Period 2008 – 2014

Period 2008 – 2014: declining unipolarity, “hardening” soft balancing

On the international scene, the emergence of “bitter” events was accelerating:

  • International Finance Crisis 2008-2009
  • Georgian war (2008) Georgian War was a historical event because it ended the West’s monopoly for unilateral use of force on the European scene after the Cold War, previously demonstrated only by NATO in Yugoslavia. It was also the first time when the present Russia was using force or projecting power outside its borders since the days of the Soviet Union. This also implied the decentralization of hard power usage and promised serious warning to Western powers both regarding NATO’s expansion in Europe and regarding military operations elsewhere.
  • Libya war 2011 and the collapsed state problem (still going) The US and NATO led campaign for regime change, increasing power of influence in the region and securing oil business. Russia and China strongly opposed the NATO-led bombing campaign in the UNSC.
  • Syria war 2011 (still going) was initiated by the “color revolution” and regime change operation, in the aftermath of “Arab Spring”, but turned into most cruel terrorism by ISIS and as international proxy war when both the US and later Russia got involved. Russia’s involvement in autumn 2015 was a new turning point bothin this war and in general on the Middle East theater.                       

Russian viewpoint

The 2008 Georgia war between Russia and Georgia was a “proxy war” between Russia and the West, although the West and especially the US did not send troops to the battlefield. The pro-Western opposition politicians overthrew the pro-Russian incumbent leaders. Russia invaded the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Soon after the conflict Russia claimed to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.  

Although the US strongly condemned the Russian invasion, it did not get directly involved. Soon after the Georgia war, Russia publicly claimed that it had privileged interests in certain regions, implying the CIS region. This statement can be seen as Russia’s “Monroe doctrine”, which aims to push the US and European countries out of its sphere of influence. Since the Georgia war Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated continuously.

President Putin’s 7 May 2012 Edicts are an obligatory reference, when marking the inception of a new approach to the development and growth of Russian economy. Putin’s executive order, in 2012, on measures to implement foreign policy portended moving away from the West to the East. The 2008–2009 worldwide finance and economic crisis was a cold shower for Russia and its economic interest in China increased substantially after the economic breakdown caused by the 2008 crisis and the successive collapse of commodity and energy prices.

The Russian leadership realized that, despite the country’s inclusion in the main international clubs (the UNSC, the G8 and the WTO), Russia continued to be an outsider, not a peer as looked for but a distant guest at the table of world powers. The number of regional conflicts initiated or pursued disregarding Russia’s position and concerns increased from the late 1990s onwards (Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Syria). All these events confirmed Russia’s views and skepticism against the West.

The Ukraine crisis, dating from 2013, and the later annexation (reunification) of Crimea by Russia in March 2014 was a result of Russia’s concerns over its sphere of influence against Western penetration.

Sino-Russian relationship

The Sino-Russian relationship entered a new phase of “full partnership” driven by convergent perceptions of external threats and economic interests. The 2008 Georgia War further strained the relationship between Russia and the West, especially with the United States. Although China’s relationship with the US stabilized in Bush’s second term and at the beginning of the Obama administration, it turned sour in 2009 when China’s assertive diplomacy was widely criticized and the US started its “pivot toward Asia”.

Since 2008, Beijing has shown strict assertiveness in its diplomacy towards the outside world. Economically, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao started to lecture the US about its economic mismanagement during the 2008 financial meltdown and refused to revalue the Chinese currency as the US requested. Diplomatically, China responded furiously to Obama’s decisions of arms sales to Taiwan and a meeting with the Dalai Lama in early 2010 with a threat of sanctions on American companies.

Politically, China reluctantly cooperated with Western countries, especially the United States, to punish North Korean or Iranian nuclear endeavors. For Chinese leaders, Obama’s pivot toward Asia was clearly intended to contain the rise of China, despite the US government’s denial.

Sino-Russian relations developed dramatically when both perceived the United States as a greatest threatening common factor. In September 2010 Russia and China signed a joint statement to upgrade their “strategic partnership” to “comprehensive strategic partnership” and Moscow confirmed that its bilateral relation with China was one of the priorities in Russia’s foreign policy. The addition of the adjective “comprehensive” indicated that the Sino-Russian partnership had moved to “full partnership” phase, in which they faced common security threats and had shared economic interests.

From 2008 on China was evolving to the first trade partner for Russia replacing Germany. Slow and uncertain recovery after the crisis increased the perception of economic fragility among policy makers. The Russian major policy rethinking, forced by events, made Russia’s turn eastwards gaining steam. Policy-makers realized for the first time that Russia’s excessive dependence on her western economic partners, primarily on the EU, could seriously harm economic development, if positive trends abruptly reversed.

China has been Russia’s top trading partner since 2009, while Russia was China’s seventh biggest trading partner in 2014. In these years China and Russia signed their largest-ever energy cooperation agreements and tens of other agreements on wide-ranging issues like trade, economy, energy, investment, local cooperation, cultural exchange and environmental protection.

The two countries also expressed mutual support for each other’s core interests concerning sovereignty and territorial integrity. In practice, China and Russia conducted coordination and cooperation on many international issues. Since 2007 (up to 2014) China and Russia have vetoed together six times in the United Nations and four times on the resolution related to the West-initiated draft resolutions against Syria.

Since late2000s – early 2010s, Sino-Russian military cooperation has been moving toward a higher level of defense cooperation. The three main areas of the bilateral defense relationship:

  • military exercises,
  • military-technical cooperation and
  • high-level military-to-military contacts

All these aspects show increases in the level and quality of engagement, collectively reflecting closer defense ties. Recent developments in China-Russia military relations have important implications to the US security interests in general and to the power balance in Asia-Pacific.

The US declining position and changing threat perceptions

The financial and economic position of the US was severely shaken by the worldwide finance crisis in 2008-2009, which disclosed the vulnerability of all Western economies, even the “omnipotent” US was suffering a lot. This caused long-term mental consequences among the other great power competitors.

The unipole position of the US has become challenged by more and more various events and processes on the international scene, where those challenges and counter-actions against the unipole position of the US took place. Wars in Georgia, Libya, Syria and Ukraine are some examples of these challenges as well as bilateral disputes between China-US and Russia-US. The frequency of these challenges significantly increased during this period compared with the previous period.

President Barack Obama’s (2009-2017) National Security Strategy (NSS-reports) 2010 and 2015 give a direction to the whole decennium.  Obama’s first strategy report 2010 deviates significantly from its predecessors both by its contents and by its spirit and style.  However, behind this “world embracing” approach, there was a hard power politics seen in the base, with increasing financing and investments in national military and homeland security budgets. America’s commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are essential sources of US strength and influence in the world. Strategy recognizes sustaining American leadership and terrorism is one of main threats. NATO’s role was emphasized.

Balancing Continuum

Under these circumstances, when looking at this period from the point of view of the re-designed Balancing Continuum, the following can be concluded:

  • both Russia and China realized the vulnerability of the US economy during the finance crisis in 2008-2009 and the fundamental value of their bilateral economic and other cooperation
  • one ramification of this event was remarkable increase, both quantitative and qualitative, in wide-range Sino-Russian military cooperation: military exercises, military-technical cooperation and arms sales, high-rank level military contacts
  • all these events and processes caused that bandwagoning or neutrality was set aside and hardening soft balancing came in
  • in some cases (e.g. Georgia and Syria), targeted hard balancing / issue-specific balancing was also used by Russia, which predicted already the coming “hard-future”
  • in Georgian war, it was the first time when the present Russia was using force or projecting power outside its borders since the days of the Soviet Union. During the whole post-Cold War era, only the Western powers have projected power outside their borders.
  • Now this event implied the decentralization of hard power usage and promised serious warning to Western powers of coming events
  • the US became increasingly challenged by competitors regarding the US unipole position and its hegemony status

The situation can be visually presented by the graphics of triangle network relations: