Period 2014 – 2019

Period 2014 – 2019: transforming of polarity, hard balancing

On the international scene, the avalanche of events and processes challenging the unipole position of the US came in, which finally made the polarity of the international system transforming.

Here below is the list of main challenging events in this period.

Syrian war 2011 (still going), where Russia’s involvement in autumn 2015 was a crucial turning point in transformation process of the international system.

  • Russia’s involvement was argued by fighting on terrorism (ISIS) and the request of Syrian President but restoring power of influence in the Middle East theater was naturally main real reason as well as developing and testing Russian military systems.
  • In Syrian war situation, Russia’s involvement made the trajectory of the war upside down. Assad’s regime was very near to collapse in late 2015 but in autumn 2019 commands about 80% of the country.
  • Meanwhile Russia has achieved extensive military experience and large-scale equipment battle testing as well as organized the large fixed offshore military and naval bases in the Middle East.
  • The US and Russia have in fact waged a proxy war in Syria and Turkish intrusion has made the situation even more complicated.
  • China’s position in the initial stage was mainly a bystander but looking promising investment opportunities after the war. China sees Syria as an important regional hub in the BRI-framework.

Syrian war was Russia’s first large-scale military offshore operation projecting power far from its borders based on its own military forces, logistics and supply. According to Monteiro’s unipolarity theory, this event was essential and fundamental in transforming the unipolarity into some other polarity position.

Ukraine conflict (2014 still going) and Crimea annexation (re-unification from Russian point of view).

The US has strongly supported regime change, containment of Russia and getting more power of influence in the region, both directly and via NATO. Russia has in turn very strongly opposed the US or NATO involvement. China has been conforming Russia’s stance but mainly as a bystander. This was the second time Russia projected military power outside its borders in the post-Cold War era.

Iran conflict escalating 2017 (still going and escalating)

Estimated incentives of great powers involved:

  • the US: regime change, oil business, power of influence, containment of Russia and China
  • Russia: oil business, power of influence, expanding activities with Iran
  • China: oil and energy business, sees Iran as a key partner of its BRI plan, has continued oil trade with Iran despite sanctions set by the US

After the US withdrawing from JCPOA the tension between Iran and the US has been quickly escalating. The US has placed progressively new sanctions (e.g. on oil trade) and sent more military forces to near-regions. Iran has replied with target-specific military precision strikes (e.g. down-shooting an American big drone Global Hawk and strikes to Saudi oil refinery), threatening of the close of Hormuz Strait and all-out war against American military bases in the Middle East, embargo-breakings and increasing efforts in commerce, trade and other business areas with other countries. The stakes are getting very high, when the US has made the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani. Yemen conflict is part of this Iran-Saudi Arabia-the US conflict.

North Korea conflict (“permanent” conflict, escalating again in 2017)                       

Historical case still open and unsettled, divided Korean peninsula into North and South Korea. Korean War ended with armistice in 1953 which is still valid and effective without any official peace agreement. Korean conflict escalated record high when North Korea made several tests of nuclear weapons and various missiles in 2017-2018.

The situation culminated finally in the historical summit of President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore June 2018. The next round of meeting in Hanoi, February 2019, broke down without results and by the same ended the thaw in the Korean relations and especially in relations between the US and North Korea. Tension keeps at high level, although North Korea has made only minor missile tests since then, however challenging the US in many ways.

Venezuela crisis escalating 2018 (still going)    

Estimated incentives of great powers involved:  

  • the US: regime change, oil business, power of influence, containment of Russia and China
  • Russia: oil business, power of influence, starting buildup of military presense in Venezuela
  • China: conforming Russia’s stance, slowly but surely becoming a stakeholder in the crisis by involving in oil and mining business, financing and sending military troops and aid

The situation seems to be such that the more the US is pressing new sanctions and other punitive measures against Maduro’s regime, the more Russia and recently even China have put efforts on supporting Maduro’s position, both politically, financially and in growing amount militarily as well.

Turkey – the US dispute (2018 – still open)        

The dispute between the US and Turkey consists of various elements and dimensions, although both are big NATO-members. The relations are becoming heated by the obstinate and self-assertive President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sees the present Turkey as the direct continuum of the past Ottoman empire.  The range of disputes with the US is wide: trade of Russian S-400/American F-35, NATO membership disputes, Gulen-case & military coup attempt in 2016, problems in adjusting Turkish and American interests and operations in Syria, Turkish accusations of “state robbery” when the US troops confiscate and smuggle Syrian oil, various sanctions set by the US etc.

China – the US trade war (2018 – still going)

More and more are getting at stake in this game than just the bilateral trade. It is becoming far too all encompassing and turning out a real great power competition of the century.

South China Sea dispute (from 2017 on)

Estimated incentives of great powers involved

  • the US: containment of China, power of influence, opposing views in regional issues with China, close interconnection to Taiwan-case
  • China: China strengthening its military and commercial presence in this area, strongly opposing views with the US in regional issues, possible large REE-deposits in the region’s seabed
  • Russia: conforming China’s stance but more as a bystander

The situation is such that several naval and other military incidents take place yearly between China and the US in the area.

Taiwan dispute (“permanent” dispute, again escalating since 2017)

Estimated incentives of great powers involved

  • the US: containment of China, power of influence, historical case still open and unsettled
  • China: Taiwan is inseparable, organic part of China, therefore especially strong opposing views with the US in this extreme sensitive issue
  • Russia: conforming China’s stance but more as a bystander

Yearly several naval and other incidents between China and the US take place in the Taiwan Straits. China criticizes the US decisions regarding sales of jets and other military equipment to Taiwan and reminds keeping on “agreed one China policy”.

Cuba dispute escalating again 2018

Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic relations in July 2015, relations which had been severed in 1961 during the Cold War. In March 2016, President Barack Obama visited Cuba, becoming the first US President in 88 years to visit the island.

In June 2017 President Trump announced that he was suspending the policy for unconditional sanctions relief for Cuba and later in 2019 announced new restrictions on American travel to Cuba and further sanctions.

Both China and Russia have been active in developing relations with Cuba both in energy and business sectors as well as in military cooperation. In 2018, the Western intelligence services detected a large radar station / dome structure near Havana but have not yet specified who has constructed it and for what purpose. Suspicions refer to “solo China project” or “joint Sino-Russian undertaking”.

Sino-Russian relations upgraded in 2014 and 2019

The Sino-Russian relations were upgraded full partnership in 2014. After the signing of the New Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement by Putin and Xi, the whole process of Sino-Russian cooperation seemed to step on the new level, which many Western researchers were ready to call an alliance but both parties have always denied.

The presidents have met each other already 25 times in 2013-2018, the overall scope and frequency of cooperation covers directly tens of thousands of people on all levels of administrations and various organizations, both centrally and regionally, both public and private sector including citizen associations. Indirectly the question may be millions of people getting in touch with the Sino-Russian cooperation in both countries today.

On June 5, 2019, the decision was made to upgrade the relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and was signed by Xi and Putin. The decision was made at a meeting of the 70th anniversary of the China-Russia diplomatic relationship, calling it a milestone and a new starting point.

In the security and military sectors, the strategic cooperation is broadening and strengthening along with the increasing pressure from the US side. The US and NATO operations in European theater as well as the US operation in the Asian-Pacific are apt to wrap up the military cooperation between China and Russia in all important spheres: military drills and exercises (Vostok-2018, an exceptionally important and large strategic military exercise), arms sales and military technical cooperation as well as high level military staff contacts and military planning.

In early October 2019, it was disclosed that Russia is helping China to build a ballistic missile early warning system. This joint operation uplifted the military cooperation on a totally new top high level as well as the close co-development of new hypersonic missile (Zircon).

The US declining position and changing threat perceptions, Obama era

The avalanche of challenging events and processes since 2014 have shaken the unipole position of the US seriously for the first time since the beginning of the post-Cold War era. The shaking was not only made by other great powers but quite many other players too. This kind of extensive worldwide resistance tells that “the unipole moment” is factually ending.

The threat perceptions of the US changed substantially as well and the return to traditional geopolitics and worldwide competition of the great powers restored. President Obama’s second NSS- report 2015 was mainly “a return to more traditional form”. Top strategic risks to American interests would be “catastrophic attack” on the US homeland or critical infrastructure or against US allies abroad, global economic crisis, proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction, major energy market disruptions, significant security consequences associated with weak or failing states. The report especially underlines that India’s potential, China’s rise and Russia’s aggression all significantly impact the future of major power relations. Internationalterrorism (like al-Qaida and ISIS) is also on the threat list, strengthening of national defense and reinforce homeland security, as well as cyber security are on the focus too.

President Donald Trump (2017->), NSS-report December 2017

Focus and style changed significantly from previous presidential reports putting “America first” in all possible aspects and underlining tough global competition with the main rivals.

Report names boldly three main external threats to the US

  • revisionist countries – China and Russia – challenge American power, influence and interests, by attempting to erode American security and prosperity
  • rogue states and dictatorships – North Korea and Iran – are determined to destabilize regions, threaten American and brutalize their own people
  • transnational threat groups, from jihadist terrorists to transnational criminal organizations, are actively trying to harm Americans

Report notes that the American military power remains the strongest in the world but is shrinking as rivals modernize and build up their conventional and nuclear forces. The contest for power is a central continuity in history. Those three sets of challengers are actively competing against the US.

According to the Report, China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. China seeks to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favor. Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.

In the Report, there is a large description of malign, hostile and dangerous behavior of both countries to the US and its allies and partners as well as a special chapter noting the regional strategies.

Given the present adversarial features of the geopolitical environment, the US must renew key capabilities to address the challenges.

  • the US military strength is a vital component in the competition for influence – the US must retain overmatch in all military capabilities including space, cyberspace and intelligence
  • report emphasizes competitive diplomacy and effective use of tools of economic diplomacy (sanctions and other punitive actions) and weaponizing the information and advancing the American influence
  • report includes a special chapter for regional strategies in the Indo-Pacific region, Europe, Middle East, South and Central Asia, Western Hemisphere and Africa

The striking factor in Trump’s NSS is the declared readiness to conduct preventive wars against the countries posing a threat to US national interests actually presupposing the right to first strike whenever the US deems it appropriate without looking back at international law.

The document does not call for promoting cooperation with other countries on the basis of equality but on the terms favorable to America, which is to be “first” in whatever it does.

The NSS 2017 document is just the confirmation of the fact that the US global domination remains to be the goal and everything else is a means to that end. Several other official documents and reports of Trump administration in 2017-2019 further confirm the aforementioned statements.

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 have moved into hardening mode, either targeted hard balancing /issue-specific balancing or overall hard balancing but the similar mode change has taken place with the US as well
  • as a consequence, the atmosphere of the international relations and especially in relations of great powers have become strained and hard geopolitical competition has returned so that many commentators are speaking “Cold War 2.0”. The overall tension between great powers have escalated on higher and higher levels.
  • hard competition can be seen in all kind of interactions between states: politics, economy, trade, finance, military matters, even in culture
  • Syrian war was Russia’s first large-scale military offshore operation projecting power far from its borders based on its own military forces, logistics and supply. According to Monteiro’s unipolarity theory, this event was essential and fundamental in transforming the unipolarity into some other polarity position. This issue will be examined in details later in the Big Picture 2019 of this website
  • the US became under intensive and hard challenges by a number of various competitors regarding the US unipole position and its hegemony status, which turned the whole international system in transformation process leading to a new polarity position

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

It is worth to notice the joint operations by Russia and China against the US in this graphics.