It started with Russia and China pleading that their friendship “had no limits” at the Beijing Olympics in early February. Shortly after, President Vladimir Putin sent his tanks rolling into Ukraine. Supposedly the new existential battle for global dominance was one between liberal democracies – led by the US, supported by Europe and the UK – and autocracies, promising a new vision of state-centric capitalism, merging (some) free market economics with iron-fisted authoritarianism. This camp was supposedly led by China, ably supported by energy exporter Russia.
Non-aligned players such as India, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa were respectfully asked by both camps to fall into line. And so the cards were dealt, and the real-life game of Risk could commence. Yet somewhere in eastern Ukraine – on the Dnieper River, or perhaps in the outskirts of Kherson – everything changed.
Implicit within the Winter Olympics pact, in those fateful days prior to the invasion, what that the conquest of Ukraine would be short and sharp, a surgical incision slicing through Ukrainian defenses within hours. Within hours Antonov airport would fall, opening up the road to Kyiv, and Zelensky’s head would be on a stick by lunch time. Not only would the map of Europe have been redrawn, but also the entire world order. If that is what middling power Russia could do in 48 hours, imagine what superpower China could effect on Taiwan?
But then Putin and his much venerated war machine got stuck. The geopolitical effects of Putin’s unremitting military bungling only recently became fully apparent at the G20 conference in Bali. A five-star Kempinski resort may seem an unlikely heir to Potsdam and Yalta, but as the first global summit of the Second Cold War era this G20 carried unusual significance. At stake was what the new global order actually looked like. Had the world, indeed, been taken back to bipolarity by Russia and China?
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From the outset, host and mediator President Joko Widodo of Indonesia framed the war in Ukraine from a developing country perspective, stressing its economic impact. This was not simply another European grudge match, it had global consequences. Fundamentally, this war is about the two most critical things for the majority of humanity; food and energy security.
The arduous process of drafting the G20 communique confirmed this. Many in the western camp worried that China and developing countries with strong ties to Russia would simply reject any language condemning the conflict, leaving the US, EU and their allies to settle for weak conclusions or none at all. But they left Bali with not just a joint statement with clear criticisms of the war’s economic fallout, but also evidence that the developing world’s middle powers were prepared to isolate Russia. Hopes have even started to emerge that China may be open to moderating its backing for Moscow.
History is full of so-called eternal pacts of friendship between Russia and China breaking down. The penultimate – between Mao and Stalin – lasted from 1950 until 1979. This latest iteration barely made it to 10 months. Ironically, while the master plan of Putin may have run adrift on the battlefield, it is those very actors who were meant to form an orderly line behind him – the emerging middle powers – who have upended it. The prosperous futures promised to citizens in places like India and Indonesia cannot be attained in a deglobalizing world of war, high food prices and less trade. Never before has Russia been so isolated.
If a return to bipolarity is on hold, it remains unclear what will take its place. Chaotic multipolarity of all against all? Either way, South Africa shows that it is impossible to have a coherent foreign policy if you don’t have a lucid strategy on anything at all. The dithering of the Ramaphosa administration – who have fluffed their lines at every opportunity since the conflict began – has astonishingly managed to alienate South Africa from both defender and aggressor. In a new world order, which will increasingly be shaped by the emerging middle powers such as India, Indonesia and Turkey, South Africa has rarely looked so irrelevant. BM/DM
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