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On the march: Russia, China and partners ready themselves as Ukraine declared ‘world war’

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin (Source: Xinhua)

As Russia continues to slowly grind out what is fast becoming a pyrrhic victory in Ukraine, its growing global web of “allies” and partners are rapidly turning the European conflict into a “world war”, with troubling implications for the global order.

As Russia continues to slowly grind out what is fast becoming a pyrrhic victory in Ukraine, its growing global web of “allies” and partners are rapidly turning the European conflict into a “world war”, with troubling implications for the global order.

By far, the most central characteristic of human history is the utter dominance of a small number of nations, empires or kingdoms over others, which created what is often described as a lopsided approach to the geopolitical concept of polarity.

This reality made the world dominated by multiple competing “great power” poles, a tricky environment in which to operate and navigate, particularly for middle and emerging powers.


The reality of our modern world is no different, this is despite the post-Second World War dominance of the United States over the global leavers of power, institutions, and commons, which was heightened in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Fast forward to today and the jubilation and hubris which characterised the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union has now transformed into a far less optimistic vision of the future, as once again, the historical “norms” of great power competition and multipolarity are alive and well.

In recent years, the post-Second World War global order has come under assault both directly and indirectly in a new wave of “grey zone” or “hybrid” warfare, which has resulted in the creation of a parallel network of economic, political, and strategic organisations and arrangements to challenge the US-led post-war global order.

Adding to this seemingly coordinated pushback against the US-led world order, Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have equally sought to directly subvert and undermine the legitimacy and reputation of the United States and its multilateral international organisations that serve as the foundation of this order.

Leading the charge for this new, increasingly contested multipolar world is Mao and now Xi’s China, seeking to leverage its now immense economic, political, and strategic might to right the wrongs of the past, namely the “century of humiliation” at the hands of colonial empires, with its eyes firmly set on usurping the global status quo.

Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia, now heavily engaged in an ongoing invasion of Ukraine and rapidly entrenching itself within China’s new world order, spearheaded by multilateral organisations like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China, South Africa) organisation, giving rise to an increasingly disrupted and contested global environment that will directly impact global economic, political, and strategic security for nations like Australia.

Standing in defiance, yet seemingly declining opposition, is the United States, the incumbent global hegemon, which over the last three decades enjoyed unrivalled dominance and optimism post-Cold War, giving way to a hollowing out of the once-unrivalled US economic and industrial base, and an overdependence on the oil-backed/linked US dollar to reinforce its global might.

Compounding this are disastrous forays in military adventurism in the Middle East and Central Asia, all the while the world’s emerging powers are rapidly developing their own immense economies and strategic capabilities to reshape the world in their image.

Demonstrating the increased coordination between China, Russia and Iran, in particular, is a piece for Bloomberg, titled, Ukraine Is Now a World War. And Putin Is Gaining Friends by Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Hal Brands.

A new ‘world war’

Now it might seem like an odd comparison to make, fair enough, particularly given the previous incarnations of world wars, which saw great powers and their alliance networks brutally beating one another into bloody pulps at the costs of tens of millions of lives, but the comparison, surprisingly holds up.

Brands began with an emphasis on a front thousands of kilometres away from the frontlines of the Ukraine conflict, on the Korean Peninsula, with the two Koreas playing an active part in the ongoing conflict for their respective “partners”.

He stated, “Since 2022, the two Koreas have made themselves central to a raging war in Europe. South Korea has indirectly given Ukraine a small mountain of artillery ammunition – solid gold in a protracted ground war. North Korea has served as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s armoury, supplying ballistic missiles used to ravage Ukraine’s cities and artillery shells used to pound its troops. Both countries, moreover, are part of clashing coalitions that have turned the fight between Ukraine and Russia into a grander, more encompassing test of strength.”

Now yes, I know this sounds like a traditional “proxy war” situation, although in this instance, it isn’t North and South Korea that Russia and Ukraine are fighting on behalf of.

Rather, the conflict between Moscow and Kyiv is more directly a conflict between the United States, Russia, and, to an extent, the People’s Republic of China, playing out both directly and indirectly on the steppes of Eastern Europe.

Brands explained, “In helping Ukraine defend itself, America is also imposing heavy costs on one of its fiercest enemies. What has changed since 2022 is that the proxy war has expanded – and been fully joined by both sides...

“Ukraine has the support of democracies spanning North America, Europe and the Indo-Pacific – countries committed to sustaining Kyiv’s independence and punishing Putin severely in the process. Yet that support is being matched and blunted by a cohort of Eurasian autocracies lending vital aid to Moscow and making life more difficult for the West. Two vast alliances are squaring off, albeit indirectly, on European battlegrounds. The fight in Ukraine has become the first global conflict of a new cold war,” Brands explained.

However, the US isn’t the only power enlisting the support of a global alliance network, with Russia drawing on support from across the globe, including the People’s Republic of China, Iran, North Korea and even to an extent, India, all of which have provided avenues to support the resupply and re-equipping of the Russian military and helping the Russian economy to circumvent Western sanctions.

So already, the growing web of alliances spanning the globe fits the broad characterisation as a “world war”.

While the Russian invasion has certainly galvanised the Western alliance network, it has equally brought together a growing web of revisionist powers committed to resisting, challenging, and overthrowing the US-led world order.

The axis pushback

As was established by Sir Isaac Newton with his third law of motion, “Whenever one object exerts a force on another object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite on the first” or simply put, “for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction” and in geopolitics, this is no different.

While the Western world has galvanised to varying degrees of success in its support of Ukraine, arguably, the same can be for Russia’s network of partners across the globe.

Brands explained, “Iran provided Putin with thousands of Shahed exploding drones and ballistic missiles to be used against Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure. Tehran has even dispatched advisers to train Russian forces in the use of those drones – and helped Russia build them on its own soil.

Going further he detailed, “North Korea has sold Moscow between 1 million and 3 million artillery shells – compared to the roughly 2 million rounds of 155 mm artillery ammunition America and all of its allies combined have sent Ukraine. North Korean missiles are also sustaining Putin’s war effort; their debris has been found at the site of Russian attacks. Tehran and Pyongyang are the armourers of autocracy, giving Moscow the punching power to wage a protracted war.”

While Beijing hasn’t gone as far as other nations, namely Iran and North Korea over fears China would be punished by the United States and European Union, Brands detailed this, saying, “China hasn’t gone that far: Threats of US and European sanctions have prevented it from transferring the weapons of war. But China has provided Moscow with components – from microchips to machine tools – needed to make those weapons and rebuild Russia’s thoroughly sanctioned defence industrial base.

“More broadly, China became Russia’s economic hinterland, absorbing its trade, helping its firms raise capital and otherwise easing the effect of Western sanctions. The military, economic and technological sinews of the Sino-Russian relationship are stronger than ever. Aligning closely with Moscow, President Xi Jinping announced in 2023, was China’s ’strategic choice’.”

In many ways, this has solidified the emergence of the BRICS and rapidly accelerated the economic, political and strategic integration of these revisionist powers, and demonstrated that for other like-minded nations, the US-led world order can be successfully resisted and the markets of these emerging powers will provide lucrative opportunities separate to the “moralising” of the US and West.

Indeed, it has resulted in explosive economic growth in Russia and rapid re-industrialisation of the Russian economy, preparing it for a broader potential conflict with the US and NATO.

Meanwhile, for China, this emphasis on Ukraine, coupled with the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and ensuing US distraction is to the benefit of Beijing which has desires for the Indo-Pacific and more broadly, the global order.

Brands explained, “By protracting the fighting in Ukraine, the autocratic entente keeps the US focused on Europe – a strategic bonus for China, North Korea and Iran ... These days, it’s not so clear. Russia holds the battlefield initiative; its forces are slowly grinding out gains. US officials have been dismayed by how much Chinese support has helped Moscow ramp up military production.”

This shift has seen the formalisation of Russia and China’s “no limits strategic partnership”, something The Economist explained in a piece titled, How China, Russia and Iran are forging closer ties: Assessing the economic threat posed by the anti-Western axis.

“Various forums aim to promote co-operation and cross-border investment. Last July Iran became the ninth member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a China-led security alliance that also includes Russia. In December it signed a free-trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union, which covers much of Central Asia. In January it joined the BRICS, an emerging-market group that includes both China and Russia.

“These get-togethers give the trio more chances to talk. At recent summits, Iranian and Russian ministers have revived negotiations to extend the International North-South Transport Corridor (instc), a 7,200-kilometre route connecting Russia to the Indian Ocean via Iran. At present Russian grain must travel to the Middle East through the NATO-controlled Bosporus. The proposal, which includes a mixture of roads, rail and ports, could turn Iran into an export outlet for Russia.”

This would have major implications for the US and Western allies, like Australia, who have become increasingly dependent on China as the “factory of the world” and the junior partners of the BRICS and SCO alike, with The Economist explaining, “Junior partners may not be pleased: their manufacturing industries would suffer as China redirected its exports. America would also suffer: its consumers would pay more for their imports, and in time its leaders would see the first serious challenge to their dominance of the global trading system.”

Either way, for nations like Australia, a lower-tier middle power, the emerging economic, political and strategic mass of these organisations in direct competition to the US and Western alliance necessitates that Australia take these challenges more seriously and build greater domestic capability via models like “homeland economics” as a means of enhancing national resilience and competitiveness in this newly emerging global order.

Final thoughts

If Australia is going to survive and thrive in this new era, Australia’s policymakers and the public are going to have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world.

All of this is underpinned by the emerging economic, political, and strategic might of powers like China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the established and re-emerging capability of both South Korea and Japan in particular, are serving to create a hotbed of competition on our doorstep.

Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers urgently need to look beyond the myopic lens that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policymaking since Federation.

Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific.

The most important question now becomes, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see both a narrative and strategy that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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