Op-Ed

In the face of rising Russian and Chinese hegemony, the West will be forced on the defensive.

by Probir Kumar Sarkar.

In politics and diplomacy, there are no permanent enemies or rivals; this has been proven time and again. The re-opening of an American embassy in Havana, with restored diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half a century, marked the conclusion of Cold War hysteria. The Russian-American rivalry of that time has not abated, however, only evolved, as the 21st century has brought about a new balance of geopolitical powers.

The Cuban embargo was the final trace of Western opposition to former Soviet hegemony in the world. The last year has shown, however, that to the Kremlin’s defense establishment, the Cold War never ended. While Washington and its allies turned their focus on challenges in the Muslim world, Putin’s Russia was building up a well-oiled war machine on natural gas revenue to reassert itself over its buffer states and former satellite republics.

In 2008, when America and its allies were preoccupied in Afghanistan and Iraq, Moscow quietly exerted its power in Georgia and has since steadily pushed its new-found influence in Russia’s spheres. In Crimea last year, Moscow backed the aims of Russian compatriots in the nation’s periphery and signaled the Kremlin’s intention to restore its Soviet-era glory. Western sanctions coupled with falling gas prices caused a sudden tumble for Russia’s ruble, but Moscow didn’t retreat in Ukraine or elsewhere.

Some Russia watchers believe that, since economic shambles have been the norm for Russia from the Soviet heydays until well into the 1990s, with prosperity standing as an exception to this trend, Moscow will not break under economic pressure. It has even retaliated with counter-sanctions. Putin’s popularity is as strong today as before, and the U.S. embassy in Moscow now faces Cold War-era harassment.

Moscow’s support for ethnic Russians abroad, played with great success during the annexation of Crimea, may now be used throughout the thriving Baltic States. The current low in oil prices will slow Moscow, but it will not deter it forever. Russians living in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Moldova may push for greater regionalism, which would serve Moscow’s purposes.

The United States can still counter Moscow’s ambition, but it is not as influential as it once was. From the Second World War on, America spent much of the 20th century opposing the rise of other hegemonic powers. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, however, the U.S faces multiple global economic competitors. With unrivaled military power, Washington has managed to retain its eroding strength, but the United States has failed to dominate the global economy as it once did.

Instead, China has toppled the United States in manufacturing and trade within the last two decades, and is now the largest holder of U.S. Government treasury bonds. The Dragon has risen to be the second largest economic power in the world, and the nation’s prosperity demands proportionate military might. It has expanded its investment in defense and warfare, especially with naval vessels and sophisticated electronic equipment. Beijing now commands influence through Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Central America.

China has slowly but steadily engaged in building alliances parallel to the United States and Western camaraderie. In 2013, a Hong Kong-based Chinese company, HKND, obtained the rights in Nicaragua to dig and operate a $50 billion canal, a 172-mile passage between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans that will compete with the century-old, U.S.-built Panama Canal. The proposed canal will provide lucrative income by offering enticingly quick passage of large ships along this new route, but in the long term, experts believe China’s main objective is to command a strategic Atlantic route.

At the end of the last century, the American economic combination of trans-Atlantic trade and commerce shifted the balance of power definitively toward Washington. But increasingly, China’s growing economic and military might, coupled with Russia’s political and military tactics, will push the waning American and European alliance on the defensive.

Russia has increased defense spending by 50 percent over the last five years while NATO’s European members have decreased their budgets by about 20 percent. Meanwhile China’s military spending has continued to grow by more than 10 percent per year since 2003, and in 2014 its defense budget grew by 12.2 percent to $131.57 billion.

The U.S and its allies must explore alternative paths to confrontation. In Ukraine, Russia has rattled the stability that international trade and economic integration can buy, but China is still willing to deal. Rather than military posturing, generous diplomatic discourse and mutual negotiation are necessary, now more than ever, to resolve competing hegemony on the geopolitical stage.

Mr. Sarkar is a senior international journalist who studied U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at Cambridge. He is the Executive Editor of The Global Intelligence.

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