By Arab News
By Baria Alamuddin*
In the context of the Ukraine war, the manner in which the world functions, and rivalries between superpowers, have been profoundly transformed in ways that are scarcely yet understood.
The Western world has awoken to the fact that it no longer unilaterally calls the shots as it did in the 1990s, while states such as China, Russia, India, North Korea and Iran strive to subvert the old order and remold the world according to their interests.
Paradoxically, decades of Western sanctions have given rise to a new generation of transnational networks and institutions that render those sanctions largely non-operable. See how heavily sanctioned oil producers such as Iran and Russia clandestinely export in massive quantities to India and China, while payments are facilitated through opaque institutions, or even untraceable barter arrangements. The dollar no longer reigns supreme as the ultimate means of transaction.
Iran is now the principal exporter of drones and other munitions to Russia, while the US has voiced concerns about mushrooming Chinese exports of dual-use goods to Russia, Iran and other rogue states.
Central Asia has become the arena par-excellence for the transit of illicit goods. For example, a flush of newly incorporated front companies funnelling materials for the Ukraine war is apparently behind a 250 percent increase in Kyrgyzstan’s exports to Russia. China is intensively engaging with the woman-hating ultra-regressive Taliban, viewing Afghanistan as another square on its Asian chessboard and hungry for its largely untapped mineral resources.
Iran has been doing its own empire building, rendering Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon mere satellite states occupied by immense Tehran-controlled militia armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands — constituting an uninterrupted zone of control from Tehran to the Mediterranean, facilitating the transit of illicit goods. International sanctions against banks in these states are ineffectual recognition that much of the world now dances to a new financial and geopolitical tune. With Iran, North Korea and other shadowy entities routinely sharing nuclear and ballistic technology, the potential for terrorist groups acquiring weapons of mass destruction increases exponentially.
Criminal and paramilitary networks are primary benefactors. Syria is already a narco state, with Lebanese ports and borders repurposed for transiting drugs and other contraband, and the Iraqi economy hijacked for the profit of Revolutionary Guard-controlled militias. These Iraqi paramilitaries are establishing narcotics production facilities in areas they control, auguring murderous epidemics of addiction, wasted lives and oblivion. Iranian oil is routinely smuggled across the border and rebranded with an Iraqi flag for sanctions evasion purposes. Revenues from such criminal activities are parasitically sucked out for the corrupt benefit of the ayatollahs’ off-the-books budgets.
Moscow’s recent halting of Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea, and its manipulation of gas and oil exports during 2022, illustrates how catastrophic monopolisation of trans-Asian trade routes can be for food and energy security, threatening much of the developing world with starvation and impoverishment.
China’s Belt and Road initiative exemplifies this “New World Disorder,” via globe-straddling land and maritime routes with the goal of economic influence gradually transitioning into political hegemony. Beijing’s multibillion-dollar pact with Iran reflects this evolving interdependence, bankrolled by massive levels of investments and loans from Beijing, in the face of which numerous regimes have joyfully mortgaged their sovereignty and independence.
Meanwhile, a rancorous technological war has erupted between China and America, particularly in the fields of semiconductors, microchips and artificial intelligence. Washington fears that Beijing steals Western technology for military purposes, while China accuses the US of aggressively containing its natural expansion. There is an understandable desire to halt the flood of Western tech finding its way into drones and munitions used by Russia on Ukrainian battlefields, or for future conflicts – yet China is integral to the supply chains of the companies producing such technology. There is also no alternative to intense cooperation between the world’s two largest economies on the climate agenda, if we don’t want the planet’s atmosphere to boil in the near future.
Xi Jinping has explicitly told his armed forces to be ready for an invasion of Taiwan within six years. America has belatedly realised that after mothballing its industrial-military complex in the post-Soviet era, it doesn’t necessarily possess the military capacity to halt such an attack, or provide Taipei with what it needs to protect itself, particularly with a hot-war still underway in Ukraine. Since around 2000, China’s military budget has been expanding by about 10 percent year on year, ballooning to $230 billion in 2022 with a likely additional $60 billion off the books — allowing China to acquire new weaponry at an estimatey rate of six times that of the US.
We are thus on the threshold of a new arms-race era, as both sides massively ramp up their arsenals, aspiring for a brinkmanship of mutual deterrence — but more probably triggering new proxy conflicts, or, in a worst-case-scenario, a third world war. Rivalry between states such as India, Pakistan and China over territory and regional hegemony poses similar threats.
Consequently, the emerging nexus of sanctions-evading transit routes will gain a heightened level of significance, as China, Iran and Russia insulate themselves from a new onslaught of Western measures seeking to isolate them and starve them of technology and funds.
While a vengeful Putin has sought to sow disorder throughout Europe via Trojan-horse extreme-right entities, the Western world is wracked by dysfunction and polarization. In the US, Donald Trump wades through a torrent of legal woes seeking to recapture the presidency, dominating the news cycle every bit as much as in 2016. Europe’s populist far-right thrives on turmoil, with Spain’s elections and rioting in France opening new opportunities for power and influence. World leaders are consequently distracted or asleep at the wheel, in the face of oncoming catastrophe.
There is no longer any semblance of “international order,” only the law of the jungle and survival of the cruellest. Pondering the future facing my own grandchildren, I view the all-prevailing tensions, threats and chaos gripping the world with abject horror.
We are on the threshold of a terrifying “New World Disorder,” largely cultivated by the same players and forces who spent decades neutralizing international law and sabotaging global institutions.
If we don’t want terrorism, warmongering and anarchy to prevail, this is the optimum time for conscientious world leaders to urgently reconsider a new set of rigorously enforced rules for how the global game is played — before soaring geopolitical tensions escalate beyond everybody’s control.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.