The ‘Quad’, Unlikley Allies and a World Undone

It takes some skill to create a world in which Russia and China see themselves as allies, but the geniuses of the Western ‘defence’ establishment appear to have gone and done it. Representatives of the ‘Quad’ (the United States, India, Japan and Australia) have arrived to meet in Melbourne, days after Moscow and Beijing signed a form of alliance— largely, it would appear, in response to the West’s attempted extension of influence in both West and East, with Ukraine’s entanglement with NATO, and the Quad’s adoption of the ‘small nations protection’ around what is now dubbed the ‘Indo-Pacific’. 

Russia and China have been rivals over central and north-east Asia for centuries. Even when they were both genuine communist powers, they split after a decade and a half. Their signing an agreement now indicates no great sudden amity. It is simply the only move open to them as a geopolitical necessity. During the Cold War, some notion of spheres of influence and operation was in place, a necessary precaution against accidental confrontation and nuclear exchange. In the post–Cold War world, the pretence of an equal multipolarity serves to obscure the asymmetrical relationship between the United States and its allies, and everyone else. Every other nation retains its spheres of operation; that of the United States reaches into all of them, actively and potentially at all times.

This has only been possible without major risk in the two decades or so that followed the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Eastern bloc, and this period was ended by China’s decision to turn back outwards to the world, as a geopolitical, rather than merely commercial, entity, from around 2010. Its sense of moral right and historical destiny was carried by its Cold war victory, the ‘end of history’ argument, and the forced weakening of borders by US-, International Monetary Fund– and –World Trade Organization–imposed neoliberalism.

The ‘end of history’ argument was blown away in the public eye by Islamist fundamentalism (even though, ironically, it did not refute it; Francis Fukuyama has always argued that there would be resistance to the process of liberal-democratic totalisation), and a neoconservatism was bolted onto the top of neoliberalism. Where neoliberalism purported to spread organically by giving people access to things they wanted, US neoconservatism had to revive simplistic notions that America—or the Anglo-American political-cultural ensemble—represented the 

natural and inevitable destiny of humanity. The message was then pumped out by a thousand thinktanks, NGOs and foundations in every capital of the world. In the current case of the Quad, this branding may run into problems when India makes its full conversion to repressive and violent Hindu religio-nationalism.

Beneath this run the structures of power and history that can barely be named in everyday discourse. Russia’s newfound power comes from its control of oil and gas reserves that Europe needs to maintain its lifestyle; China cannot be sanctioned because its economy is too entangled with that of the United States. These entanglements may create ‘comparative advantage’ in global production, as the classical economists say. But they also create a lack of everyday autonomy in national economies. That leaves a lack of options as regards some sort of graded response. Russia can be sanctioned, for what good it will do. As regards China, there’s not much available between cheerful free trade and war. Globalisation has created a world that is safe, until it very much isn’t. The specific form of globalisation we have—in which the West is a debt-fuelled bubble, running off the cheap industries it offshored decades ago—compels the West to seek to maintain a dominance it can no longer enforce. 

That is particularly manifest in non-Western resistance to a political culture—one of extreme identity liberalism—that is carried on the all-pervasive media technologies originating from the West, to the world. 

To many outside, ‘the West’ has come to look like an all-or-nothing package, as the most radical sexuality and identity rights are offered up with take-it-or-leave it globalised economic frameworks, and any notion of local traditional values are dismissed as pure backwardness, awaiting a nudge forward by history. Resistance to such—the manifestation of ‘illiberal democracy’ in the phrase of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—giving what had been ad hoc responses a theme and an ideology. Ukraine—the heart of the Eurasian heartland in old geostrategic thinking—has been a battleground of Western and Russian cultural forces, slush-money phony democracy initiatives, and phony revived pan-Slavism for twenty years now. Russia would regard it as a client state in any case; to pretend the West has not contributed to its hollowing out as an independent entity is ridiculous. 

These themes—of traditionalism, borders, local autonomy, illiberal anti-progressivism—are present in the new Russia–China axis. The lead partner is obviously China; Russia is a petro-kleptocracy, with a tenth of China’s GDP, and nothing like its focused modernisation. The concern is primarily territorial. But one can see in China’s recent crackdown on various hypermodern Western cultural phenomena (big-time talent shows, pop fandom, genderfluidity à la ‘effeminate young men’) a more systematic (if no less repressive) response to what it sees as the wreck of Western culture—our willingness to let individual freedoms dictate the term; our lack of shared beliefs and values. 

Is Russia contemplating an invasion of Ukraine because of Kiev Pride Week? Of course not (and the Ukrainians need no help in doing their own repressing). But two major world narratives are forming. They are as asymmetrical as were those of the Cold War—in which the obviously repressive Communist USSR and China formed twin centres of a global revolutionary movement against a more desirable West, which was nevertheless running the world as a vast prison farm—but the polarities are reversed. No one (or very very few people) thought the USSR would be a better place to live, even if one was a very left socialist. No one in the West wants the stagnant economics of Eastern Europe or the totalitarian Social Credit System of China. But many would quite like the enforcement of traditional moralities, closed borders, national pride and shared values—and in elevating Trump, and Brexit, Italy’s ‘League’, Denmark’s DPP and others, they voted for it. 

For all their apparent power and sudden force, these waves of reaction sweeping the world are mere surface responses—attaching to nostalgic imaginary pasts of nation and organic unity, vested in race—to the deeper transformations manifested by the autonomous development of technology and its capacity to decentre life-worlds and evacuate them of meaning. The United States was once seen not merely as the epicentre of this but as its author. It can now be seen that, while certain features of US history and state-culture structure supercharged its capacity for technological revolution, the United States is now as much at the mercy of the process of autonomous development as anywhere else. Paradoxically, it is capable of residual world dominance through satellites and drone strikes, Facebook and Netflix, at the same time as its own culture is being shaken apart by desocialising and psychological fragmentation effects, as such technology plays back into the deeper levels of cultural development and self-formation. 

The wider recognition that these rebellions are, at their root, a response to the dissolution of just about everything one could have hitherto relied upon, and the transformation of the world by a comparatively small knowledge-wielding class, is some way away. The only pathway to peace— many, many decades in the travel—is via reflexive autonomy of communities, which will only arise from a developed global understanding of the necessary limits that must be placed on the ‘imperial’, or ‘meta-imperial’, character of technology, harnessed to domination, and reaching into every corner of existence.

In the interim, the Anglo-American foreign-policy axis’s determination to turn territorial struggles into cosmic battles of good and evil—eagerly repeated by an incurious or actively propagandistic Western press—needs to be named, made visible, and its capacity to join heterogenous situations together in one common cause, refuted. We, the West, have absolutely no business in the question of China’s relation to the province/semi-recognised nation of Taiwan. We, Australia, have no business in the question of Ukraine. The ideal move forward would be the breakup of NATO, and the emergence of a reorganised EU defence entity able to deal with Russia on its own terms. That will not happen, of course, because that concept—regional limitation—was the very thing NATO was created to over-reach. But as the Quad—NATO East—cobbles together a rationale in Melbourne this week, we must affirm the necessity of communal autonomy and genuine sovereignty as the foundation of any possible world of equality and reciprocity, against both the theological mysticism of the foreign-policy Right, and what has become a paradoxical cultural imperialism of Western progressivism. That path is full of hazard, but if the powers-that-be have managed to create a China–Russia alliance, it could hardly do worse.  

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About the author

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

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“In the interim, the Anglo-American foreign-policy axis’s determination to turn territorial struggles into cosmic battles of good and evil—eagerly repeated by an incurious or actively propagandistic Western press—needs to be named, made visible, and its capacity to join heterogenous situations together in one common cause, refuted. We, the West, have absolutely no business in the question of China’s relation to the province/semi-recognised nation of Taiwan. We, Australia, have no business in the question of Ukraine.”
Unfortunately, the revolutionary Bolsheviks of 1917 took control not of a nation-state, but of an empire: that of the Tsars, which became the USSR (for younger readers the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.) Likewise, the Chinese revolutionaries of 1949 took control of the Empire of the Chins. Both revolutionary regimes saw as their task the prevention of an imperial breakup.
So the Maoist regime made war against Tibetan separatists, and threatened it against the rotten Chiang Kai Shek regime in Taiwan, and continued to do so long after Taiwan had evolved into a modern representative democracy and industrial powerhouse. But it has zero interest in imperial expansion today, and paradoxically models its own global role on that of the US. Like the US, it fought a war against Vietnam, a Chinese traditional enemy, and lost. But its claim on the freedom of the seas is enough to drive the Australian hawks berserk. (After their own defeat in Vietnam, those birds are really more like militant, marching chooks pretending to be hawks as best they can.)
It took Britain around 200 years to move from Cromwell’s revolution of the 1640s to the Great Parliamentary Reform 0f 1832, which will ever be a work-in-progress as long as the British choose to put up with the House of Lords. The Chinese forces for liberal democracy suffered a bloody defeat in the Tienanmen Massacre of 1989, but they have by no means lost the war.
Time is on their side. And yes, any battle for liberal democracy anywhere in the world is very much the business of liberal democrats in Australia. And the despots of the world know it; and show it.

Hi Guy. I’ve followed you from Crikey because I can’t take the war mongering over there any more.
Re: “The ideal move forward would be the breakup of NATO, and the emergence of a reorganised EU defence entity able to deal with Russia on its own terms. “ Yes it would be, but it’s never going to happen. It never was going to happen. The Americans wouldn’t countenance the idea- the plan was always NATO expansion. The arms industry needed new customers and in a hurry. A lot of Americans employed in the armaments industry- literally millions. Entire towns and regions. Russia actually made overtures a few times over the past 3 decades to join NATO herself and got laughed at. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if she’d been taken seriously instead? Likewise, what might have happened if Ukraine had been encouraged down the path of armed neutrality instead of given the carrot of eventual NATO membership instead? Well, we’ll never know now, will we? So here we are. Listening to the drums, fingers crossed someone doesn’t manage to get their heartfelt wish for WWIII. There’s a lot of it about.

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