Now for an even newer world order

Election: the future - world views. Michael Meacher on oil and the rise of China

A new power configuration across the world is being silently fashioned to counter, or at least limit, American supremacy. The newly elected British government will need to refashion its approach to the US to take account of this highly significant shift in international power relations.

A doctrine for US power was shaped at the outset of this Bush presidency by the Project for the New American Century. The plan called for unprecedented hikes in military spending, the spreading of American bases in central Asia and the Middle East, the toppling of recalcitrant regimes, the militarisation of outer space, the abrogation of international treaties, a willingness to use nuclear weapons, and control of the world's energy resources.

The goal, it was made quite clear, was "full-spectrum domi-nance". The think-tank's document was explicit: Iran was "perhaps a far greater threat" to US oil hegemony than Iraq, and other nations, including Russia and China, had to be brought to heel - by military means or economic dominance, by conquest, alliance, or silent acquiescence - and forcibly prevented from "challenging our leadership or even aspiring to a larger regional or global role". The Bush administration has never deviated from this blueprint. Now it faces a concerted challenge.

In the struggle for global dominance, oil is the central currency. Its indispensability for industry, agriculture, transport and military capability, along with the near-certainty that oil production will peak around 2010-2015, is refashioning conventional power rivalries. A new regional and superpower coalition of China, Russia, India and Brazil is emerging, and attracting the close interest of major oil producers, such as Iran and Venezuela, as a counterweight to American power. The coalition already covers 75 per cent of the world's population and 80 per cent of its natural resources. Iran also looks poised to join, after its recent $200bn (£106bn) energy deal with China, while Venezuela under Hugo Chavez may turn out, even more than Iran, to be the next centre of confrontation for oil supremacy. Venezuela, the biggest Opec producer outside the Gulf, and a major supplier to the US in the past, is offering to help China build a strategic oil reserve.

China, like the US, tends to equate energy security with physical possession or control of energy supplies. Chinese oil and natural-gas companies have already set up deals with African regimes such as Sudan's. They are increasingly active in the Gulf states, and may perhaps replace the US as Saudi Arabia's patron and protector. Some suspect that the US lifted sanctions on Libya a year ago at least partly because it wanted to check China's growing influence in Africa. Even more significant is the realignment between Russia and China, wrought by fear of more assertive US power. Proposed joint military exercises, to be held in China, signify a rapprochement that is one of the most fundamental changes on the geopolitical scene for decades.

Only three decades ago, the USSR had extended its ground forces so that it could threaten China with no fewer than 44 divisions. Now, the last of the border disputes between the two countries has been settled, and President Vladimir Putin has signed an agreement for joint development of Russian energy reserves. Even more significant, military co-operation has become closer than ever before. China has become the prime customer of Russia's arms industry, buying some $2bn of Russian weaponry last year, much of it top of the line.

Indeed, the western arms embargo, which the US insists that the EU continue, has forced China closer to Russia for access to sophisticated arms and technology. What drives the rapprochement is the resolve of both China and Russia to collaborate in diluting what both see as US domination of the post-cold war international order.

It is oil, not ideas of freedom or democracy, that will increasingly determine the direction of events. One wonders why, if human rights and freedom from oppression were really the lodestone of US foreign policy, Condoleezza Rice branded only Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe as "outposts of tyranny". Why not also Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan? The regimes in charge of all these countries could be called "oppressors", with systemic use of torture and sup-pression of basic rights. But the US depends on these countries economically, logistically and politically for its pursuit of the war on terror, as well as for its critical oil-supply routes.

The rhetoric about democracy may suit Bush's domestic audience. But the British government will make serious errors over the next four years if it takes what he and other members of his administration say at face value.

Michael Meacher has been re-elected as Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton