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Tobias Ellwood: China, Russia, and Iran form an potent anti-Western axis that threatens global war | Conservative Home


Tobias Ellwood is a former Chair of the Defence Select Committee, and the MP for Bournemouth East.

We conveniently compartmentalises human history into eras. Simply put, five great superpowers dominated their age over the last 500 years. Our world has witnessed the Spanish century, the French century, the Dutch century, the British century, and the American century. We now face the Chinese century but have yet to come to terms with it.

Each epoch had its superpower whose sun only set once after their dominance was challenged by superior force. More often than not, that transition involved bloodshed and war. The victors wrote the rules for the new world order. As our world becomes progressively more dangerous, we are on course to experience another epochal transition point.

A declining commitment to defending those modern standards and values that matured from the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1944 has given space for not one but three significant regional powers to step up and challenge us. Western leaders increasingly speak of a growing China-Russia-Iran axis, uniting to undermine Western dominance by promoting a rival global order where liberal democratic norms and authoritarian adventurism are largely ignored.

This triunity wields its new influence to buy or silence dozens of other states fearful of being on the wrong side of history.

How did we get here? If we are to develop the effective grand strategy that prevents our world splintering into two competing spheres of influence which then leads to war, we must better understand each country in isolation. What is drawing this anti-west axis together? All three modern states have cause to be angry with the West – and the UK in particular.

Iran

Formerly Persia, whose history dates back to 3200BC, Iran was the world’s first superpower controlling half the planet’s population until conquered by Alexander the Great. Other regional power bases came to dominate its land including the Islamic empire. In 1501 the establishment Shia Islam by the Safavid dynasty as the official religion further solidified Persia as a separate identity within a wider region dominated by Sunni Islam.

During the 18th century Western powers including Britain and Russia took over chunks of the country. When oil was discovered in the early 1900’s, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company built the largest oil refinery in the world. Just a fifth of the profits stayed with Tehran.

In 1953, as the country was leant closer to Moscow, MI6 and the CIA orchestrated a coup d’etat to remove Mohammed Mosaddegh, the Prime Minister. Accordingly, the pro-Western Shah to rule Iran until he was overthrown in the 1979 revolution, ushering in the era of strict Islamic rule that still exists.

China

The Chinese know their history better than we know ours. They are all too aware that their recent economic rise might have come a century earlier had Western interference not impeded its advance.

By the early 1800s the mighty Qing Dynasty was on a cultural and economic roll, responsible for a full third of the world’s GDP. But the opium trade changed all this. Attempts to control imports led to wars with Britain, France, Russia, and Japan resulting in unfair peace treaties (including ceding Hong Kong to the UK) and significantly diminishing China’s sovereignty and global standing.

Civil wars followed that lasted for decades. China has not forgotten its century of humiliation. How different the world looks today.

Russia

The relative peace (and absence of Russian aggression) following the fall of the Berlin Wall was out of character for a state that perpetually believes it is vulnerable to attack. The shadows of the Mongols, the Poles, the Swedes, Napoleon, and Hitler loom large.

Since Ivan the Terrible, the Russians have relied on an undisputed authoritarian leader to defend Russia’s vast empire through a persistent strategy of expansion. Ivan the Terrible went East, Peter the Great went North, Catherine the Great went South, Stalin went West. Putin is just resorting to Russian type. Ukraine should be seen as the start of a return to form.

Aside from their shared dislike of democracy and transparency, all three states have less in common – beyond transactional relationships – than we give this axis credit for. Iran is a theocratic republic. Russia is a centralised autocracy. China is a communist dictatorship.

They may have historical cause to resent us. But only a few decades ago Moscow and Beijing were at loggerheads during the Cold War where doctrinal differences over the practical application of communism and border disputes led to the so-called Sino-Soviet split that saw Moscow redeploy NATO-facing nuclear weapons to East Asia, with their sights aimed squarely at Mao.

The USSR may have been the first state to recognise Iran after the 1979 revolution, but Moscow sided with Saddam Hussain during the Iran-Iraq war, and gifted him sizeable amounts of military equipment. Only after the Cold War did relationships improve. Russia has helped Iran develop its nuclear programme.

Iran was no friend of China either. They condemned Beijing in the 1990s for pulling out of a bilateral nuclear partnership and for their negligence over the Covid outbreak. Yet this unlikely triple alliance poses an ever-higher risk of disrupting the global status quo. The absence of a wider strategy to tackle the decline of our world order has led to bespoke sanctions and restrictions directed at each country which now inadvertently draw these ‘fair-weather’ business partners closer together.

Increasingly cut off from the West, Russia is obliged to look East. China is delighted to buy cheap fossil fuels in exchange for hi-tech military technology. China can build modern fighters, tanks, and aircraft carriers and expand its nuclear arsenal.

But it’s their collaboration in space that should most worry the West. China knows space has become the ultimate high ground – ‘own’ it and you dominate what happens below. Any major interruption to constellations of GPS satellites would be catastrophic to the West’s economy and security. China now has a rival GPS intstallation (BeiDou) and is building a space station with Russia.

China has made no secret of its desire to lead an alternative interpretation of our rules-based order with less emphasis on democracy, human rights, and accountability. Its economic statecraft is growing in confidence as Beijing pressures nations to abandon the US dollar for the Chinese renminbi as their secondary currency.

Countries like Iran are low-hanging fruit to bolster this. China is now Iran’s biggest trading partner, a fellow member of the BRICs and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Joint military exercises between all three countries are increasing.

With the United Nations paralysed, China’s expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (think an Asian EU and NATO rolled into one) – covering over 40 per cent of the world’s population and one-fifth of global GDP – makes it a rising alternative international powerhouse.

Rishi Sunakhas warned of storm clouds gathering. “These countries – or their proxies – are causing more instability, more quickly, in more places at once. And they’re increasingly acting together” he explained. Upgrading our defence posture makes clear sense.

But how does any utility of our hard power dovetail into a wider plan to prevent conflict? The ball is in our court as to whether we allow this new axis to force another significant turning point in our history. Are we able to craft the necessary grand strategy that avoids the path to conflict?

The Window is closing. China, Russia, and Iran are not going away. We need a more cognitive long-term strategy today than even George Kennan’s containment policy that won us the Cold War. But one that weaves together defeating Russia’s military aggression in Europe, dismantling Iran’s proxy influence in the Middle East, and challenging China’s economic coercion of vulnerable states.

Just condemning, distancing, and isolating this new axis is a dead end. We must offer all stakeholders a workable vision for a better world order – and an off-ramp for those bent on upending it. Otherwise global war beckons.



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