The crises, conflicts and wars that are currently raging highlight just how profoundly the geopolitical landscape has changed in recent years, as great-power rivalries have again become central to international relations. With the wars in Gaza and Ukraine exacerbating global divisions, an even more profound geopolitical reconfiguration -- including a shift to a new world order -- may well be in the works.
These two wars heighten the risk of a third, over Taiwan. No one -- least of all China's President Xi Jinping -- can watch the US transfer huge amounts of US artillery munitions, smart bombs, missiles, and other weaponry to Ukraine and Israel without recognising that US stockpiles are being depleted.
US President Joe Biden understands the stakes and is now seeking to defuse tensions with China. Notably, after sending a string of cabinet officials to Beijing, Mr Biden's planned summit talks with Mr Xi on the sidelines at the Nov 15–17 Apec forum in San Francisco is set to steal the spotlight.
This process is set to reshape the global financial order, investment and trade patterns. Already, trade and investment flows are changing in ways that suggest that the global economy may be split into two blocs; for example, China now trades more with the Global South than with the West. China, seeking to reduce its vulnerability to future pressure, has been quietly decoupling large sections of its economy from the West.
In no small part, the US has itself to blame for the current situation. By actively facilitating China's economic rise for four decades, it helped to create the greatest rival it has ever faced. Today, China boasts the world's largest navy and coast guard and is overtly challenging Western dominance over the global financial system and international institutions.
Though the current system is often referred to in neutral-sounding terms such as the "rules-based global order", it is undoubtedly US-centric. Not only did the US largely make the rules on which that order is based; it also seems to believe itself exempt from key rules and norms, such as those prohibiting interference in other countries' internal affairs. International law is powerful against the powerless but powerless against the powerful.
When it comes to creating an alternative world order, the current conflict-ridden environment may work in China's favour. After all, it was war that gave rise to the US-led global order, including the institutions that underpin it, such as the IMF and the UN. Even reforming these institutions meaningfully has proved very difficult during peacetime.
This is certainly true for the UN, which appears to be in irreversible decline and increasingly marginalised in world affairs. The hardening gridlock at the UN Security Council has caused more responsibility to be shifted to the UN General Assembly, which was forced, notably, to adopt a resolution on the war in Gaza calling for a "humanitarian truce" and an end to Israel's siege. But the UNGA is fundamentally weak, and, in contrast to the UNSC, its resolutions are not legally binding.
As US-led institutions deteriorate, so, too, does America's authority beyond its borders. Even Israel and Ukraine -- which depend on the US -- have at times spurned US advice. Israel rebuffed America's counsel to scale back its military attacks and do more to minimise civilian casualties in an already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza. US officials have blamed Ukraine's wide dispersal of forces for its stalled counteroffensive.
Beyond the global reordering that the China-US rivalry appears to be causing, important regional shifts are possible. A protracted conflict in Gaza could set in motion a geopolitical reorganisation in the Greater Middle East, where nearly every major power -- except Egypt, Iran and Turkey -- is a 20th-century construct created by the West. Already, Israel's war is strengthening the geopolitical role of gas-rich Qatar, a regional gadfly that has become an international rogue elephant by funding jihadists.
If the conflict spreads beyond Gaza, the geopolitical implications would be even farther-reaching. Whatever comes next, Ukraine may well be among the biggest losers. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has acknowledged, the war in Gaza already "takes away the focus" from his country's fight against Russia at a time when Ukraine can ill afford a slowdown in Western aid.
Yet more forces and trends are making fundamental changes to the global order more likely. Though the details are impossible to know, a fundamental global geopolitical rebalancing now appears all but inevitable. The spectre of a sustained clash between the West and its rivals looms large. ©2023 Project Syndicate
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of 'Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis' (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).