Do Russia and China threaten the West?

By Jonathan Power

In recent months the scare-mongers have been at it again – Russia’s foray into Ukraine and China’s behaviour in the South China Sea have set their alarm bells ringing. But why?

Big power politics is not back. Indeed in the round it is rather subdued. Take the Russian-EU-US fracas over Ukraine at the moment. Does this compare with the Cold War when the West prepared itself for a Russian invasion of Europe, nuclear missiles were targeted on each other, and when the Soviet Union along with the US stirred up proxy civil wars in Central America and Africa?

Do the US and NATO fear such threats as these today? Of course not. Critics of President Barack Obama and denigrators of President Vladimir Putin badly need a sense of perspective.

As Oxford professor, John Ikenberry, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Obama critics are misreading China and Russia. “They are not full-scale revisionist powers but part-time spoilers at best. They have no appealing brand. And when it comes to their overriding interests they are deeply integrated into the world economy and its governing institutions.”

For example, besides being members of the UN Security Council (where they voted for tough sanctions on Iran and permitted the Western intervention in Libya), they are active members of the IMF, the World Trade Organisation, the G20 and the World Bank. Indeed, China wants a larger role in these institutions and even a wider global use of its currency.

China is a member of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and (unlike the US) of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. It is a member of the “P5 process”, a collaborative effort to safeguard nuclear weapons, which includes interdicting ships at sea if they are suspected of transporting nuclear arms or its parts. Unlike America it has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (although at the moment it is ignoring it with its activities in the South China Sea and refuses to make use of its arbitration procedure).

Obama is trying to gear the US down from its previous aim to be the world’s hegemon. Although in his conception US power will remain unrivalled it doesn’t have to go for overkill. Military spending is being significantly cut (although today it accounts for about 45% of global military spending), the CIA has not got a mandate to interfere far and wide and the US will not get involved overseas in a military way unless the homeland is under a direct threat (which it is unlikely to be). It goes without saying that if the Ukraine calms down Obama will seek with Moscow another round of nuclear missile cuts. He still has the ambition to see in the not too distant future a world without nuclear weapons.

When it comes to friends the US has so many more than either Russia or China. The US has military partnerships with more than 60 countries whereas Russia counts eight former allies, and these are ex-members of the Soviet Union. China has none and has “unfriended” its neighbours, Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia, thanks, not least, to its behaviour in the South and East China seas.

The US, as far as the eye can see, will remain the world’s number one in technology. China and Russia export little high technology. China, with its vast population aggregated may become the world’s largest economy but in terms of national income per head and its position on the UN Human Development Index that measures the main indices of human progress, such as the infant mortality rate, is many decades behind. By the time it catches up it may even have become a democracy.

On the Western geopolitical front the US has Russia isolated. Its only allies are the weak nations of its former Asian empire which have minimal military clout. The US in a move worthy of Machiavelli betrayed a solemn promise made to the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, and expanded NATO right up to Russia’s borders.

No fiddling around in Ukraine can match the audaciousness of this move. Understandably, Putin fears that the political and economic currents are flowing westwards.

China, for its part, although increasing its defence budget from a low base, is not trying to overthrow the system of regional security governance embodied in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit. Apart from Taiwan it makes no claims on foreign countries.

It would be good to see Obama reaching out more to Russia. He – and his European counterparts – could say that they welcome Gorbachev’s vision of a “Common European Home” and that within a decade or so Russia, which possesses most of the great achievements in European high culture, could be invited to negotiate membership of the EU.

More facts, more vision, that’s what Obama’s critics need.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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