The meeting between Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the eastern Chinese city of Huangshan on 30 March is likely to go down in history as decisive in the relations between the two Asian giants. It was not only important due to its timing or the fact that it reaffirmed the growing ties between Moscow and Beijing, but also because of the resolute political discourse articulated by the two top diplomats.
There was no place for ambiguity in Huangshan. Lavrov spoke of a new "world order", arguing that the world is now "living through a very serious stage in the history of international relations", a reference to the escalating Russia-Ukraine/NATO conflict. "We, together with you [China] and with our sympathisers," Lavrov added assuredly, "will move towards a multipolar, just, democratic world order."
For his part, Wang Yi restated his country's position very precisely regarding its relations with Russia and the West, using some of the words and phrases which were used in the 4 February meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. "China-Russia cooperation has no limits… Our striving for peace has no limits, our upholding of security has no limits, our opposition towards hegemony has no limits," said Wang.
Those following the evolution of the Russia-China political discourse, even before the start of the Russia-Ukraine war on 24 February, will notice that the language employed supersedes that of a regional conflict, into the desire to bring about the reordering of world affairs altogether. Although the readiness to push against US-led western hegemony is inherent in both countries' political objectives, rarely have Moscow and Beijing moved forward in challenging western dominance, as is the case today. The fact that China has refused to support western economic sanctions, condemn or isolate Russia is indicative of a clear forward thinking Chinese policy.
Moreover, Beijing and Moscow are clearly not basing their future relations on the outcome of the Ukraine war alone. What they are working to achieve is a long term political strategy that they hope will lead ultimately to a multipolar world.
Russia's motives for the coveted paradigm shift are obvious: resisting NATO's eastern expansion; reasserting itself as a global power; and freeing itself from the humiliating legacy of the former Soviet Union. China, too, has a regional and global agenda. Although its ambitions are partly linked to different geopolitical spheres — the South and East China Seas, and the Indo-Pacific region — much of Beijing's list of grievances and priorities overlap with those of Moscow.
Aside from the direct economic interests between Russia and China, which share massive and growing markets, they are each faced with similar challenges. Both, for example, are hoping to gain greater access to waterways and to push back against US-western military advancements along some of the world's most important trade routes. It was thus no surprise that one of Russia's top strategic priorities from its war with Ukraine is to improve its access to the Black Sea, a major trade hub with a sizeable percentage of world trade, especially in wheat and other essential food supplies.
Like Russia, China has also been labouring to escape US military hegemony, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. The exponential rise in the Chinese military budget — estimated to grow by 7.1 per cent in 2022 — speaks of the way that China sees its role in world affairs, now and in the future.
The US trade war against China, which was accelerated by former US President Donald Trump, was a clear reminder to Beijing that global economic power can only be guaranteed through equal military might. This realisation explains China's decision to open its first overseas military base in 2017 in Djibouti, in the very strategic Horn of Africa, as well as Beijing's military moves in the three artificial islands in the South China Sea, and its latest military deal with the Solomon Islands government in the South Pacific.
While the Russian and Chinese motives, as enunciated by top officials on both sides, are clear — to "move towards a multipolar world order" — the US and its allies are not motivated by a specific, forward thinking political doctrine, as was often the case in the past. Washington simply aims to contain the two rising powers, as stated in the still to be officially released 2022 National Defence Strategy (NDS), according to which "the growing multi-domain threat posed by the [People's Republic of China]" is the primary challenge to US interests, followed by the "acute threats" posed by Russia.
Considering the complex interests of both Russia and China, and the fact that the two countries are facing a mutual enemy, the chances are that the war in Ukraine is merely a prelude to a protracted conflict that will manifest itself through economic, political and diplomatic pressures, and even open warfare.
Although it is premature to speak about the future of this global conflict with certainty, there is little doubt that we are now living in a new era of global affairs, one which is fundamentally different from the decades that have followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. It is equally true that we also know that both China and Russia will be important players in shaping that future, which could indeed push us away from US-western hegemony and "towards a multipolar world order".
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.