One of the more interesting phenomena to emerge from the U.S. debacle in Iraq is the demise of the unipolar world that rose from the ashes of the Cold War. A short decade ago the United States was the most powerful political, economic, and military force on the planet. Today its army is straining under the weight of an unpopular occupation, its economy is careening toward recession, and the only “allies” we can absolutely depend on in the United Nations are Israel, Palau, and the Marshall Islands.

Rather than the “American Century” the Bush administration neo-conservatives predicted, it is increasingly a world where regional alliances and trade associations in Europe and South America have risen to challenge Washington’s once undisputed domination.

When Argentina thumbed its nose at the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund, it had the powerful Mercosur trade association to back it up. When the United States tried to muscle Europe into ending agricultural subsidies (while keeping its own) the European Union refused to back down.

And now India, China, and Russia are drifting toward a partnership – alliance is too strong a word – that could transform global relations and shift the power axis from Washington to New Delhi, Beijing, and Moscow. It is a consortium of convenience, as the interests of the three countries hardly coincide on all things.

Partners in Energy

In security matters, for instance, the Chinese look east toward Taiwan, the Indians north to Pakistan, and the Russians west at an encroaching North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). There are still tensions between China and India over their 1962 border war, and bad feelings between Russia and China go all the way back to the Vietnam War.

But growing trade, convergent security concerns, and an almost insatiable hunger for energy have brought the three together in what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls a “trilateral” relationship.

The initial glue was a common interest in the gas and oil supplies of Central Asia.

In 2001, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to challenge U.S. moves to corner Central Asia’s gas and oil reserves and to counter the growing presence of NATO in the Pacific Basin. SCO has since added India and given observer status to Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Afghanistan.

Access to energy is almost an existential issue for China and India. China imports half its oil, and energy shortages could derail the highflying Chinese economy. India imports 70% of its oil, and, unlike China, has no strategic reserves. Both nations have made energy a foreign policy cornerstone. China is pumping billions of dollars into developing Caspian Sea oil and gas fields and building pipelines, while India is busy negotiating a pipeline deal with Iran.

The India-Iran deal has come under considerable pressure from Washington. Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the Council on Foreign Relations that Washington hoped “very much that India will not conclude any long-term oil and gas agreements with Iran.”

However, Indian Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram says, “We should do it – Iran has the gas and we need the gas.” India is estimated to have up to $40 billion in gas and oil interests in Iran, and the pipeline is projected to cost $10 billion.

To much unhappiness in Washington, China just inked a $2 billion deal to develop Iran’s Yadavaran gas and oil field.

The International Energy Agency predicts that energy needs will be 50% higher in 2030 than they are today, and that developing countries will soak up 74% of that rise. China and India will account for 45% of those energy needs, and by sometime after 2010, China will be the largest energy user in the world.

Ties of Security and Trade

Trade is increasing among China, India, and Russia. For instance, trade between India and China was $24 billion in 2007, the same as trade between India and the U.S., and is projected to jump to $40 billion by 2010. Both nations have agreed to reopen an overland route through the Himalayas that has been closed for 44 years. In 1992 India launched its “Look East” policy, and Asia now constitutes 45% of India’s trade. India is the third largest economy in the region, followed by China and Japan.

India desperately needs up to $500 billion in investments to upgrade its infrastructure. South Korea and Singapore are already major investors, and the Russians have shown interest as well. India would love a piece of Russia’s $1 trillion in foreign exchange reserves.

There are growing security ties as well. This past October, the nations which border the Caspian Sea – Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan – jointly declared that they “will not allow other countries to use their territories for acts of aggression or other military operations against any party.” The declaration was directly aimed at U.S. bases in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.

Some of these security relations have a down side: increased arms trade. China is relying on Russia for many of its new weapons, including the high-performance SU-33 fighter, which can be adapted for use on aircraft carriers. The Chinese government says it plans to build several carriers, which would allow it to challenge the current U.S. domination of the Taiwan Straits.

India has just concluded an agreement to buy and jointly assemble Russia’s new fighter, the SU-30, which in recent war games outmaneuvered and outfought the U.S. F-16. New Delhi will buy Russia’s fifth generation fighter, the Future Tactical Aviation Concept, rather than the U.S. F-22 or the European F-35. Russia is also modernizing India’s Vikramaditya aircraft carrier and has agreed to a joint production agreement to build the new Russian tank, the T-90.

While none of the three countries’ military budgets approach U.S. military spending, never-the-less, tens of billions of dollars are being funneled into armaments at a time of growing economic inequity in all three nations.

Terrorism and Unipolarism

Another troubling side to this increasing trilateral cooperation is that the three countries have agreed to support one another on the issue of “terrorism” and “separatism.” In practice, that may give China a free hand in its largely Muslim Xinjiang Province, and in Tibet. It might mute criticism of Moscow’s war in Chechnya, and give cover for India to step up its military actions against Maoist “Naxilites” and put the clamps on restive minorities on its northwest border.

The relationship among the three countries can hardly be called an “alliance.” The Indian military regularly takes part in joint military maneuvers with the United States and, so far, military cooperation among India, China, and Russia is low level. But all have common interests in securing energy resources and, if not confronting the United States, at least not allowing Washington to dictate to them on international and internal issues.

Such a trilateral relationship might have some immediate impacts.

First, it might put a crimp into Washington’s anti-ballistic missile system (ABM), which the United States has been selling in Asia as a defense against “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea. Australia, India, and Japan have all signed on to take part in the project. China, however, views the ABM as a direct threat to its modest ICBM deterrent, and sees it, along with the expansion of NATO into the Pacific, and U.S. bases in South and Central Asia, as an effort to encircle China.

In a choice between annoying the United States or China over the ABM, New Delhi may decide the neighbor next door trumps distant Washington. Before arriving in Bejing on January 15, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made it clear that India has no intention of joining any alliances that would aim at containing China, and said that “there is enough space for both India and China to grow and prosper while strengthening our cooperative engagement.”

In addition, the United States may find that the new Labor government in Australia begins to hedge its bets on deploying a U.S. ABM, particularly since China is now Canberra’s number one trading partner.

The United States will also find it harder to isolate Iran. New Delhi is already pushing for a pipeline that will bring gas to India’s expanding economy, and China and Russia are helping to develop Iran’s hydrocarbon industry. Iran’s enormous oil and gas reserves are simply too important to be held hostage to Washington’s jihad against Teheran.

The United States is still the big dog on the block, but it can no longer just bark to get its way.

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus ( columnist.

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