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The rise of a new axis

China, Russia, North Korea and Iran are all deeply hostile to the US and its allies – and they could coalesce into one big threat.

By Lawrence Freedman

It has become a cliché to say that this is an unusually dangerous time in world politics. The list of threats to help make the point has become familiar: Russia, persisting with its aggression in Ukraine and menacing all its European neighbours; China, reminding Taiwan that reunification is an inevitability, by force if necessary; Iran, close to nuclear weapons capability and stirring up trouble around the Middle East and elsewhere; North Korea, developing its weapons of mass destruction.

These countries are by no means the only ones making the world dangerous, but they share two features. They are all deeply hostile to the US and its allies, and increasingly they work together. Thus China, North Korea and Iran have all become important, in different ways, to Russia’s war effort. They have also been taking bilateral and multilateral steps to institutionalise their developing relationships, meeting regularly and issuing communiqués that claim they are the ones upholding global norms and that it is the West that’s undermining them.

There is increasing concern that these countries are less a set of separate threats but instead are coalescing into a single big one. They may still have their differences but they’ve concluded that a united front is essential to confront the West. The distinguished American historian and diplomat Philip Zelikow recently wrote a rich and substantial essay about a new axis emerging, in the tradition of the anti-American partnerships during the Second World War (Italy, Germany, Japan) and which marked the early Cold War (the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China). He shows the continuities between the today’s axis and those of the past, as well as its distinctive features.

The leaders of the new axis are “feeling their way”. Zelikow describes them as “wondering if it is their historical mission to usher in a new age of what they may think of as necessary violence”. For its part, the US is trying to keep the “new age at bay”, drawing its own lessons from history as the country tries to assess whether the power dynamics are shifting and how it should respond.

In the medium and long term, Zelikow is confident that the fundamentals favour the US but he is worried about the short term. While he acknowledges that there are many uncertainties about how events may unfold in the coming couple of years, the US appears to have lost the initiative. It is waiting to see if its adversaries will act. He sees the reasons for caution but is concerned that “the anti-American partnership has probably decided to double down. They are probably preparing in earnest for a period of major confrontation. My view on this rests on my analysis of the history presented [in his essay] as well as some key assessments of Moscow, Tehran, Beijing, and – to a lesser extent – Pyongyang.”

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This is not a prognosis to be dismissed lightly, but it raises questions. Are these countries really acting in concert or are they still following their own distinctive agendas which happen to overlap for now, prompting increasing cooperation, but with the possibility of divergence later? Has a shared decision to double down already been taken, or is this more of a process, as they watch each other to see how well they are getting on with their own fights? How far will they go to support each other?

Vladimir Putin decided some time ago to double down, while Iran appears to be trying to exercise some control over the risks it faces as a result of the upsurge of violence in the Middle East, set off by one of its proxies. It is China that will make the difference. China makes or breaks this axis. The other putative members need China more than China needs them. It is China that has the capacity to create a truly world crisis. Xi Jinping has made it clear that he thinks China should prepare for war. It is less clear that he seeks one. So the question of how worried we should be about this axis and what is to be done is essentially about China.

This question is not solely one for Washington. One problem with Zelikow’s framing is that it is too American-centric. He acknowledges that in the past the British and French were an important part of the geopolitical mix but now the “anti-imperialists, the anti-hegemonists… focus on America as the anchor and symbol of what they resent – the supposed confinement, power wrapped in pieties, opposing national assertion by new great powers”.

While it is obviously the case that the size, wealth and reach of the US sets it apart, and Washington’s policy choices make all the difference, it is nonetheless odd to talk about the meaning and strength of an adversary partnership without considering the strength of the American alliance system. This is in principle one area of comparative advantage. America’s allies bring significant strengths to their common endeavours, even though they also have their distinctive preoccupations. And it is not just America’s allies. India is now a major player, with a deep-seated suspicion of Chinese policy, yet somehow it is routinely neglected in assessments of the developing international system.

Zelikow assumes, but does not quite spell out, the difference between an axis and an alliance. It is a difference that is worth exploring because it helps to illuminate what is at stake in the current situation and how it might be managed. Although by 1942 “the Axis powers” (Germany, Italy, and Japan) had become a war-time alliance, the label was introduced much earlier by Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator. He did so in 1936, on the occasion of the signing of a protocol asserting a lasting friendship between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany (perhaps not dissimilar to the Putin-Xi declaration of early February 2022 about their “partnership without limits”). This was an indication that Italy had moved well away from its previous alliance with Britain and France. To a huge crowd in Milan, Mussolini explained how this represented the future: “This Berlin-Rome protocol is not a barrier, it is rather an axis around which all European states animated by a desire for peace may collaborate on troubles.”

The idea of the Axis was that it represented a line around which the European system would now be centred. It could also claim to represent the future because of its constituents’ shared ideological disposition. They presented their authoritarian, nationalist, militaristic and personality-driven regimes as the way forward, pushing aside the decadent liberal democracies that were floundering in the face of economic chaos. For Hitler and Mussolini the real enemy was Soviet Bolshevism.

Yet when it came to actual alliances, different considerations applied. Even as Britain and France declared war on Germany, Mussolini tried to keep his options open. It was only when he became more confident of a German victory that he decided to join in, hoping that this would give him a seat at the ensuing peace conference. General Franco, another right-wing dictator who had come to power with German and Italian support, kept Spain neutral. The war began just after Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had agreed a non-aggression pact in August 1939 despite their ideological antagonism. This was captured by cartoonist David Low’s famous “Rendezvous” cartoon. Hitler: “Scum of the Earth, I believe?” Stalin: “The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?” (Low had a series of cartoons before the war that showed Hitler and Mussolini riding a tandem bike – “Hit and Muss on their Axis”). As Zelikow reminds us, as late as November 1940, Stalin was discussing his conditions for the Soviet Union to become the fourth major Axis power, not long after Japan had joined with Germany and Italy in what was then called the Tripartite Pact.

And even well into the war, with the membership settled, these countries never had the same degree of consultation and coordination as did the US and UK. Japan, for example, held out against declaring war on the Soviet Union, even though Hitler had quixotically declared war on the US after Pearl Harbor.

After the Second World War, and the communist victory in the Chinese civil war, a new axis was formed, though it was described then, at least in the West, as a “bloc” (also consisting of the Soviet satellites in eastern Europe, and North Korea and North Vietnam in Asia). Although the Soviet Union and communist China were bound together by their Marxist-Leninist ideology, they soon began to bicker about what this ideology meant, especially in the nuclear age, and who was best placed to interpret it – Mao Zedong or Nikita Khrushchev. Their interests were also not wholly aligned, with Mao showing greater revolutionary fervour and was ready to take the fight to the imperialists, while Khrushchev was more cautious, speaking more about “peaceful co-existence”. In 1963, the Sino-Soviet bloc split amid bitter arguments. A decade later the US was able to forge links with both communist giants, playing one off against the other.

The idea of an axis briefly reappeared in President George W Bush’s “Axis of evil” speech of January 2002. This axis had a somewhat arbitrary membership of Iraq, Iran and North Korea (Syria might have been included – North Korea was a late addition). These countries did not present themselves as an axis. It hadn’t been that long since Iraq and Iran had been at war. The speechwriter version was “axis of hatred” but Bush thought it sounded better as “axis of evil”. Later, however, Iran announced that it had formed an “axis of resistance” with Syria and Hezbollah. Now this axis has been extended to include Hamas and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as Iraqi militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah. This axis has some coherence because of their Islamist ideology and because all members depend on Tehran.

A new axis?

Would the members of Zelikow’s new axis self-identify in the same way? Russia and China may not use the term but they describe their relationship in a way that fits the idea of an axis, around which the international system might now be centred. In the communiqué accompanying their latest meeting, Putin and Xi spoke of their partnership as “one of the main stabilising factors on the international arena”. Their intention was “to increase interaction and tighten coordination in order to counter Washington’s destructive and hostile course towards the so-called ‘dual containment’ of our countries”.

A desire to push back against the US is not all that Russia and China have in common. They are both autocracies, led by men in their early seventies who have spent years consolidating their power and squashing all forms of dissent. Putin’s ideology, however, is explicitly reactionary and ethno-nationalist, with strong religious undertones. By contrast Xi is much more of a traditional Marxist-Leninist, pushing for socialism with Chinese characteristics – as interpreted by himself. While Putin fancies himself as a historian, Xi expects to be known as a great theorist in the Marxist tradition. But when it comes to foreign policy both are assertive nationalists.

What about Iran? Is this a natural addition to the axis? The ayatollahs used the communists to get to power and then crushed them in order to create a clerical state. Unlike Russia and China, it is facing something of a leadership crisis as its supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is ailing and one possible successor, the former president Ebrahim Raisi, died last month in a plane crash. The regime is systematically repressive but its hold on power feels more tenuous.

Russia has had good relations with Iran for some time, cemented by its intervention in Syria after 2015 when Putin helped the Bashar al-Assad regime survive at a time when Iran and Hezbollah were struggling repel rebel forces. Iran has returned the favour by supplying drones and missiles to Russia. China’s position is more ambiguous. It accounts for a high proportion of Iran’s oil exports but, despite past promises, it invests little inside Iran. It also wants to stay friendly with the Gulf states, which remain wary of Iranian proxies in the region.

North Korea is part of Russia’s supporters club and is also dependent on China to keep its economy going. It has taken the cult of personality to a new extreme, with Kim Jong Un the only person in North Korea the people are allowed to love. It is developing a capacity to inflict great harm on its neighbours and even potentially the US. Its rhetoric is belligerent. It dabbles in cyberattacks. So it should not be underestimated, but to the extent that this axis has a grand strategy, Pyongyang is not going to be close to the driving seat.

The idea of this axis therefore depends on Russia and China. The way their partnership has developed in recent years does represent a new factor in international affairs. Despite China’s claim to be committed to the established international order and multilateralism, it has found itself following Russia along a disruptive path. The Economist recently noted: “China is facilitating Russia’s efforts to wreck the working of the United Nations, despite Beijing presenting itself as the defender of the international system. China has described the UN Charter as the basis for a settlement of the Russo-Ukraine War yet it holds back from pressing Russia to make any large concessions.”

This is Xi’s choice. He does not want people to think he’s abandoning Putin, and does not want him to fail. But it is a choice. He is not under any obligation. While he may give Putin considerable latitude, there are limits on the partnership – for example, when it comes to threats to use nuclear weapons. And he has made it clear that Russia is not an ally. Most importantly, Xi never pretends that this is a coming together of equals. China is by far the senior partner.

This is particularly evident in the economic sphere. They share some economic interests – they would like to weaken the role of the dollar and help each other circumvent Western sanctions. China is pleased by Russian and Iranian oil at favourable rates but is not going to make big investments in either for the sake of solidarity. It still resists the construction of a new pipeline from Russia to China, and is steadily taking over Russia’s arms export business in Africa because Russia can’t fulfil its orders.

With every year of the war in Ukraine, the inequality in the relationship becomes more apparent. The position has been transformed since the old Soviet days when China was the junior partner guided by Moscow. Now the relationship has been upended. There has long been a fear in Moscow that China could do to Russia what Russia is now doing to Ukraine and take a chunk of its territory. After all, if Putin can go back to old history books to generate his tendentious claims that Ukraine is not a proper country but really part of Russia, China could use similar arguments to prove that Vladivostok is really a Chinese city. It was handed over in 1860 as part of one of the unequal treaties of the time about which China regularly complains.

Russia has left itself without any options. Political and economic relations with all but a few European states are at rock bottom. The entry of Sweden and Finland into Nato has not only provided the alliance with a political boost, but it has strengthened it militarily. When it is time for the reckoning on this war, the complete alienation from Europe and the dependence on China will be firmly on the debit side of the ledger in Moscow. Circumstances may lead China and Russia to stay close, but this is not a natural friendship.

According to Zelikow, Xi and Putin “regard themselves as world-historical men of destiny… capable of decisive, strategic action”. Their propaganda ministries have been active “preparing their populations for a time of war, great sacrifice, and existential struggle”. 

The reasons why Russia, Iran and North Korea might already think that they are engaged in an existential struggle are evident, though it is doubtful that is what Putin had in mind when he attacked Ukraine, in an operation he expected to end quickly and with a minimum of fuss. While Iran prefers to work through proxies and does not give the impression it would embrace a great confrontation.

What about China? Difficult to be sure, says Zelikow, “since its government has visibly sought a policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the United States. I think it is most likely that Beijing has assessed that the die has been cast for a period of escalating confrontation.”

Xi has made it abundantly clear that if Taiwan tries to chart a truly independent course then he will have to act. He is also developing military capabilities that will enable China to do so. But that does not mean that the clock is already ticking. As Zelikow observes, a war over Taiwan would cause chaos in the international economy, and that may act as a deterrent, especially at a time when China is struggling with other economic problems. Also, China has other means of exerting power. It is proving to be adept at subverting the sovereignty of other neighbouring states, for example in the South China Sea, without all-out war, and this may prove a better guide to Xi’s strategy. He can make it progressively more difficult for Taiwan to act as if it were an independent state. This is not to preclude the possibility that Xi considers gaining control over Taiwan so essential to his legacy that he accepts all the risks that would go with launching a war. Zelikow is not alone in thinking that the die has been cast, which is why this scenario is the starting assumption for so much US military planning. As with support for Russia’s war effort, a decision by Xi to launch a war on Taiwan, and accept a fight with the US, represents a choice. It is not an inevitability, and will be undertaken for Chinese reasons and not to please his partners.

The particular targets for this axis are, therefore, all local. Whatever their shared anti-Americanism, and unlike the Axis powers in the Second World War, they have shown no inclination as yet to declare war on each other’s enemies.

Western responses also reflect the particular circumstances of the individual theatres, though members of the US alliance system increasingly do see the challenges in global terms – France and the UK are both engaged more in the Indo-Pacific. With Ukraine, the levels of material support from all allies are picking up after a dip that caused serious problems. Kyiv still has some difficult months to navigate before it can be confident that the situation has stabilised and it can start to push back. If it continues to struggle, there may be more of a sense of crisis in Nato. Allies are already talking about options that would have been seen as too risky before. We have just seen the Biden administration relent on its prohibition that its weapons cannot be used to attack targets in Russia to help ease the pressure on Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv.

Meanwhile in the Middle East none of the Iranian-sponsored groups – including Hamas – have been defeated in the current round of fighting even if they cannot claim victory. Washington has tried, largely unsuccessfully, to nudge Israel towards a strategy that is not only more humane but also offers a long-term prospect of stable relations with Palestinians. The US has shown that it knows how to deter Iran during this conflict. The problem with its diplomacy lies with Israeli intransigence, or at least paralysis at the top levels of the Israeli government. The other actors with whom the US has to work – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar – are not members of any axis but they wish to avoid being too closely associated with the West.

In the Indo-Pacific, US diplomacy has options that do not only involve allies such as Japan and Australia but also India and Indonesia who have views of their own. When China looks out it sees more than the US. Moreover, to the extent that a lot of the issues with China away from Taiwan and the South China Sea are about trade, the US and Europeans are not the only ones worried about China dumping surplus manufactured goods on overseas markets because its own domestic demand is insufficient.

There is of course another factor that Zelikow does not mention. He assumes that the US is working with its current policies and plans. But that may change next January should Donald Trump get re-elected. We know Trump is unimpressed by alliances or open trade. I doubt if he is itching for a military confrontation with China but he is up for an economic confrontation, and will be inclined to impose hefty tariffs on China and nag the Europeans to do more with Nato. He claims to have a great peace plan for Ukraine which looks likely to leave both Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky unimpressed. Trump showed little interest last time in coordinating his policies with his allies. Hence the anxiety that should he get another term the damage to America’s network of alliances could be lasting.

This may end up giving China, Russia, Iran and North Korea new opportunities (recall Trump’s curious romance with Kim Jong Un) and may push them to modify or even aggravate their relations with the US and the West. For now, Russia gets help from this axis with its aggression in Ukraine but it is still fighting alone. Iran gets diplomatic cover and may get material support but it is also working on its regional conflicts alone. It is possible to imagine scenarios in which they all take on the West at the same time, but we are not there yet, at least so long as the situation with China remains uncertain.

It may be that the US faces a new axis, but that does not mean this collection of states will always act in concert or that their interests will always align. In practise, that may not make much difference if China decided to go for a big push against Taiwan. Zelikow emphasises that he is not using his gloomy assessment simply to call for more defence production or power projection. That may not be of much help because if this is a short-term challenge, the US and its allies will have to cope with what is already available – and that will require careful consideration of where interests lie and astute diplomacy, as well as countervailing force. Of course, if the die has not been cast then ramping up military preparedness in the West remains prudent.

The US does have an advantage – it need not face these challenges alone. But only if it remembers its allies and keeps them engaged. Zelikow warns that we should not assume that, as in the past, alliances of democracies are stronger than axes of tyrannies – such alliances are no guarantee of future success. But as we remember the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation 80 years ago, it should provide some solace.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: The new Great Game]

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