The Contemporary Relevance of Non-Alignment: in the Context of the Russia-Ukraine War

July 03, 2022

About the author:

Huang Yunsong, Deputy Dean, School of International Studies, Sichuan University; Coordinator, China Center for South Asian Studies


Europe, the original locus of the Cold War, is once again the center of bloc confrontation. Washington has vowed to weaken Russia but at the cost of Ukrainian lives and sovereignty. Meanwhile, by employing coercive diplomacy and disinformation, the U.S. and its allies have worked hard to pressure the rest of the world to condemn and sanction Russia. However, many independent-minded countries, like China and India, have stood their ground and illuminated an alternate path.


In only three months, the Russia-Ukraine war has set off a series of global crises, including mass refugee flows and severe supply chain disruptions for food, energy, fertilizers, and more. Crucially, a consensus over the root cause of the tragedy, that would allow space for a widely acceptable and endurable solution, has yet to be reached. Contrary to the official discourse of the U.S. and its allies, conflict was all but inevitable as NATO unrelentingly expanded toward Russia’s doorstep. Professor John Mearsheimer, Dr. Henry Kissinger, and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel have shared their previous observation on many occasions. The so-called ambition of Russian President Vladimir Putin to restore the Soviet Union, which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed to be the reason for the war, rings hollow, to say the least.




It is absurd to expect the U.S. and its allies, which are currently displaying hot-headed arrogance, to reflect on the unfortunate consequences of NATO’s unrelenting expansion. By focusing on fast-tracking the NATO membership applications of Finland and Sweden, the U.S. has confirmed that its geopolitical objective is to both corner and subdue Russia. An expanded NATO membership can only exacerbate tensions to a point beyond redemption and demonstrates how a strategic alliance can transition into a geopolitical catastrophe. The international community has been taught another hard lesson about the harmful consequences of U.S.-led alliance structures, which, under certain conditions, inflict crippling damages to all stakeholders. 


A Call for Partnership Without Alliances


As a leading developing country, China possesses a political and cultural tradition, which encourages friendship rather than enmity. An alliance is usually formed by countries seeking to advance and consolidate their national security interests via the cultivation of long-term political and military relations. However, alliance survival often depends on the identification and targeting of common enemies. According to Chinese wisdom, partnerships between countries should be aimed at enriching cooperation for peaceful development and are reliant on close political and economic ties that require no common enemy. In general, alliances entail elevated risk of mortal confrontation between competing parties, while, in most cases, partnerships foster mutual benefit for those involved. 


Over the past four decades, China has entered into partnerships of a varying nature with more than 110 countries. China’s proactive partnership policies have enabled a considerable expansion of its circle of friends and created a stable and responsive external environment for its social and economic development. In the absence of such partnership policy, China would surely have not become the largest trading partner of more than 120 countries. Moreover, China’s partnership focus has deepened mutual understanding and trust between China and much of the larger world. Indeed, China’s approach has provided both opportunities and forums for partners to address differences and misunderstandings in key areas, thus fostering ever more productive relationships. 


Standing in stark contrast to China’s partnership strategy has been the U.S.-led alliance structure, which has caused Washington to lose international respect and delivered poor geostrategic results. The international community has been both impressed and terrified by America’s ruthless overseas military operations and arbitrary economic sanctions against its so-called adversaries. 


In the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, anti-terrorism war in Afghanistan, and military intervention in Syria, the U.S. and its allies have caused humanitarian crises and failed states en masse. In retrospect, it was obvious that the alliances centered on the U.S. and its allies were incapable of meeting the challenges of regional and global security. Far worse, US geopolitical machinations have increased complexity over regional issues such as those in Ukraine and have emerged as a root cause of violent deadlock.


Drawing lessons from the unsuccessful stories of the Western alliances, the developing South has good reasons to opt for a non-alignment policy. Many developing countries, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, have upheld the non-alignment principle as a centerpiece of their foreign policy. China too, has offered sincere appreciation and unconditional support for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) since the 1960s. Over the course of its integration into the world system, China has developed the doctrine of Partnership without Alliance and enshrined it as a guiding parameter of its foreign policy. Apart from its development-oriented nature, China’s Partnership without Alliance doctrine remains essentially in line with the NAM policy. 


Concerning the Russia-Ukraine war, it is understood by many observers that NATO expansion has played a catalytic role and those Western sanctions have hindered any move to bring the concerned parties closer to a peaceful solution. Moreover, the U.S. has embarked on a dangerous pattern in the Asia Pacific, which follows the pattern of NATO expansion, in its latest round of Quad and AUKUS alliance efforts targeting China. To ensure the world does not repeat the mistakes of the past, China, as a responsible global power, is obliged to highlight the importance of Partnership without Alliance. China’s efforts are not simply about non-alignment and alliance balancing but is about illuminating a path that can safeguard each country’s entitlement to peace, development, and prosperity, which is an objective that, so far, the Western practice of alliance building has proved largely futile in achieving. 


Major Powers’ Dislike of Non-Alignment


Since the 1950s, many developing countries have set out to oppose all forms of dominance and interference by external elements in an effort to avoid power politics and bloc confrontation. A fundamental tenet of the non-aligned countries was to resist great power manipulation, regardless of whether it took the form of an alliance or coercion. Naturally, the non-alignment policy was perceived as troublesome by the United States and the former Soviet Union, because it challenged their strategic calculations to draw much of the world into their orbits. 


Established in 1961, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is now the second largest international forum after the United Nations, with 120 member states and 30 observer states and organizations. The non-West grouping of states that gather under the non-aligned banner is primarily tasked with serving the interests of the developing South in terms of security and development. Furthermore, the development of NAM was specifically engineered to resist the hegemonic craving and encroachment maneuvers of the great powers. No major Western power, therefore, has seriously considered either full membership of the movement or even observer status. In other words, non-alignment is genetically incompatible with the major powers in the West. 


Sixty years after its birth, the Non-Aligned Movement has lost much of its momentum due to the absence of effective leadership. However, the Russia-Ukraine war has reinvigorated the debate among NAM members about balanced diplomacy and non-alignment. Surprisingly, most of the members were united in their approach to the war. First, they unanimously opposed resorting to war and the violation of sovereign and territorial integrity and reiterated their commitment to the UN Charter and international law. Second, a majority of members rejected alignment, with the U.S. and its allies, in the one-sided accusations and harmful sanctions against Russia. Of the 97 countries that voted against suspending Russia’s membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council, almost all were members of the Non-Aligned Movement. 


In the increasingly fierce confrontation between great powers, the non-aligned are making concerted efforts to prevent the Western monopoly of global political, military, and economic domains. Neither the U.S. nor other great powers expected their minor counterparts to argue against what they perceived as a perilous race to the bottom. Unsurprisingly, the neutral, conscious, and sober stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict by the non-aligned was not well received in the West. In the eyes of the elites from the city upon the hill, the non-aligned response to their crusade against Russia was no less than a veto on the ability of the U.S. and its allies to dictate world events. Thus, the moral sanction of the non-aligned attracted significant opprobrium from the Western powers.


Contemporary Relevance of Non-Alignment Policy


Viewed through the prism of the Russia-Ukraine war, the counterproductive flaws of the Western alliance system and ensuing terrible consequences were vividly exposed to the international community. For Ukraine at least, the conflict and the role of the U.S.-led alliance system have provided an important lesson about the contemporary relevance of non-alignment policy in an era of uncertainty. 


Two takeaways are worthy of special note: First, alliance policy, as practiced by the U.S. and its allies, does not work for all, and is not an effective solution for regional and global security. Former German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who is fully aware of alliance failures, had endeavored to keep Ukraine from joining NATO. Following her retirement, the efforts to secure stability and security for Europe were completely nullified by unseasoned and reckless leaders from both the U.S. and Europe. For Ukraine, putting blind faith in the NATO alliance has proved to be a recipe for disaster. For Europe, playing the alliance expansion card has resulted in collapse of its security framework and indeterminate turmoil. For the international community, the unfolding set of crises resulting from the conflict in Ukraine has inflicted significant damage on both poor countries and their most vulnerable populations. 


Second, alliance policy adoption best suits the interests of the manipulators. It has been the U.S. and NATO that have capitalized most on the Russia-Ukraine war. During the conflict, the U.S. took full control over the security architecture of its panicked European allies. Accordingly, the US military-industrial complex is experiencing one of its most profitable eras in both the European and Asia-Pacific markets. Furthermore, Emmanuel Macron’s “brain dead” NATO was suddenly reanimated, and now aspires to put China within its purview. In the hierarchical architecture of alliances, those being manipulated are treated as expendable assets.


Careful analysis of Ukraine’s tragic journey toward NATO only reinforces doubts about the efficacy of alliance strategy and strengthens the relevance of non-alignment policy in balancing the major powers. For most countries, big or small, it is safe to assume that the adoption of a non-alignment policy can help to guarantee strategic autonomy, bargaining power, and the ability to advance the national interest vis-à-vis the great powers. For the international system, non-alignment policy provides a reliable check on hegemons, liberal or authoritarian, preventing their territorial ambitions and tendency to create battlefields far distant from their own territory. 


Together, non-alignment and alliance strategies constitute two sides of the same coin. The Western frenzy for alliance structures is not only detrimental to the vital interests of the Global South, but it necessitates that China, and other like-minded countries, move to revitalize the Non-Aligned Movement.


Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.


This article is from the June issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the June issue, please click here:





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