often also ended up fighting people they had no quarrel with. ‘The enemy of my
enemy is my friend’ is the usual logic that the alliances are built on, but
people tend to overlook the fact that alliances also mean that ‘the enemy of my
ally is my enemy too.’
the various regional alliances that already exist seem to be consolidating into
a single all-embracing alliance system. It was that kind of system that made
the First World War happen, and we probably don’t want to see that happen
years ago there was only one big alliance in the world: the North Atlantic
Treaty Organisation (NATO), founded in 1949, victorious in the Cold War, and
more recently an alliance in search of a new role. Almost everybody in Europe
and North America belonged to it.
that, the United States had bilateral alliances or alliance-like arrangements
with a number of countries in the Middle East (Israel), East Asia (Japan, South
Korea, and perhaps Taiwan), and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand).
the world’s biggest countries, China, India, and Russia, had no military
alliances worth talking about. Unless you think that the China-North Korea,
India-Bhutan, and Russia-Armenia alliances count.
It was, in
other words, a loosely-coupled world: something could go really bad in one part
of the planet, and countries in other regions would not necessarily be dragged
began with rising concern in the Asia-Pacific countries and the United States
about the irresistible rise of president-for-life Xi Jinping to supreme power
in China. The response to that was the Quad, formally the Quadrilateral
Security Dialogue: the US, India, Australia, and Japan.
Founded in 2017, it began as just
a talking shop, but after bitter clashes between Indian and Chinese troops on
the Himalayan frontier in 2019 India came fully on board, participating in the
first joint naval exercises with the other three Quad members in 2020.
came AUKUS, an alliance uniting the United States, the United Kingdom, and
Australia, with the initial task of arranging for Australia to get a fleet of
nuclear-powered attack submarines. It was transparently designed to challenge
China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
well completed the architecture for an ‘Indo-Pacific NATO’ whose members would
account for about a third of the world’s GDP. The original NATO members account
for about 45% of global GDP (although the US and the UK are being
double-counted in this reckoning).
China’s more belligerent style under Xi certainly accounts for the speed at
which a counter-balancing alliance took shape in the region, the equal and
opposite reaction to this enterprise was the announcement of a “no limits”
partnership by Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in early 2022.
happened before Russia invaded Ukraine again in February of last year (having
done it once already in 2014).
You can see
how everybody was reacting in large part to moves by the other ‘side’, and why
Xi backed off quickly from his ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia once he
realised how obsessed Putin was with his Ukraine legacy project.
the game is now afoot, and it will be hard to stop. Germany announced that it
was doubling its defence budget last February; Japan said it would do the same
last month. China is rapidly expanding its armed forces despite a failing
economy, and Russia’s growing derangement is hard to ignore.
All the planners
and analysts insist that they have it under control. We shouldn’t worry
that we are living through a high-speed replay of the creation of the
entangling alliances that dragged everybody into the First World War. This is a
is that I can’t see what is so different about this time. Outside the specific
and well-contained war in Ukraine, there are no great issues of principle at
stake, and none of the great powers is planning to destroy or subjugate any of
the others. (Ukraine is not a great power, so that doesn’t count.)
von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the newly united German Empire, remarked in
1878 that “One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish
thing in the Balkans.” As it did, in 1914, once all the alliances were in
great war may come out of some damned foolish thing in the South China Sea. Or
the East China Sea, for that matter.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.