to expand Chinese influence throughout the world. Especially with its Asian neighbors. Consequently, Asian nations’ reliance on the Chinese market increased significantly. Moreover, more and more countries increased their ties with China, making it its largest trade partner. In fact, some people believe that China is the first economic power, even higher than the United States.  

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The BRI and China’s International Trade Map. Source: Belt and Route Research Platform (2020) 

On the political side, Xi Jinping ensured his leadership through his 13 principles and wiped out any opposition against his figure through his anti-corruption campaign. In that event, Xi initiated a cult of his personality to gain the entire support of the Chinese Communist Party. Consequently, the People’s National Assembly decided to withdraw term limits on the President, providing him more power than any other Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. 

Finally, during Xi’s rule, China has increased its military capabilities through more spending on the armed forces and more technological developments. Most importantly, China expects to manufacture 1000 nuclear nukes by 2030. In addition, it increased its capability to deter its adversaries through more coercion against its neighbors. In recent days, the Chinese government dispatched its most advanced fighters next to Taiwan for military drills, which caused more tensions against the United States. 

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China’s military spending during Xi Jinping’s rule (2012-2020). Source: Statista (2021)

Another factor that should be mentioned regarding China is that it has increased its technological capabilities and most of the countries’ tech imports come from the Asian Giant. In recent days, Beijing spending on R+D went up to 441.3 billion dollars in 2021, which was 14% higher than its 2020 data. 

THE ALLIANCE OF THE BEAR AND THE DRAGON

On the other hand, Russia has officially recognized the principle of ‘’one China’’ regarding the issue in Taiwan. In fact, Putin declared that Beijing could take over Taiwan without the use of force, these words were strongly condemned By Taipei and its allies. The release of this statement confirms that there are closer ties between both leaders Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. 

However, this alliance has been forming for a long time. For instance, after the beginning of the tensions between Russia and the Western powers due to the Ukrainian Civil War, the Federation started diversifying its diplomatic network. In May 2014, China and Russia agreed on the construction of new gas pipelines between them and more trade agreements between each other. These measures allow the Kremlin to compensate its economic losses due to Western sanctions. 

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping Made Pancakes With Caviar in Wild Photos
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin cooking pancakes during a bilateral meeting in Russia. Source: Business Insider (2018)

IRAN THE FORGOTTEN ACTOR

Iran is included in this axis because it also has the same purpose just like its Russian and Chinese counterparts and it is to reduce American influence worldwide. In the last years, the Islamic Republic has improved its ties with Russia and China with the purpose to relieve western sanctions on it and becoming a stronger actor in the region of the Middle East. 

In January 2022, recently elected Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi met Putin in Moscow to discuss several issues to increase the ties between both nations. On the first hand, Iran is still suffering a strong recession because of the nuclear crisis and Raisi looks for Russian support in order to withdraw all sanctions imposed due to the Iranian nuclear program. 

On the other hand, China has become a strong partner for Iran. The Persian country actively participates in several projects regarding the BRI initiative such as the sign of a 25 year-cooperation in 2021 or new infrastructure projects like a railroad through Central Asia. One of the main features that affirms the close ties between both nations is Iran’s support to China on the Uighur issue.

Iran unlike its Russian and Chinese counterparts is a country that has strong experience in Proxy Wars through dispatching many mercenaries and military through Islamic cells such as Hezbollah (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq), Huti rebels (Yemen), or HAMAS (Gaza). Additionally, its conventional capabilities increased radically after it was able to develop its own unmanned air vehicles and ballistic missiles, causing great concern to many Middle East countries like Israel or Saudi Arabia. 

Iran Proxy and Sanctions Map Dec 2020
Iranian terrorist cells in the Middle East. Source: Wilson Center (2021)

But everything depends on the negotiations regarding Teheran’s nuclear program. At the moment, Iran is renegotiating the JCPOA with its allies along with France, Germany, The United Kingdom, The European Union, and the United States. The negotiations are in the final stage according to the negotiators but Iran still refuses to engage in direct contact with the United States, until Biden’s Administration removes all sanctions. In case of failure, Iran will continue to enrich uranium and build up more nuclear facilities, which will lead to the manufacturing of nuclear bombs. In fact, Iran decided to remove limits to enrich uranium in its nuclear program after the US left the JCPOA, causing more tensions in the Middle East. 

The Ayatollah’s regime has full support from Moscow and Beijing because both actors argue that if the United States lifts all measures against Iran, there will be more possibilities to go forward on the negotiations. Recently, as a gesture of generosity to Tehran, Putin and Xi accepted the incorporation of Iran into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a full member state. Additionally, the armies of these nations did navy drills at the Indian Ocean. But it is unlikely that both countries stand for aggressive actions from Tehran. 

CURRENT CHALLENGES FOR THE NEW AXIS

Despite their common ground, these countries must deal with domestic and international challenges. 

On the Russian side, its economy is suffering the dramatic effects of COVID-19. Also, some analysts advocate that Putin could have different fronts. Firstly, the decision of the Kremlin to let Rusano (a Russian Company) down set up any suspicions about its economic leadership. Secondly, even though Russia would win an eventual war against Ukraine, the escalation of tensions with the West could cause problems on the Russian energetic exportations, where most of its profits come from.

Thirdly, there will also be a problem with Russian exports because of the Belarussian and Ukrainian crises. Many gas pipelines to Europe go through these nations and more sanctions against that regime would be harmful to Russia. Finally, these sanctions would be tougher if the Kremlin invades Ukraine and because of these measures, the Russian economy could be worse to the point of generating greater indignation in the population. In fact, Russian stock market dropped more than 10 points the day of the invasion.

Map showing main pipeline routes from Russia to Europe
Russian pipelines in Europe. Source: BBC (2021)

On the Chinese side, we need to pay attention to its reputation as it is seriously damaged due to its rule during COVID-19 outbreak. Nowadays, many countries untrust China’s word after its government denied WHO’s officials to inspect health facilities in Wuhan to find out the origin of COVID-19. A controversy that ended in an investigation carried on by the US Intelligence agencies commanded by President Biden.

Another crisis that China is facing is the housing sector. The prices of households in China have increased radically by the end of 2021 and some enterprises like Evergreen are at stake of bankruptcy. The government is trying to relieve that problem through state investments but that is not enough. As well as the population growth is going down because of the decrease in birth rates in the last few years. Therefore, a quarter of the population of China would be older than 65 years old by 2050, which is a factor that could stock Chinese economic growth according to some analysts. 

Increasingly negative evaluations of China across advanced economies
OECD countries’ opinion about China. Source: Pew Research Center (2020)

Moreover, it recently faced an energy supplement crisis, which could have impacted international trade. Also on the international stage, China is increasing its military pressure on its neighbors, especially to all countries in the South China Sea, Japan, and India, which is an ally of Russia. The most controversial boundary crisis is Taiwan, and Xi is committed to annexing the Island to the mainland. 

Finally, on the Iranian side it is important how the negotiations in Vienna go because in case of failure, it is most likely that Raisi will try to increase his diplomatic ties with Russia and China. However, there could be controversial points between these actors such as the relations with Israel and Palestine or Azerbaijan.

Another consequence of an eventual failure of JCPOA is an escalation of proxy war in the Middle East through its cells in that region. Additionally, it also has its domestic problems. Due to American sanctions, the inflation in Iran went up radically in the last few years, generating a wave of indignation among the civilians. 

CONCLUSIONS

The establishment of this new axis could become a new power system that could counterbalance the influence of Western democracies, setting up an authoritarian front in the international system. 

The recent naval drills at the Indian Ocean demonstrate that these powers are developing common ground between each other. Furthermore, their respective governments are increasing their reliance on each one to stabilize their regime and gaining more power to face their foes. Moreover, the crisis in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the South China Sea are both scenarios that could strengthen this new network. 

A handout photo made available by the Iranian Army office on December 27, 2019 shows Iranian seamen saluting the Russian Navy Neustrashimyy-class frigate "Yaroslav Mudry" while moored at Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman during Iran-Russia-China joint naval drills. - Iran, China and Russia started four days of joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman, the commander of Iran's flotilla announced. The exercise comes at a time of heightened tensions since the United States withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018. (Photo by - / Iranian Army office / AFP) / === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / Iranian Army office" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS === (Photo by -/Iranian Army office/AFP via Getty Images)
Iranian navy saluting Russian vessels in the Oman gulf. Source: The Financial Times (2019) 

Even though there is a risk of war between this axis and the West because of Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively. It is very unlikely that a direct armed conflict between these fronts breaks out for several factors. On the one hand, the leaders of these countries know that a direct confrontation with the United States and its allies will be a serious mistake because the economic situation is not favorable for the axis and if the hypothetical conflict ends badly for the axis, this will mean a weakening of their regimes and their subsequent collapse. 

What is a fact is that due to the tensions between these new poles, it is that the international society is going closer to the multipolar order before the beginning of World War I, in which there will be multiple countries in reduced power coalitions such as The Central Empires and The Allies. But they are using old strategies from the Cold War such as nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction, which could end with the beginning of a new cold war between the West and the East.

Unfortunately, Putin kept his word and invaded Ukraine after he recognized the ‘independence’ of Donetsk and Lugansk. Due to that event, Western powers are in check because Russia is pushing them back from Eastern Europe and they are contemplating reinforcing their borders with more soldiers. By now, they responded with strong sanctions against the Kremlin

This invasion could mean a precedent for what would come next. China did not show its full support to Russia on this matter, and his president demands an immediate cease of hostilities. But it blames the United States for this after NATO expanded to the Russian boundaries. In any case, China is facing a similar issue with Taiwan and Xi repeatedly advocates that it will take it peacefully but the movements in Ukraine would be crucial for China’s next move.

Finally, Iran shows its full support to Russia in this invasion, which means a full commitment of Teheran to Moscow. However, Putin doesn’t share the same interests as Iran, so let’s see if the invasion changes his perspective in the Middle East.


NOTA: Los planteamientos e ideas contenidas en los artículos de análisis y opinión son responsabilidad exclusiva, en cada caso, del analista, sin que necesariamente representen las ideas de GEOPOL 21

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