While living amidst what is perhaps the worst pandemic in history, one would have expected that major world powers would set aside differences at least temporarily, and cooperate in dealing with issues affecting humanity, at large. This has sadly not happened, as Great Powers appear to be set on sticking to their old ways and are even exacerbating existing differences and tensions.
In the meantime, there were, as on February 4, 386 million cases of people afflicted by the pandemic, with 5.7 million people already having died, and 2.81 million new cases emerging, just on the previous day. Yet, no international effort backed by governments and international banks has been undertaken to ensure that adequate funds and resources are made available for producing enough vaccines to meet the needs of all developing countries.
What one is witnessing, instead, is a steady growth of global rivalries between major power centres like the US, Russia, China and the European Union, amidst the pandemic. While Russia and the US are facing off against each other in Ukraine, it is also clear that the rivalry also extends to global energy requirements of oil and natural gas.
While Russia is engaged in a face-off with neighbouring Ukraine over territorial issues, its present global influence is built largely on its vast natural resources, backed by military power and a defence industry, which is second only in some areas to that of the US.
More importantly, developments over the past three decades have seen that containment of Russian influence remains an issue of major importance for the US. It is only in recent years, that the US is realising that in the longer term, China can more than match Russian capabilities in threatening global American influence. The first two decades after the collapse led to the emergence of an unusual camaraderie between Washington and Beijing. That camaraderie has now virtually ended, as an arrogant, but energy deficient China, challenges US influence
Interestingly, even as Moscow’s industrial influence declined, the world witnessed the rise of a growingly strong China with an incredible capacity for strengthening the infrastructure, of both developing and oil rich countries. The Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” set the stage for a growing economic presence of China across the world. More importantly, this has been accompanied by China’s growing strength in communications and of its defence industry.
China, however, still has some way to go to match the strength of the US and Russia in the development of its space and defence industries. All this is happening amidst discoveries of shale gas globally, which are making the US increasingly self-reliant in meeting its energy needs.
Huge discoveries of natural gas are enhancing Russian influence in an energy starved, but industrially advanced, European continent. Thus, while rivalries for access to energy resources will continue in India’s oil rich Western neighbourhood, the influence of the energy rich countries in the neighbourhood has been eroded by mutual bickering and rivalries.
An important development now determining the course of global politics is the emergence of Russia as an increasingly important factor in the global economy with the growth of its vast resources of gas and oil. A key factor in the growing Russian involvement in energy exports is the competitive rates at which Russian gas can be produced and delivered, especially by pipeline.
With gas prices in Europe now hovering at around $2,100 for 1000 cubic metres, Russian production costs are much more competitive. The recently discovered US shale gas will also find it difficult to compete in the European market with the prices of Russian supplies. Other energy suppliers, whether in the Persian Gulf, Europe or elsewhere in West Asia, will be similarly placed.
The US now asserts that unless Russia plays ball and acts according to its wishes in Ukraine, the proposed supply of Russian gas through a second pipeline (Nord Stream 2) would be rejected by recipient European powers like Germany. Sales of gas from this second oil pipeline will amount to around $15 billion annually, which is a good bargain for European countries. Such competitive prices for natural gas will naturally call into question the economic viability of energy prices charged for shale gas from the US.
Looking to China
China would obviously welcome any denial of markets for natural gas to Russia by US policies, as it would give Beijing access to even more oil and natural gas from Russia. Pushed to the wall by American policies, President Putin has naturally looked to China for support, in the face of US hostility, on Ukraine. It has been a part of continuing US policy to take the boundaries of the NATO alliance, to the borders of Russia. The US has been working in this direction after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Three former Soviet republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and former members of the Warsaw Pact like Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have become members of the American led NATO military alliance. Russia, in turn, has inevitably sought and obtained Chinese support for dealing with challenges posed to it by the Biden Administration, which in turn is reeling under the domestic pressure of American public opinion after the disastrously administered withdrawal from Afghanistan.
India needs to bear in mind that Russia has been a reliable supplier of modern defence equipment, like the Agni 2 Missile, for decades now. New Delhi, in turn, can provide the Agni 2 to countries like the Philippines and Vietnam while they face aggressive moves by China across their maritime boundaries.
This naturally complements measures taken by the Quad to develop imaginative policies across the Indo-Pacific to deal with growing Chinese aggression, across its land and maritime borders, with virtually all its neighbours. It is noteworthy that influential members of NATO like France and Germany are actively participating in moves to reduce tensions between Ukraine and Russia, which have serious domestic and international implications for them.
Any attempt by the US to strengthen security cooperation with Russia’s neighbours like Ukraine would, however, not be welcomed in Moscow.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan