Geopolitical rivalry among great powers is intensifying as the US, China, and Russia are seen having locked their strategic horns. Each major power aims to carve the world into spheres of influence, thereby projecting its power and carrying out geopolitical combat against the adversary.
The global power configuration has dramatically changed with the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia, and the erosion of the US primacy on the world stage. China’s economic boom has been the reason for China’s miracle rise as a peer competitor of the US.
However, China, as many commentators argue, is a regional power, not a global one, but Beijing can translate its economic might into military prowess to challenge Washington globally. And the US, fearing that China may replace it as the global hegemon in the future, has declared China as its ‘strategic competitor’.
The US has accused China of intellectual property theft, predatory economic practices, and its illiberal quest to erode the rules-based international system. Now, China, after a ‘century of humiliation’, is on the march toward a century of domination, which may result in intense competition as well as confrontation. Put briefly, the rise of China is a defining geopolitical landscape of the 21st century.
Russia’s resurgence and US failure
The resurgence of Russia has added another dimension to great power rivalry. The collapse of the Soviet Union, which is termed as the greatest ‘geopolitical disaster’, didn’t end a great power. Russia, despite its emaciated economic muscles, has resurged like a phoenix from the geopolitical ashes of the 20th century; old geopolitical rivalry can be played out as Moscow has amassed power and strength.
Russia’s aggressive role in the Middle East conflicts, and in eastern Europe by occupying Crimea in 2014 is testimony of its military outreach. The US has also accused Russia of political interference in its election and cyberattacks. This is not a good omen for the future course of US-Russia relations.
The rise of China and the resurgence
of Russia are not the only reasons for global power distribution, but the erosion of America’s hegemonic influence across the world has also paved the way for great power competition. The US, after the collapse of the USSR, has become the sole superpower on earth, but it has abjectly failed to stay at the pinnacle of global power hierarchy owing to different reasons.
Engaging in overseas conflicts—particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan—were strategic mistakes; these conflicts didn’t only consume Washington’s energy but also evaporated its power and influence across the world.
These abortive wars have displaced hundreds of thousands of people who have migrated mostly to Europe and America. As a consequence, identity politics and populism, even though globalization is the main culprit, intruded into the body politics of major democracies due to the influx of refugees in the West from conflict zones, where the US and the NATO alliance have engaged in ruinous war.
The rise of populist leaders, especially former president Donald Trump in the US, mainly because of populism and identity politics, has proved to be the last straw that has broken the camel’s back. The US has lost its credibility of global leadership by the virtue of President Trump’s isolationist policies. It has thus created a leadership vacuum in the world, so China and Russia have tried to fill it.
World powers ruling our world
Now, China, the US, and Russia are the major powers in the international system. The great-power strategic triangle will divide the world into spheres of influence, and each power attempts to dominate its respective region. But the question is: how will great power competition play out? The dynamics of competition among the three power poles would be different. One theory suggests that competition continues to be between democratic versus autocratic blocs.
The democratic bloc will be led by the US and European democracies with their military alliance: NATO. And the autocrat bloc will be dominated by China and Russia (along with Iran, and North Korea). Besides, another assumption demonstrates that the US will try to use ‘reverse Nixon policy’ by persuading Russia to align with the US to confront China. But Russia, on several occasions, has given indication that Moscow will never side with Washington against Beijing. Everything, however, is possible in international politics.
The third prediction is that the US
will try to recruit countries at China’s periphery as strategic proxies to harass China economically as well as strategically. The so-called Quad alliance in the Indo-Pacific region is a vivid illustration.
In this growing great power competition, geoeconomics seems to be the policy doctrine to attract allies. Economics means, as Jennifer Hariss and Robert Blackwill state in the book, ‘War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft’, will be used by different nations to carry out ‘geopolitical combats’ since coercive policy may no longer create formidable new alliances.
China’s BRI projects, if not now, but certainly, in the long run, can earn soft power for China; most beneficiaries of the BRI, whenever they face the dilemma of making a strategic choice, may prefer to align with China in a great power confrontation.
Although the US, which has often used military hard power to deal with adversaries, is trying to mimic China’s geo-economic policy as statecraft as President Joe Biden has suggested an alternative project—the B3W—to dilute the importance of the BRI, it may not succeed in matching China’s ambitious BRI projects, which are present in substance and reality.
Essentially, the domains of growing great power competition, as it has always been in the past, will be fundamentally making structural changes: crafting global technological order; reordering the world’s exploitive economic structure; and creating new multilateral norms, according to their respective domestic political structure.
It would be a long-way conflict to redefine the rules of the jungle. Divergent interests of competing powers, as it seems, will not allow them to compromise on a single set of rules, which may only serve the interests of rival power.
Does geopolitical rivalry pose a threat to the world order?
If the great power rivalry intensifies, competition, while is often presumed as beneficial, will devolve into destructive confrontation. Who will win? Matthew Kroenig answers this question in the book, “The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the US and China”, by saying that competition between the democratic US and autocratic China and Russia will result in the triumph of the democratic bloc because democracies have greater capacities for ‘generating long-term growth, building alliances, making international agreements, and sustaining stable and legitimate rules’.
But if China, more probably, continues to rise economically, it will confront the US with might and strength. Great powers war in the age of nuclear weapons, certainly, if it breaks out, will leave no victorious power, but it results in obliteration of the world.
Despite great power confrontational rhetoric, there are several avenues of cooperation. Global challenges such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, pandemics, financial crisis, and global inequality provide windows for great powers engagement. Moreover, economic interdependence, public opinion, media, allies of great powers may work as buffers by neutralizing confrontational tendencies among great powers.
But growing economic decoupling between the US and China, rising authoritarian tendencies in democratic countries due to populism, and increasing check on media in different countries would be troublesome for the world’s peace and stability. Certainly, uncertainty is certain!
The writer is strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst. He can be reached at Twitter: @drsho_aib. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.