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China, Russia, India and the Global South: The era of revenge

Today’s geopolitical relations are marked by demands for a change to the world order, historical revisionism and reproaches against the West

From left to right, the presidents of Brazil, Lula da Silva; China, Xi Jinping; South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa; the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi; and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the BRICS summit held in August in Johannesburg.POOL (via REUTERS)
Andrea Rizzi

The world is rapidly entering the era of revenge. Two great vectors are converging. From the east, China, India and Russia are each seeking a new position of strength in the world order. While in the south, the heterogeneous group of developing and emerging countries in the Southern Hemisphere are demanding — with greater volume and unity — better solutions to their needs. Each country may have a different approach and level of influence, but they are brought together by their common desire to move away from the past, in which they received unfavorable and sometimes humiliating treatment. To do this, they are demanding changes and compensations. They are turning to historical revisionism and calling on the West, a longstanding hegemonic force, to address their grievances. This is taking place amid a backdrop tinged with reproaches and even resentment.

It’s not a new movement, but it is becoming faster and more intense. China and India are stronger now than they have been in recent centuries. The Non-Aligned Movement generally carries more weight today than half a century ago. This week’s United Nations General Assembly will shed light on the future of this era. This understanding will come from both what is said at the event, and from who has chosen not to attend: Xi, Putin, Modi, Macron, Sunak. The absence of the leaders of China, Russia, India, France and the U.K. suggests that the push is not being made via the U.N. and its multilateralism. Let’s look at the background dynamics.

After the end of the Cold War and following the dissolution of the USSR and the post-Soviet crisis of the 1990s, Putin’s Russia recomposed itself at the beginning of the century. Since 2007 — when Putin made his famous speech at the Munich Security Conference — Russia has made it clear it is unhappy with how international relations have been developing and wants to preserve its sphere of influence in the face of the stampede of former Soviet countries seeking to align themselves with the West. With growing conviction, the Kremlin launched attacks in Georgia and Ukraine, moved into Syria, projected its influence in Africa, and finally launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Rewriting history has been a key part of this effort. Not only has the history of relations between Russia and Ukraine been rewritten, the Kremlin has also changed the view of the USSR, rehabilitated Josef Stalin and promoted the idea of a near-mythical “Russian world” that surpasses the country’s borders and its former imperial past.

Riding on the back of strong economic growth and a privileged geopolitical position, India is becoming more assertive on the global stage. It is courted by the West, who see it as a valuable ally against China. It has demonstrated its considerable technological capabilities with its successful space program. And it boasts one of the largest youth populations in the world. The Indian government has pushed for a policy of Hindu nationalism, and is very determined to consolidate its place in the world, seeking to establish itself as the spokesperson for the Global South. In this case, too, history has been reconfigured for the sake of the goal. On the one hand, Indian leaders speak about the need to overcome the mentality of colonial submission, backing this up with gestures such as leaving the old British-built Parliament building. On the other, India is turning to traditional symbols, even floating the idea of changing the name of the country to Bharat, the Sanskrit name for the Indian subcontinent, which has a long and ancient tradition. Amid this growing assertiveness, the Canadian government has accused the Indian government of killing Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada — allegations India has denied.

China is, naturally, the centerpiece of this great shift. With its enormous economic and technological growth in recent decades, the country is demanding a new position of power on the world stage. In this case, Beijing references the dark period of its national past in order to proudly return to its position as a historically important and central empire. Added to this is the historical revisionism of suspicious intentions. China is making its mark on global dynamics with economic and infrastructure initiatives. And it is trying to form its own networks to stand up to the formal U.S. alliances. Its recent maneuver to expand the BRICS forum is a symptom of its fast-moving plans to force a change in the balances of the world order.

The south is also making moves in this regard. This effort is more diffuse as it is not coming from unitary powers or based on a strong bilateral partnership, as seen with China and Russia. Instead, it is being pushed by a gaseous group of countries in very different situations. Despite this, there is no doubt that unity among these countries is growing, thanks largely to the work of nations such as India and Brazil, which are trying to weave a new framework.

This desire for change, prominence and, indeed, payback is being leveled against the West. In its recent history, the West has been responsible for many grievances. One need look no further than the Iraq War, which placed several Western countries in the ugly trap of double standards.

The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, this Tuesday at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, this Tuesday at the U.N. headquarters in New York. JUSTIN LANE (EFE)

It is evident that many are upset that Europe turned a blind eye to conflicts in the past, yet is now demanding the world rally against the invasion of Ukraine. And that’s just the start of it. The West is the world’s biggest polluter. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the West was not particularly generous when it came to offering aid — the EU provided more vaccines than the U.S., but took a tougher stance on waiving patents. Going a little further back, America’s shady Cold War maneuvers — such as its role in the 1973 coup in Chile — continue to cast a shadow. And Europe is also a target, given its colonial history and the role France currently plays in places like the Sahel.

The grievances are sizeable and shape the growing desire for change, as well as revenge. A delicate balance in international institutions must be accepted, starting with economic institutions. We must effectively address climate change; sincerely accept multilateral processes, and implement migration policies that are unimpeachable from the point of view of international law.

All of this does not take away, however, from Russia’s unacceptable brutality in Ukraine — which should be strongly rejected by everyone, because past errors do not justify standing by in the face of current abuses — or from the poor quality of the arguments of regimes that talk a lot, criticize a lot, but do not even allow their citizens to freely say what they think.

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