Great-power Rivalry Would Lead to a Bipolar World
Global politics is a jungle where great powers are predators. Just like the predators of the jungle, they fight each other to preserve their area of control and envy the riches of others. However, in the real world, claws, jaws and horns are not used, and the contest is mostly done in the international political arena. The match continues until there is only one left standing. This has been the trend throughout history and rivals like Athens and Sparta, Macedonia and Persia, Rome and Carthage, and the USA and USSR had duelled for dominance. Currently, the USA, Russia, and China are engaged in one such competition in the fields of politics, economy, and technology. Unlike the past, the contest is not between two countries which means that the world order would not bifurcate. Many factors do not permit the Cold War-era alliance system. Therefore, the great-power rivalry would not lead to a bi-polar world.
Russia, China, and the USA are competing in the field of global politics. They are fighting each other to surpass economically and try to best each other in the field of science and technology. The world is witnessing a great-power rivalry.
In the field of international politics, the USA is expanding NATO to Eastern Europe. The region is under the Russian sphere of influence since the decline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Through the defense pact called North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the USA is challenging Russian dominance. On the other hand, Kremlin is supporting anti-US regimes in the US sphere of influence. Moscow lends support to Syria in the Middle East and Venezuela in South America. Similarly, China is using territorial claims in the South China Sea and South Asia to push US allies. China has constructed military bases on the Spratly Islands in South China which have been claimed by Taiwan and the Philippines. Likewise, China is using the ambiguity over the demarcation of the Sino-India border to claim more territories. In June 2020, China attacked Indian troops across the Line of Actual Control near Pangong Lake. The area is now controlled by the Peoples Liberation Army.
Moreover, the great powers are trying to surpass each other economically. The sole purpose of the trade war- initiated by President Trump- was to halt the economic rise of the dragon. The war is a bid to bring back the manufacturing industry which the US lost to China owing to its cheap labor. To woo Russia, the US is using sanctions. The sanctions did come after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, but its intended purpose is to bring the Russian economy to knees which heavily depends on Natural Gas. Similarly, Belt and Road Imitative is China’s bid to surpass the US economically. The project is expected to connect more than forty countries through a network of railroads and highways. China Pakistan Economic Corridor is part of this project. The corridor is estimated to half the shipping cost of the oil imports of China. It also has strategic benefits. It allows China to bypass Malacca Strait. BRI is destined to expand the market of Chinese goods. Therefore, it has the potential to propel China to the number one spot on the global economic ranking.
Additionally, like the Space Race of the Cold War, the current rivalry also involves science and technology. The race now is to develop the 5G telecommunication technology. The technology is the next step in the evolution of communication technologies. The high speed provided by the 5G will enable industries to spearhead automation through the interconnection of various machines. For example, the robots working on an assembly line will communicate faster through 5G networks. China is leading the race. It was the first country to test it commercially. One such test happened in Pakistan in 2020. Similarly, the creation of supersonic cruise missiles and guided missiles is another avenue. China, the USA, and Russia are stockpiling the missiles. To counter the missile threat, these powers are also developing a missile defense system. S400 and S300 are Russian based systems while Patriot is a US-based system. Hence, the invention of telecommunication and military technologies is the new battlefield.
In the past, great-power rivalry was limited to two nations. This usually creates a bipolar world order where each country is forced to pick aside. A bipolar world is a world where global politics is dominated by two superpowers. These powers hold a great deal of sway over the policies of their allies. Cold War-era is an example of it. The world was divided into two opposing factions. One was led by the capitalist USA (United States of America); the other was led by the communist USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of Russia). These states controlled the lives of millions of people and large swaths of lands were under their dominion. However, both the countries were unable to completely subvert their enemy. In the past, these kinds of relations end due to the military victory of one over the other. For example, in the Punic Wars, Rome defeated Carthage and absorbed it completely. Therefore, the bipolar world is bifurcated.
However, the current great-power rivalry would not end in a bipolar world. The number of superpowers is not two. These three power vying for the same prize which is dominance over the whole world. The possibility of two powers ganging up on the third is also bleak, for there are many ideological barriers that are needed to be overcome. The following arguments prove that the great-power rivalry of today would not lead to a bipolar world.
Firstly, the spheres of influence of these powers are defined and are not common. This will have three effects. One, there would be a clear boundary on the international political map. Two, the areas where conflict can emerge can be predicted. Three, this would lead to less cooperation between the two powers. This means no two superpowers would have converging goals. The possibility of a pact on the framework of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty would be highly unlikely.
Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Both these areas have been the part of the Old Russian Empire run by the Tsar and the Soviet Union run by the Communist Party. These are considered as Russia’s back and front yard. The conflict with the USA has risen in Eastern Europe. The conflict in Ukraine and the Russian meddling in the Baltic States are due to the Kremlin’s belief over the above-stated statement about the regions. These areas have been off-limit to China; hence, Beijing is not willing to support the actions of Moscow. Therefore, Russia is a separate pole.
Southeast Asia has traditionally swayed towards the Middle Kingdom. The might Qing Empire collected tributes from Indo-China. On the contrary, the influence of the dragon over South Asia and Africa is not rooted in history but the economy. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor has bought China an unprecedented influence over the region. Moreover, Bangladesh is also softening up to China. Beijing is investing billions in Africa too. State of the art international airport in Ethiopia, Railroads in Kenya, and seaports in Djibouti are some of the examples. The deep pockets of China have created a large sphere of influence over these regions. The South China Sea conflict, as mentioned earlier, is caused by this growing influence and the resulting boldness in the attitudes of China. Since the sphere is far away from Russia, Moscow is not supporting the Chinese agenda. Hence, the pole of China remains separate from the pole of Russia.
Similarly, the USA has a traditional sphere of influence over South and North America. This dogma has roots in the foreign policy document called Monroe Doctrine which virtually grants the US monopoly over the foreign affairs of Latin America. The Middle East has been under American influence since the discovery of oil. US companies have invested heavily in the drilling and exploration of petroleum products. Uncle Sam has also created relations with India to counter Chinese influence in South Asia. It supports Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan too. These regions collectively create a sphere of influence for America. The conflict emerging in these regions usually concerns only one of the other two power. This makes the USA a separate pole from China and Russia.
Secondly, these great powers are ideologically distinct. Their way of thinking and governing their people is different. This makes cooperation between any of the two poles very difficult. It means the Sino-Soviet alliance present in the early days of the Cold War will not be inherited by modern Russia and China. These ideologies further are explained below.
Russia is an oligarchy. The power is in the hands of a few rich noblemen. These noblemen were the first to reap the benefits of the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent rise in liberties in Russia. The country does hold elections but they are usually sham with opposition either being killed or exiled.
China is run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The model of governance is the same since the victory of CCP over Kuomintang. However, the country has opened up to the ideals of capitalism since the Deng Xia Pao’s premiership. Despite the similarity in authoritarianism in Russia and China, both countries are at odds with the model of governance. The Chinese model focuses on internal economic growth for power consolidation while the Russian model focuses on crackdowns on dissent to hold on the power. These differences are not easy to overcome.
On the other hand, the USA is run by democracy. The President is not the supreme leader and is accountable not only to the general public but also to the various constitutional checks. Its system is antithetical to Russia and China’s system. Hence, the possibility of the Washington-Beijing alliance or Washington-Moscow pact is unlikely, and the USA would remain as a separate pole creating a multipolar world.
Thirdly, the great powers can maintain their spheres of influence without the help of the other. Their economic might and soft power are strong enough to carry the burden of a large bloc. China is the largest exporter in the world. The exports alone are of 2.59 trillion US Dollars in 2019 according to the Chinese Ministry of Industry. It also possesses the world’s largest navy which can protect its trade and the coastline. Russia has the world’s largest Natural Gas reserves. It was estimated at 19.1 percent of total gas reserves of the world are in Russia according to British Petroleum. Similarly, the USA is the world’s largest economy. The dollar is widely accepted as an exchange in international trade. It spends the largest amount on defense. It was estimated at 686 billion US Dollars in 2019 according to the Defense Department’s Budget. Therefore, all the great powers can afford the cost of political influence. This also means that the world will not be divided into two but into three parts.
Fourthly, the great powers differ in their strategies to achieve their objectives. These tactics range from covert cyberattacks to overt use of economic tools. These strategies are elaborated below.
Russia employs military support to favorable regimes and cyberattacks to unfavorable regimes. The Bashar-al-Asad’s regime in Syria is supported by the overt Russian involvement in the civil war. Russian troops helped in ground operations and Russian jets targeted opposition hideouts. On the other hand, Russia uses cyberattacks to show aggression. It had attacked the United Kingdom’s healthcare system. The attack crippled the NHS (National Health Service). Similarly, Russia meddled in US elections through fake news as revealed by the Muller investigation in 2019.
China uses the economy as a weapon to win the support of the countries. It heavily invests in the infrastructure of a country. This buys Beijing the influence which other powers try to create through decades of diplomacy. BRI and CPEC are such examples. CPEC has intertwined the future of Pakistan with China and vice-versa. China focuses on developing nations like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti. Beijing’s investment policy differs quite a lot from that of Russia; hence, China and Russia would remain distinct power centers.
Military involvement is the go-to tool of the USA. It seeks to build a permanent presence of the US Military in a country to win it over. It has many bases in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar, and Kuwait. These bases project the US power over far-flung areas. Moreover, the USA has an oceangoing navy. This navy with its largest fleet of aircraft carriers protects US interests in the seas. It threatens China in the South China Sea and fights Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. This policy is unique to Washington, therefore, the room for cooperation with the other two remains small. Hence, Russia, China, and the USA will remain distinct poles of power.
The United States of America, China, and Russia are involved in a match. The winner gets the prize of world dominance. The rivalry encompasses the fields of politics, economy, and technology. Each tries to best the other. The great-power rivalry of this sort is new. It has three actors that are distinct from each other. The spheres of influence of these nations are different; the ideology of the three are distinct, and the strategy used by these powers are different too. Therefore, the powers do not cooperate and maintain their poles. Moreover, these powers have the economic strength, and the military might sustain a large bloc. It means that the centers of power in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington stand the test of time. Hence, there emerge three poles in the world in the current great-power rivalry. Therefore, the world would emerge as a multipolar world.