Sunday, March 11, 2007

Russia, China, and the next Global Power Struggle

The last few weeks have shown more evidence that the current unipolar moment is ending. We are also seeing that the end of the evil Amerikkka’s hegemony won’t be the halcyon end of history imagined by many around the world. In international relations terms, we are simply seeing the end of a period of hegemonic stability that will be followed by a restructuring of the global power order (with all the associated conflicts, struggles, and wars). Though this seems to be surprising to the Washington foreign policy establishment, it of course shouldn’t be .

Much of the recent news centers on our old friend Russia. Vladimir Putin has most expertly returned Russia to the great power game. Signs of Russia’s return have been around for some time and is something I’ve written about frequently (about last year's military budget increase and general mischief, potentially driving the Iran crises, using hard ball tactics with Europe). Prior examples include supporting Iran’s nuclear defiance of the international community, slowly taking control of Europe through controlling its energy supplies, assassinating dissidents and nosey journalists, feeding China’s drive to the south (i.e. away from Siberia), and the general growth in Russia’s economy. The more recent examples include bellicose statements, a revision of Russia’s national security doctrine, and massive increases in military spending. Along with Russia, China is also making noises with her growing economy and even faster growing military budget.

The current bout of bellicosity began with Putin’s bizarre anti-America rant at the Munich conference of defense ministers. It was followed up with a Russian general threatening Poland and the Czech Republic over American anti-missile sites in those countries. Now the Russians have written this new aggressive attitude into their defense doctrine. The Russian Security Council has said the reason for this revision is that, “Armed forces are still being used as an important instrument in maintaining political and economic interests of states, and Russia cannot ignore these factors in developing its military doctrine." In effect, while criticizing the United States for using military force to protect her interests Russia is declaring the use of military force to protect Russia’s interests a necessity. This more active approach will apparently supplement Russia’s more passive-aggressive policies, such as arming Iran and Syria, to cause as many problems for the current great power(s). There is again nothing surprising or bad about this. It’s the way the world works, Russia is a revisionist power with a small sphere of influence so if she can gain a piece of our or others' sphere by causing chaos and problems around the world it’s a net gain.

Russia’s doctrines and statements would mean little if they were not backed up by a growing economy that supported a growing defense budget. Russia is not disappointing on either account. Since Putin ascended to power at the end of 1999, Russia’s economy has grown 23% a year in dollar terms, 7.5% in Purchasing Power Parity, and 11.5% in my own system of accounting for currency adjustment*. Even though it did come off a fairly low base this impressive growth has given Russia the first stable economy that can support a vigorous military in 20 years. As a result, Russia’s official military spending has grown even faster, over 28% a year in dollar terms to $32.4 billion (bottom of the story) and 13.5% in my system referenced above. When adding in the much larger non-official defense spending it means Russia has clearly surpassed Britain, France, and Japan’s $40-50 billion defense budgets and is firmly in third place globally. This is despite the fact that Russia’s economy is only 1/2 the size of Britain and France’s and 1/4 the size of Japan’s. The extra hundreds of billions will be put to good use forming a hi-tech modern Russian military over the coming decade that will be on hand to carry out Russia’s new doctrine of using military force when and necessary to further her interests around the globe.

The Chinese have been somewhat more circumspect as regards their public rhetoric and they haven’t yet formally switched over to a more aggressive posture. They are much more of a actions speak louder than words type nation so this isn’t surprising. Like the Russians they are also taking hostile actions, reorganizing their military into a more professional expeditionary force, and increasing their defense budget by leaps and bounds. Even more so than Russia, China’s economy and ability to support her military has advanced very quickly.

China has been taking ever more non-friendly actions over the years. In the last year alone they tested an anti-satellite missile that created a dangerous debris field for everyone’s satellites, had a submarine shadow a US carrier in international waters, and violated the territory of Japan with planes, ships, and subs in increasing numbers. Not the friendliest of actions but then being friendly to us or anyone isn’t China’s job. China’s army is reorganizing from a large conscript infantry based territorial defense force into a smaller professional mechanized offensive force. At the moment only a handful of units have been converted (3 corps with 12 brigades so far, though I can’t find the link for that). The navy is growing a bit slower at the moment as learning to build and man ships takes a bit of time, but China is doing just that and is preparing for a powerful blue-water fleet in the future. The air force is likewise switching from a poorly trained, obsolete, short range, light air defense force into a better trained, modern, long range, multi-role force. To make this transition to a force capable of projecting Chinese power and influence possible requires vast sums of money. And vast sums of money is what Beijing is providing the Chinese military forces. The latest year will see another double digit increase (17.8%) in official defense spending to $45 billion. As with Russia, the real figure is 2-3 times as high and is by far and away the second largest defense budget in the world. Due to China’s act first explain later policy we’ll realize the impact of this only after they make a move.

Individually, the power of China and Russia is still somewhat limited even though it is growing fast. However, they have reached a point where combined they have the power to resist US power in the world. Over just the last 7 years the economy of Russia and China has risen from 17% of the US’ to almost 30%. Their combined official military spending has reached $77 billion, 15% of the US, this year from $21 billion, 6.5%, in 2001 with the real figures again being 2-3 times higher. They are the new (well, new-old) powers on the international scene and will seek an international order that recognizes their place. We will, along with countries more threatened by Russia and China, attempt to maintain the current system. With their continued rapid economic growth, massive military spending increases, and reorganization of their militaries the Chinese and Russians will have the ability to force a world more amenable to their interests. The result is that the future will be as filled with conflict as the past (the last century exempted most likely). Especially should Democrats continue to gain at the national level and US power, influence, and military spending retrench in the coming years they may prove quite successful.

*I can't quite figure out how to put math symbols like sigma on here but the system is fairly simple, I just multiply the current year's exchange rate by 8, the prior year by 7, etc. and divide the result by 36 to get the adjusted exchange rate. It works fairly well by ironing out the massive gyrations in exchange rates and producing a more realistic dollar GDP value for most countries that still accounts for variations in currency values.


  1. I agree that Russia & China are the superpowers in waiting. Russia for its gas reserves and China through its growing economic & manpower strength. China i have no worries about, i think if they can sort out their human rights records they could be a force for good. Russia i am more wary of, i can see them being as militaristic as the USA.
    If the EU can get its act toegther it could have a big say but i think that is a fantasy, far too much mistrust between the European nations.

  2. I think China has some time to go before they hit superpower status and I’m not sure if Russia’s limited and declining population will be able to support superpowerdom anymore. That’s a minor issue though since you don’t need to be a superpower to fight a superpower (e.g. Japan would have had no trouble forming the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere if 1940’s America were like 2000’s America). The Chinese are not as peaceful as their propaganda has convinced much of the world. They attacked or intervened in more countries since 1950 than Russia did after all (Korea 1950, Taiwan 1953, India 1962, Soviet Union 1968, and Vietnam 1978). At the moment they are being model global citizens because like Germany from 1875-1910 it most suits their interests. I think that period is coming to an end though as their more bellicose statements and actions along with military preparations augurs for a more Wilhemine China. I agree that Europe can’t unite in any meaningful way so it won’t play a meaningful role in global power politics. Given Europe’s declining and aging population, worsening immigrant problems, unsustainable social budget liabilities, and vanishing military power its role even united probably wouldn’t be great for much longer. At any rate, whatever happens to whom the main point is that history will march on as always.