In Foreign Policy (6 February, 2017), Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution, argues that America must check the assertive, rising powers of Russia and China before it’s too late. Accepting spheres of influence is a recipe for disaster. Click here
His argument is based on the following premises -
(a) that the America-led uni-polar world order including strong ties with US allies remains the only one that works;
(b) that the rising "revisionist" powers of Russia and China will not be satisfied with regional spheres of influence, implying that either or both would seek global dominance;
(c) that China, in particular, may push the United States out of at least East Asia, "not only militarily but politically and economically";
(d) that we are returning to the 19th and 20th centuries when Great Power conflicts for spheres of influence led to global wars; and
(e) that to save the world from a looming WWIII, the United States should build up its military further to restore US hegemony.
Kagan dismisses out-of-hand the viability of Niall Ferguson's "tri-polar world order" jointly led or influenced by the United States, Russia and China with strategic "cooperative rivalry" respecting each other's core interests. He considers such strategic balance unsustainable as both Russia and China are dissatisfied revisionist great powers which are bound to progress from an inch to an ell. Instead, he thinks that the only option is for the United States to redouble her military strength to maintain a US-led world order. This emphasis on military dominance merits a little more thorough think-through.
First, it begs the question whether history inevitably repeats itself. In the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution characterized by global interdependence and inter-connectivity, concepts of global hegemony, power exclusivity, and a zero-sum-game mentality may no longer work. For example, why should China push the United States off anywhere economically when American finance, technology, and businesses continue to define the global supply and value chain, much to China's benefit?
Second, Russia has shown relatively limited ambition to achieve dominance beyond her Eurasian "near abroad". Notwithstanding narrower national calculations, she has displayed a more proactive role in maintaining regional peace and stability, as in the case of Syria following years of bloody conflict. Similarly, despite assertiveness in the South China Sea, which are critical sea-lanes central to her economic lifeblood, China continues to defend the global trading system, not to mention the international compact against Climate Change. China has also been fielding the largest peacekeeping contingent among Permanent Members of the UN Security Council. Both rising powers are therefore capable of contributing to the global commons. Unless they are deliberately threatened or provoked militarily, it may be too early to conclude that World War III is inevitable.
Third, the United States military is already by far the strongest in the world, with military expenditure exceeding the rest of the world combined. If this is deployed to coerce Russia or China, both countries are likely and well able to respond. Russia's military remains formidable, including possession of more nuclear warheads than the United States. China's military is no longer a walk-over. Her rapid military modernization and build-up is largely in response to a de facto US encirclement of China's vital economic sea lanes with American military assets, including missile and bomber bases, as described in film-maker John Pilger's new documentary "The Coming War on China". In addition to state-of-the-art inter-continental multi-warhead ballistic nuclear deterrence, China is more than capable of defending core interests in the South China Sea. Such defense includes robust ant-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities both above water (such as mobile anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs)) and under water (such as remote-controlled manoeuvrable sea-mines).
Fourth, any dramatic US military build-up is likely to start a vicious arms race with Russia and China, spreading to many theaters, including space. This would only serve to reinforce their deterrence capabilities, consolidating their positions in a tri-polar world.
Perhaps that's why President Trump seems inclined towards greater rapport with Russia. The recent joint astronaut survival training in Siberia is instructive. America's commercial energy interests in Russia may be part of the reason. So may be calculations for a possible US-Russian detente to balance against China. However, Russia is unlikely to come too close to bed with an fickle nemesis responsible for the collapse of the former USSR. Nor would Russia sacrifice China as her largest energy customer by far, or for that matter, as a strategic hedge against American hegemony.
Perhaps that's also why, despite a worrying initial period of apparent apathy, if not hostility toward China, he has sent a letter to President Xi making amends and holding out an olive branch for constructive, results-based, "win-win" relations.
Ultimately, that is, reality speaks louder than rhetoric.