Big power rivalry

Today Russia commemorates the ending of the Second World War, one day after our VE day as always. The new President, doubtless influenced by Mr Putin, has decided that Russia is now strong enough to parade her military might as part of the display. As the oil price climbs to ever higher levels, Russia’s income grows. As her income grows, so she spends more on weaponry, to remind the USA that she is not unchallenged.

On another ocean, two Asian powers are also questioning US supremacy.

The Japanese have been honorary members of the Anglosphere since 1945, plugged into the first world of corporate activity and progressively freer trade. They have usually accepted US leadership. At the end of 1980s Japan started to flex her diplomatic muscles, doubting the US ability to adapt and grow. She chose to do so at a time when the Japanese bubble was at its most full blown. The Japanese sell off of the early 1990s coincided with the strong US move forward based on digital technology and the communications revolution, leaving the Japanese looking foolish and weak as their markets crashed and stayed down for a long time.

Today some Japanese pundits are questioning US supremacy again. They point to the weakness of the dollar, the sub prime problems, and growing dependence of the US on Chinese goods. They would be wrong to read these as signs of the end of US economic supremacy, just as surely as they were wrong about the collapse of the USA in 1990.

The truth is that the USA has outgrown both Japan and the EU over the last decade. Despite starting with more income per head and with a technological lead which others can learn from, the strength, breadth and depth of the US economy has been on display during years of poorer performance from both Japan and the EU.

Japan worries about her position, perched close to China in the Pacific half of the world. This may be the Pacific century, and the excitement may come from the West coast of the USA, from India and China, but that does not necessarily make it comfortable for Japan. Japan will be watching very carefully the military build up in China, and asking herself when the US will accept that China has serious military power to allow her to influence the patterns of politics and economics in her corner of the world?

Although China has 2.1 million military personnel, buttressed by a further 800,000 reserves, she still lacks aircraft carriers and overseas bases to project this conventional power far from home. The fleet comprises 29 destroyers , 46 frigates and 59 submarines. The air force boasts 1762 combat aircraft.

Whilst a lot of this equipment is not up to western standards, the latest planes and ships are much more sophisticated. Given the wealth of the country and the willingness to spend on armaments, we should assume a lively pace of new armament.

More significantly China has 806 missiles of varying capability (IISS Military Balance 2008) including intercontinental ones which could reach the USA and the EU. China is a nuclear weapons power, with more warheads than the UK but fewer than France at around 200.

We should expect China as she grows economically to buy in better weapons technologies from abroad and to re-arm heavily.

The US remains overwhelmingly stronger than Russia or China militarily, with a huge technological lead. Her command of the digital revolution, the US ability to see and hear an enemy and to strike one from a great distance are far ahead of what would be rivals can do. Nonetheless, the world is a more uncertain and dangerous place as China and Russia re-arm. The USA has to learn to operate with diplomacy and persuasion more, building more alliances with those who share her democratic and economic values.


  1. Rose
    May 9, 2008

    Thank you for this survey of a subject which continually perplexes and alarms but is rarely examined with your honesty and clarity.
    The continual question for me is how on earth does a decadent, diverse democracy defend herself, however technically advanced? The war in Vietnam showed us how a mighty military superpower could be defeated by permissiveness at home and in the army itself, while engaged against an inferior power. You may say that was an extreme example of the cruelty and chaos which can result when the army of a rich and technically advanced free country is suddenly conscripted, largely from its under-educated masses, after years of accustomed peace and security. But there will always be the dilemma for a democracy – how to defend herself, even with an elite professional service, with the consent of all her people, who will be increasingly diverse and divided, and how to preserve the morale and discipline of her troops against that background. Japan is an interesting member of the democratic club in that she still stands on the edge of this dilemma, pressed on all sides to become modern, responsible, and grown-up, i.e. diverse, yet seeing the painful long-term results of that, and still burdened by the past. Under this new pressure from China and Russia, and with the usual uncertainty in US politics, how should she react? And how should we?

    Of course nothing can beat quietly painstaking, thorough, world-wide, skilled diplomacy, as displayed by the Conservatives and George Bush Senior’s people over the liberation of Kuwait in 1990, and which appears to have been lacking in the Blair/Bush Junior method of winning the second war against Iraq with overwhelming military superiority. But it doesn’t get any less complicated or compromising for people who have been fed for so long on the Blair/Brown/BBC diet of “ethical foreign policy” and must now admit to themselves that they were naively taken in, to very great cost. How will these diverse populations ever develop a sense of national interest now?

  2. Tony Makara
    May 9, 2008

    I agree that the west should be watchful of Chinese geopolitical ambitions. The Chinese have increase military spending by 18% and are working overtime to try and build strategic common ground with the Russians. The nightmare scenario of a Sino/Russian pact isa reality.

    For this reason the west must make overtures to Mr Medvedev who has called for greater ties with the western world. We should even bring Russia into NATO, this was an idea that was floated at the end of the cold war but unfortunately wasn't followed up. Russia as part of NATO would effectively end any possibility of a Sino/Russian pact and would help restore better relations between Russia and former Warsaw Pact countries that have already joined NATO. Currently far too much emphasis and resouces are being poured into a dead-end in the midle-east.

    The west must become conscious of China's growing military strength, China's hegemonistic aims in Africa and China's attempts to court the Russians into military co-operation. China and Russia have already held military manouvres together as part of their 'Peace Mission 2007' which involved 6,500 troops and 500 tanks and other armoured vehicles. The manouvres were seen by both nations as being a first step in developing a counterweight to NATO and particularly the United States.

  3. D. L. Perry
    May 9, 2008

    John – you actually refer to James Bennett's notion of the Anglosphere so eloquently posed in the Anglosphere Challenge of 2004? Long live the Anglosphere! Out of Europe! When will the rest of the political establishment wake up the reality of what works and what doesn't?

  4. mikestallard
    May 9, 2008

    Russia- we know all about her. Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Tchaichovsky, Lenin, Stalin, Solzhenytzin, Anna Politkovskaya. Now, apparently, she is going back to her Christian roots – and her perpetual corruption and blat.

    China, though, is different.
    I have never been. I know nothing about Chinese History. Do you?
    The problem is that books coming out of China are pretty scary really. there was a new one this week about the Cultural Revolution – something about Wolves. I read the review in the Spectator. Ouch! Then Mao – by Jon Halliday. I also read a book by a Christian who was falsely imprisoned – not much fun, actually.

    Religion? Notice how the Christian based West is most anxious to supply aid to their neighbours in Burma (Good Samaritan). Muslim Java has supplied some aid too (Zakat). And Buddhist Ceylon? Buddhist Thailand? Buddhist Indo China? Smile and wave! Smile and wave|!

    China, I understand, has a strong Buddhist edge, tinged with callous Stalinist Communism. Stalin chose Mao. (piece shortened-ed)

  5. mikestallard
    May 9, 2008

    PS I use the word "coolies" because that is exactly how Mao treated his adoring subjects.

  6. Freeborn John
    May 9, 2008

    The world fortunately has changed a lot since 1945. A global economy has now emerged in which no country (including the USA) can dominate every industry. The recipe for prosperity today is to specialise in producing the best goods and services for the global market and so reap the benefits of economy of scale. Any democratic state which rattles its sabres today will annoy the overseas customers of its own citizens and so incur the displeasure of its own voters.

    Of course there remain exceptions to the generally happy picture; non-democracies such as China and energy-suppliers like Russia whose wealth comes from underground rather than tax-payers that need to be kept happy. These regimes are still viewed with suspicion by their neighbours who often look to the USA for security. The ultimate goal of the English-speaking countries should not be to blindly support the suspicious neighbours of China or Russia but to solve the concerns at root by encouraging these titans to become fully-fledged liberal democracies integrated fully into the global economy.

    In the 1980s it was thought that Japanese growth would go on forever. Today many repeat the error in assuming the same of China. It is easier to catch up than overtake, but it is questionable if the Chinese can be as effective as the Japanese in catching up. The Japanese certainly struggle in software-based technologies, but they are as strong (i.e. unassailable) in many advanced (e.g. optical or silicon) technologies as the Americans are in the Internet or the Scandinavians in mobile telephony. The Chinese role in the global economy is of fundamentally lower value; essentially they are a low-cost supplier of manufactured goods to Western markets that free up labour here to work on more productive things. Their role will certainly give them an impressive GDP (perhaps even the highest) by virtue of their massive population, but the existing GDP/person leaders (USA, Japan, UK etc.) will remain the pathfinders.

  7. Tapestry
    May 10, 2008

    Why form alliances only with those who share similar economic and political systems to our own, or America's?

    The logic of strategic power is not entirely compatible with political idealism. In wartime, your enemy's enemy's is your friend. In peacetime the same should apply.

    The only enemies we have that threaten our lives and our property are Islamic extremists. In that instance China, Russia and India should all be our friends. Yet Bush and the western media propagate against Russia and China, ensuring more regional instability than is necessary.

    Political correctness is bad enough when you keep it at home. When people try to export it, the results can be disasterous.

    International stability is worth more than having politically perfect allies. The West needs to set its priorities better and see that the requirements for peace in the world come first – and human rights have to inevitably come second. Yet out of stability more progress on secondary objectives might be made – not less.

  8. Neil Craig
    May 15, 2008

    What we see is that, except in a war over in minutes, economic power is more important than military. China has learned that & is spending a lower % of her GNP on weapons that the US or us, to her long term benefit. Britain & America may be safer places while their economies are stronger but that only makes the world a safer place if they are not the ones invading places.

    That the next generation of superpowers will get there by non-military means while respecting the rule of international law, will make the world as a whole safer. All the BRIC countries have indisputably shown infinitely more respect for the rule of international law than those nations which destroyed Yugoslavia & Iraq.

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