Emergence of a political crisis in Ukraine provoked by the ongoing ideological struggle between Russia and the West has impelled creation of new alliances on the international arena. The modern era also referred to as a new Cold War, plays a crucial role in defining political course pursued by some power centers, including Russia. Countries with an ideology differing from the universal values of the Western world are keen to conduct policies aimed at establishment of political, economic and military alliances in order to confront Western pressure and criticism. One of such arrangements is Russia centered Moscow-Beijing-Tehran triangle that seeks to mitigate Western pressure and economic sanctions. Beijing and Tehran are also interested in such an alliance and its endorsement was declared by the presidents of these countries on various levels.
Signing of a 30 year $400 billion natural gas contract between Russia and China in May 2014 was viewed as a milestone for a new alliance in the wake of U.S. and EU sanctions imposed on Russia over the Ukraine crisis. Indeed, if Moscow and Beijing is concerned, we may observe collaboration between the two nations within different regional institutions after the dissolution of the USSR. The key motive in devising such format is prevention of any political and economic intervention of the Western powers with the Central Asia region. Both Moscow and Beijing were discontent with the long-term presence of U.S. military bases in the Central Asian countries after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the likes of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were pressured to close down Washington’s military installations on their soil.
In the military field, Beijing-Moscow exchange has been on the rise for many years. Namely, these countries were involved in various military engagements in different geographies. Navy exercises in the Pacific, cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and pursuit of similar objectives in the Mediterranean can be evaluated as a message to NATO regarding the rise of a rival military block. Nonetheless, Bobo Lo, the Russia and Eurasia programs director at the “Chatham House”, insists that it is wrong to suggest that relations between the two posed a threat to the West.
Contrary to that, most U.S. diplomats are aware of such a threat and believe that the purpose of Moscow-Beijing cooperation is to strip Washington of its prominence in the international relations that it boasted for years. In response, the White House is searching for ways of obstructing Russia-China rapprochement. However, this may prove to be a challenge.
Choice of economic and strategic cooperation with the countries in Asia was a notable element in defining key foreign policy course of the Putin’s presidency and a part of an effort to establish Russia as a global power. Moscow-Tehran cooperation of recent years must be analyzed from this perspective. Iran has emerged as a regional power after the collapse of the Soviet Union and both Iran and Russia pursue common strategy in their relations with the West, albeit sometimes it runs counter to Russia’s self-interests. Still, there is a commonality of the geostrategic interests of both states, especially on the Central Asian policy. America’s presence in the region is unacceptable both for Moscow and Tehran. On the Syria crisis as well, Russia and Iran are standing on the same front.
Western sanctions targeting Russia’s oil and gas industry in connection with Ukraine crisis prompted new form of cooperation between Russia and Iran. Moscow and Tehran inked a $20 billion agreement envisaging cooperation and development of the oil and gas industry. Accordingly, Russia is due to invest in modernization of Iran’s energy industry in exchange for an obligation to purchase oil from Iran.
Most recently, a final document adopted at the Summit of the Caspian Sea states held in Astrakhan announced a ban on the presence of military forces of the non-Caspian states in the region – decision that Moscow and Tehran have long sought to secure. Largely targeting cooperation of the regional countries with the U.S. in the framework of NATO, the move was not welcomed by the White House.
President of People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping’s proposal to establish a new security organization in the Asian continent can be considered a reaction to the U.S. efforts in stepping up its military presence in the region. Announcement of such an initiative during the time of Ukraine crisis illustrates Beijing’s stance in the Russia-West struggle. Moreover, it is also an effort to uphold national interests of the nations concerned and repel intervention on the part of the U.S. and the European countries.
Beijing and Tehran have recently signed multiple agreements aimed at enhancement of economic cooperation, with the most recent one being $4.5 billion agreement between the two countries in September 2014. According to the deal, China will invest in Iran’s petrochemical industry. In addition, 12 energy projects were identified for the Chinese investments and Russia is a partner in some of those. If the trade turnover between the two countries stood at $40 billion in 2013, the parties aim to raise it $200 billion by the year 2024.
Relations in the military field between the two countries date back to the 1990s. China’s shipment of defense components for nuclear capability missiles to Iran resulted in the U.S. sanctions against the Chinese companies involved since 2000. During the Beijing-Tehran talks in May 2014 an agreement was reached to bolster military cooperation. Visit of the Chinese navy ships to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas exemplified an interest in pursuing military contacts. Navy vessels of both countries participated in joint military exercises which symbolizes the level of strategic cooperation between the two countries.
Existing Differences and Potential Partners
Divergence of views between theses nations on both global and regional issues is an aspect that deserves attention here. For example, there is friction between Tehran and Moscow on the determination of the status of the Caspian Sea. And if we pay close attention to the strategic relations between Moscow and Beijing we can say that China’s growing political and economic relevance in the Central Asia imperils Russia’s clout in the region.
Efforts of the Central Asian energy giants to seek alternative export pipelines for supplying their oil and gas resources to the world markets undermines Moscow’s well-established control and leverage mechanisms in this field. Observations of Turkmenistan’s natural gas exports policy of the last 5 years reveals that exports mainly run through China. Furthermore, China and Turkmenistan have agreed to build additional 4 natural gas pipelines.
Other than that, Russia-led Eurasian Union project also endangers Beijing’s regional interests, although the former refrains from openly expressing its discontent. And conversely, being unable to leverage energy policies of the regional states, Russia is tolerating China’s active role on this front. Reluctance of the official Beijing to endorse occupation of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Crimea testifies to the existence of differences on many issues. That being said, regardless of the very differences, all the three nations have expressed their willingness in establishing economic, political and military alliances versus the West.
Turkey’s position within such an alliance is of great significance. A pro-Western nation of the Cold War era – Turkey, under the ruling AKP party, for the past 10 years has sought a balance between East and West. Thus, it prompts a possibility of Ankara’s involvement with Moscow-Beijing-Tehran alliance. Especially, problems arising on the path of Ankara’s EU integration, constant Western criticism of the Turkish authorities, diminishment of Turkey’s once reliable partner status within NATO and Russia’s relations with China and Iran evolving into strategic partnership amplify such a probability.
Statement by the Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan regarding his country’s possible membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a source of concern for the West. Unlike other Western nations, Turkey’s refusal to support the sanctions against Russia symbolizes Ankara’s departure from the pro-Western course and an interest to seek cooperation with other nations in the region. From another perspective, Ankara-Beijing and Ankara-Tehran exchange has been progressing in the recent years. Furthermore, prospects of cooperation between the BRICS organization, comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, with the above mentioned alliance appear valid.
New world order emerging after the end of the Cold War has created fertile ground for rival military, political and economic alliances to be formed. Such alliances become a must, in light of the fading political and military prowess of the West, resurging hegemony of the Eastern powers and growing resentment with the Western world. And thus, given the prospect of other nations aligning with the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran triangle, it is not that hard to predict new changes in the international politics.
Westphalian Wilhelm University, Institute of Political Science