November 05, 2008


By Dr. Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

The global power balance has been in a churning state ever since the turn of the millennium. The disintegration of the Soviet Union enabled the United States global strategic predominance to be unrivalled and unquestioned. Concerned by United States unilateralism., Russia and China as the two nations most strategically affected set in motion two significant initiatives to offset the US predominance.

Russia under the dynamic leadership of President Putin set Russia on a course of strategic and military resurgence. This was facilitated by rising Russian oil revenues. China with significant economic resources at its disposal embarked on a strategic build-up of its strategic assets and military upgradation.

The United States decade-old strategic global predominance was now to be under challenge by Russia and China. This strategic challenge by these two nations became further accentuated as a result of United States getting inextricably tied down militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The current global economic turbulence has prompted many strategic analysts to re-examine the short-term global balance of power perspectives with 2020 taken as a more identifiable time frame. Some would like to believe that the current economic melt-down could affect the global power balance and the inter-se strategic equations between USA, Russia and China. They would like to suggest that the United States as the strongest economy in the world could weather the storms, but Russia and China, and especially Russia’s resurgence and its strategic challenge to the United States could be diluted.

This Author would like to maintain that the economic meltdown today is globalised in its dimensions and would therefore affect USA, Russia and China without any exception. However, Russia and China’s strategic programs directed at altering the global power balance would not be diluted. This besides other reasons, is valid, because Russia and China are not involved in any costly strategic distractions like the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, requiring a significant outlay of financial resources.

Otherwise too, it is conceded by many economists that economies of the world surface more strongly after economic depressions.

Strategically, the historical evidence cannot be ignored that the Second World War took place within a decade of the Great Depression in which the United States was the most vitally affected.

Therefore, in strategic analysis such economic depressions may act as “speed breakers” but definitely do not bring global strategic power rivalries to a “dead end”.

With the above as an introductory background, this Paper attempts to analyse “Global Power Balance 2020: Perspectives” under the following heads:

Global Power Balance 2020 Will be Bi-polar in Nature
Multi-polarity is a Political and Strategic Myth
United States Would Have Strategic Edge Over Russia in a Bi-polar World
A New Cold War is Inevitable

Global Power Balance 2020 Will be Bi-polar in Nature

Assertions of this Author in this direction stand examined in fair detail in earlier SAAG Papers and particularly those dealing with Russia’s resurgence. This Author firmly believes that the global power balance in 2020 would be bi-polar in nature with the United States and Russia as the two poles.

Russia is being dismissively discussed in US and Western think-tanks and Russia’s resurgence is de-emphasised and devaluated. This dismissive attitude is not born out of realistic strategic analysis but wishful thinking that Russia does not emerge as a strategic challenge to United States global predominance.

The moot question that needs to be considered is that who amongst Russia and China is more strategically potent to challenge United States global predominance?

Even on current analysis the following strategic realities suggest that Russia is the foremost candidate to challenge USA and not China (1) Russia’s existing strategic nuclear weapons arsenal outnumbers the United States whereas China’s nuclear arsenal at about 400 warheads is a remote comparison (2) Russia’s existing power projection capabilities extend far beyond its immediate neighbourhood, in all dimensions – land, sea and air. China’s power projection is limited to her periphery and limited to ground forces dimensions only (3) Russia is an "energy self-independent" state and this is an essential pre-requisite of national power. Japan and Germany lost the Second World War because they were not “energy self-reliant” (4) Russia has existing strategic partnerships with many countries across the globe. China has no “natural allies” to boost her strategic power (5) Russia’s resurgence has been welcomed in many regions and more importantly in the Middle East. China is not viewed as a credible strategic challenger to the United States.

More importantly Russia has been a practitioner of global power politics in the bi-polar environment of the Cold War and successfully provided countervailing power to the United States for 45 years. Further, it needs to be noted that Russia was not defeated by the United States in the Cold War; it was Russia that defeated itself.

Russia’s current strategic and political resurgence is precisely aimed in this direction once again, namely, to reclaim her former superpower status. It has won recognition in Europe, Middle East, Central Asia and South East Asia too.

Reading between the lines one gets a sneaking feeling that the United States may prefer China as a manageable strategic rival rather than Russia. But the strategic realities indicate that the United States would in 2020 have to accept a bi-polar world with Russia as the second pole.

Multi-polarity is a Political and Strategic Myth

Multi-polarity as a desirable state in the global power balance was forcefully enunciated by China to begin with in the immediate period following the demise of the Soviet Union.

To begin with, in the early 1990s, China advocated a multi-polar world incorporating China, India, Iran and Syria with Pakistan added. Later inducements were to include France and Germany. This enunciation never took off though being repeated periodically.

So the initial Chinese model of multi-polarity comprised Asian nations with no strong strategic linkages with USA as the unipolar power. China then as the only nuclear weapons state in this grouping may have been led to believe that it would emerge as the natural leader of its proposed multi-polar grouping.

Russia today also talks of multi-polarity but one suspects that it is more for political reasons in favor of China than any strategic conviction. Russia would strategically prefer a bi-polar world at the global level and without frowning on multi-polarity at the regional level.

China, Japan and India even with the full development of their strategic strengths cannot hope to equal the strategic potential of being super-powers in the classical sense of definition of the term. They can sit on the global powers high table as associate global players, but not as “super powers”.

China, Japan and India therefore are incapable of emerging as multiple poles to bring about a multi-polar world. Only the United States and Russia qualify to be superpowers.

Available indicators suggest that the United States and Russia would be the two super-powers in 2020 and no scope exists for any of the other global players intruding into that league.

United States Would Have Strategic Edge Over Russia in a Bi-polar World

Russia today is on a fast-track course to regain her erstwhile super-power status that existed till 1991. Russia’s modernization of her strategic nuclear weapons and strategic nuclear missiles has been underway for some time. Global force projection capabilities is another primacy focus of Russia.

Russia has put her ‘Monroe Doctrine’ (discussed in an earlier paper of this Author) into effect with her military intervention in Georgia. It has put the global powers on notice that it intends making a strategic presence in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea by deploying her naval resources in these regions. It has recommenced her global strategic surveillance flights across the globe with her strategic bombers.

Russia has made significant strategic forays in the Middle East especially in countries which were known to be strong military allies of the United States. Today it has both a political and strategic foothold in the Middle East.

Russia’s strategic equations with the global rising powers are in good shape. Russia’s strategic nexus with China has not frayed as yet and her strategic partnership with India is in a vibrant mode.

Russia is using her “energy diplomacy” and “energy strategy” to achieve political and strategic influence amongst the rising power like China, Japan and India. Russia has a similar influence with “Old Europe”.

So on all counts, Russia is well on the way to re-establish itself as the second superpower and the second pole in the global balance of power.

In 2020, the United States and Russia would be the two superpowers presiding over the global power balance in a bi-polar world. However, in comparative terms the United States on present indicators in the run-up to 2020 would enjoy a strategic edge over Russia.

The United States will continue to have at its command awesome political, strategic economic and military strengths at its disposal. Russia would be hard-pressed to narrow down the differentials in these strengths in the 2020 time-frame.

A New Cold War is Inevitable

With the United States intent on devaluing Russia’s re-emergence as a superpower and Russia’s resurgence aimed at regaining that status, a Cold War is already underway.

In the run-up to 2020, one should expect that this competitive strategic rivalry between USA and Russia will acquire accentuated contours in strategic regions of the world.

One is not forecasting that a global war or clash of titans would ensue, but one certainly foresees that Cold War pattern of strategic jostling for political and military influence would ensue.

In such an ensuing Cold War environment China, Japan and India as the rising global powers would constantly be challenged to re-calibrate their policies. China stands identified as being in the Russian camp strategically and Japan in the American camp. It is India that is well-placed to become the “swing factor” strategically, provided the Indian political leadership can adroitly play the game of management of the two superpowers.

Concluding Observations

In conclusion, the only point that one would like to reiterate is that in the global power tussle in the run-up to 2020, the United States would be hard pressed to maintain its global strategic domination. It has to emerge successfully from Iraq and Afghanistan and to maintain its strategic alliance linkages that it crafted in the heyday of the earlier Cold War.

Russia would have a strategic edge over USA in the sense that in the run-up to 2020 it would have greater space for strategic maneuver and to establish new strategic linkages all over the world. Strategically it would also have single-minded focus to narrow its strategic differentials with the United States.

(The author is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group.

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