22.08.2022 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Blowback of Washington’s Geopolitics of Containment


When President Joe Biden upgraded the US policy of containment to dual containment i.e., a simultaneous containment of Russia and China via a crisis manufactured in Europe (Ukraine) and Asia (Taiwan), little did he, or his administration, know this could mark the beginning of a process that could alter the existing world order in ways never seen before since the end of the Second World War. In an unusual way, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was accurate in his prediction when he said that the US was “at the edge of war with Russia and China on issues which we partly created, without any concept of how this is going to end or what it’s supposed to lead to.” The war in Europe has yielded some benefits for the US, as no European nations are now actively contemplating creating a strictly European security infrastructure as an alternative to the US-led NATO. This question is now likely to remain off the EU agenda for many years to come.

But what about the rest of the world, especially countries that have been US allies for decades? The war in Europe – especially, how the US is managing it – has taught a great many of these countries a lesson that they seem to have learnt well to adjust themselves to the changing realities of the global order. Their policies reflect their growing belief in the fact that the global order is in a state of flux and that new, alternative partnerships are needed to be forged.

This is most evident from the renewed quest of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, along with many other countries, to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Saudia is a country that has depended, for most of its history as an independent country, on the US military support. It has, on most occasions, followed the US in its footsteps vis-à-vis key global issues. But Saudia Arabia decided to take an alternative path in the ongoing war in Europe. Apart from refusing to side with the US against Russia, Saudi Arabia, as reports suggest, is all set to become a “dialogue partner” of the SCO.

As the report notes, the SCO is eyeing a major expansion. This expansion – which will include major Gulf states – means that these countries have already taken firm decisions to chart a course of action that does not lead to Washington. That typical US allies have taken these decisions shows that not many in the world, except Europe, really believe the US narrative of Russia and China being two “revisionist states” bent upon “destroying” the so-called rule-based order.

Whereas the fact of the matter is that – which is not hard for non-Western states to understand – China has emerged as a superpower by playing according to the very rules – and within the parameters – of the system set by the US post-1945. In fact, China’s Xi praised this system in his 2017 speech at the Word Economic Forum in Davos. As Xi noted then, the key to China’s success is a conscious decision that the Chinese leadership took decades ago to integrate with the global economy. The global economy (as functioning) is, according to Xi, a reality and “any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries and people between economies, and channel the waters in the ocean back into isolated lakes and creeks is simply not possible.”

Why would China try to change the system it thinks is inevitable and beneficial? Although it remains that China wants to create a less US-centric world order, the underlying reason is the disproportionate influence of the US on this system. This is a bottleneck that China and Russia want to remove, an objective that renders China and Russia “revisionist” in the eye of the US policymakers.

It is not just the US domination that is a problem, but the way Washington exercises this domination to blackmail countries that has become a problem. There is an added concern for Saudia. There is no denying that there is no love lost between Mohammad bin Salman (M.B.S.) and Joe Biden. Even after Biden visited M.B.S., it did little to nothing to diffuse tensions. There is no denying either that the Biden administration has always favoured former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef as the ‘rightful’ successor. Given Saudia’s repeated refusal to support the US against Russia, there is a growing concern within Saudia that the US could push for a regime change in Saudia (and even other Gulf states) in the name of democracy and human rights.

Many Gulf states – especially, Gulf royal families – have their assets in the West. In the wake of these states’ refusal to support the US, there is no denying that the West – the US and the EU – may end up imposing sanctions on the Gulf and/or freezing their assets as well (the US has frozen assets worth billions of dollars belonging to Russians in the wake of the war in Ukraine).

There is, therefore, every reason for these countries to have powerful countries on their side; hence, the changing position of Gulf Arab states vis-à-vis Russia and China. There are added benefits as well.

Besides having powerful global allies, membership in the SCO can also give these states access to a system that is beyond the reach of US sanctions. On August 16, 2022, Russia’s Economic Development Minister, Maxim Reshetnikov, offered SCO member countries to join its financial messaging system SPFS, the Russian equivalent of SWIFT. This system is part of the Russian bid to challenge the US domination and its ability to cut any country off SWIFT any time it deems fit.

This offer stands to add to the long queue of countries waiting to join the SCO. To conclude and to emphasise the blowback: it is the SCO that is expanding, not the US-led G7. Russia’s exit from G8 turned the group into G7. G7 has been static ever since, but its rival is not. With the global rival of the G7 now expanding, it means that the global centre of gravity is also changing. Powerful Gulf states, making rational calculations, are only responding to this tectonic shift. Many more will follow suit soon, thus multiplying the blowback and fulfilling Kissinger’s prediction of the unknown outcomes for the US.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.