Observations of an expat: more global moves

The Ukraine War continues to create tectonic shifts on the global diplomatic scene.  This week it has helped Beijing stake its claim to Afghanistan and Central Asia as a Chinese sphere of influence.

Also in Asia, New Delhi has become the centre of diplomatic ferment as East and West bid for support from the South Asian giant.

At the same time, the EU has ditched its “talk about trade only” policy with China to join the US in pressuring Xi Jinping to come out against the war.

In the meantime, Putin has turned the energy screws on Europe by demanding that they pay for his gas in roubles in order to support the sanctions-damaged currency.

The move has been welcomed by Beijing who think that the Western alliance will collapse in the face of the energy crisis. The EU and US however, remain united in demanding that China must not help Russia circumvent sanctions, climb off its rickety fence, act like a responsible global power with a stake in the world order, and pressure Putin to stop the killing in Ukraine.

But let’s start first in Afghanistan and central Asia where China has organised a multilateral initiative to stake its claim to replace the US as the major foreign power in Central Asia following the American retreat.

The diplomatic manoeuvrings started last week with a visit to Kabul by Chinese delegation led by Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi described his guests as “the most important high-level delegation received by Afghanistan.”

He was right, as Wang Yi promised support and immediately followed it up this week with a Central Asian summit to organise Chinese-led multilateral support “to—according to the Chinese—“jointly stabilise the situation”. In attendance were the foreign ministers of Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and most interesting, Sergei Lavrov from the Kremlin, who took a break from Ukrainian problems to play the role of junior partner to the Chinese.

So, basically, exit America and its Western Allies from Afghanistan and central Asia and enter the Chinese with a little bit of help from the Russians.

Meanwhile, a bit further to the south, New Delhi has been trampled by a virtual diplomatic stampede as Americans, Europeans, Chinese and Russians have descended on the Indian capital in an attempt to lure the government of Narendra Modi into one of the new Cold War camps.

In the last week high-ranking delegations have been sent from Germany, Mexico and Greece. The US dispatched Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh and on Wednesday Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a lengthy telephone conversation with his Indian counterpart Subramanyan Jaishanker.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss also flew into Delhi at the same time as her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov was in town and only a few days after a surprise visit by Wang Yi.

India’s neutral position on Ukraine is a major spanner in the West’s efforts to secure a united condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With a population of a billion, a growing economy and a reputation as a developing world leader, India’s support on Ukraine is invaluable. The lack of it  also threatens a key element of Washington’s Asia policy—the anti-Chinese defensive Quad Alliance of India, Japan, Australia and the US. This week, the government of Narendra Modi tilted more to Moscow’s position by buying Russian oil at heavily discounted prices.

Diplomats point out that India has had close relations with Moscow since the early days of the Cold War and that 85 percent of its weapons are still provided by the Russians. The government’s officially neutral with a Moscow tilt policy also provides Delhi with a diplomatic lever in relations with the Biden Administration. It is likely that they will use it to extract concessions from the US and EU over issues such as Kashmir, favourable trade deals and more weapons supplies from the Western camp.

The Chinese position, meanwhile, is coming under increasing attack from both the EU and the US. Last week President Biden told Xi Jinping in a lengthy telephone conversation that helping Putin would result in “consequences” for China. The US president later told the NATO summit that the Chinese leader realised that his country’s economic interests lay with the West rather than Russia.

On Friday European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel held a video conference with Xi Jinping. The meeting was not originally scheduled to be at summit level. The two sides had planned a simple discussion of trade issues. In fact, hard cash rather than politics has for more than 20 years been the motivating factor in EU relations with China. That has dramatically changed with Ukraine and the EU demanded a session with Xi to make this clear.

Putin’s war has forced the EU to flex its previously under-utilised political muscles to protect its economic and security interests. This will have a major impact on its policy towards China and bring it much closer to the American position.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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  • Steve Trevethan 2nd Apr '22 - 9:17am

    Thank you for your article and the work that went into it.
    What is illiberal in the vendor nominating the currency of a transaction?

  • nigel hunter 2nd Apr '22 - 10:27am

    The reduction in Overseas Investment affect the education outcome in the education of girls in Afghanistan?

  • Brad Barrows 2nd Apr '22 - 10:32am

    I believe that latest independent (non- Kremlin controlled) polling confirms that Putin’s approval rating has shot up to well over 80% since he initiated military action. I suspect this will mean that any suffering that ordinary Russians are experiencing as a result of sanctions will merely serve to strengthen Russian resolve to fight rather than lead to them turning again Putin as the West hopes. If the Russian military is able to concentrate its forces on cutting off Ukrainian forces in the East, as now appears the plan, and can achieve this in the next month, I fear the situation will move significantly in Putin’s favour – he will take about a quarter of Ukraine, have his forces dig in and go on defensive, and call for a cease fire to seek to hold his gains. Ukraine may be in its strongest negotiating position now but, ironically, its successes on the battlefield that have led to that strong position may also make it politically difficult for it to make the compromises that could secure peace on terms better than it may achieve if the war drags on.

  • This week, the government of Narendra Modi tilted more to Moscow’s position by buying Russian oil at heavily discounted prices.

    India just bought 3 million barrels – less than four days of German imports from Russia (0.84 million barrels a day).

    ‘Buying Russian gas and oil has funded Putin’s war, says top EU official’ [9th. March 2022]:

    The US gets just 8% of its oil from Russia and does not buy any natural gas, while the EU imports about a quarter of its oil from its eastern neighbour.

    ‘Which Countries Are Still Buying Russian Oil?’ [19th. March 2022]:

    Steve Trevethan 2nd Apr ’22 – 9:17am:
    What is illiberal in the vendor nominating the currency of a transaction?

    Most EU gas imports from Russia are on contract.

    ‘Demand for rouble gas payments is contract breach – Germany’ [23rd. March 2022]:

    Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demand for gas supplies to be paid in roubles is a breach of the delivery contracts, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said on Wednesday.

    The minister also told a news conference he would discuss with European partners a possible answer to Moscow’s announcement about gas payments, which are customarily made in dollars.

  • Steve Trevethan 2nd Apr '22 - 1:43pm

    The fight in Ukraine May well be about more than Ukraine.
    “It’s a fight over the shape the world will take and whether the world will be unipolar or, as it now appears, multipolar. The US, for the last year before it began to escalate attacks on the Russian speaking Ukraine, was trying to lock Europe, especially Germany, from buying Russian gas and oil.” (From Michael Hudson in the current edition of “Counterpunch”)

  • Peter Hirst 2nd Apr '22 - 2:06pm

    The war in Ukraine is certainly about more than Ukraine. It is forcing countries to decide how they wish geopolitics to evolve over the coming decade. It is also an enormous distraction from dealing with climate and biodiversity issues. Europe and N. America need to realise they are not the force they would like to be and be prepared to compromise their values for the overall good.

  • This kind of diplomatic maneuvering is reminiscent of the “Great Game” that started in 1830, with an edict by Lord Ellenborough establishing a new trade route from India to Bukhara, using Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan as a buffer against Russia to prevent it from controlling any ports on the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, Russia wanted to establish a neutral zone in Afghanistan allowing for their use of crucial trade routes.

    This resulted in a series of unsuccessful wars for the British to control Afghanistan, Bukhara, and Turkey. The First Anglo-Afghan War (1838), the First Anglo-Sikh War (1843), the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848) and the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878) — resulting in Russia taking control of several Khanates including Bukhara.

    Afghanistan held as a buffer between Russia and India. In Tibet, Britain established control for just two years after the Younghusband Expedition of 1903 to 1904, before being displaced by Qin China. The Chinese emperor fell just seven years later, allowing Tibet to rule itself once more.
    The Great Game ended with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which divided Persia into a Russian-controlled northern zone, a nominally independent central zone, and a British-controlled southern zone. The Convention also specified a borderline between the two empires running from the eastern point of Persia to Afghanistan and declared Afghanistan an official protectorate of Britain.
    We thought all this imperial jostling for spheres of influence had come to an end after the dissolution of the USSR. It seems to be back with a vengeance with the US and China as the main protagonists.

  • Tom Seelye Arms 2nd Apr '22 - 3:04pm

    @ Joe Bourke– I agree with almost all your historical comments and the parallels with the present. However, I have one additional caveat of a third player– the European Union. Ukraine has forced Brussels to find its political,security and possibly military voice.

  • >India just bought 3 million barrels – less than four days of German imports from Russia (0.84 million barrels a day).
    That puts India up with the oligarchs…

  • Steve Trevethan 3rd Apr '22 - 8:40am

    What might be the differences and similarities relating to the conflict in Ukraine and those in Iraq, Libya and
    Are there any other conflicts which are comparable?

  • I would say the conflict in the former Yugoslavia is the closest parallel. The Omarsk concentration camps, the Srebrenica massacre and Rezalle massacre in Kosovo. The sad thing is that most of the perpetrators of the atrocities are still there and would do the same again given the chance.

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