• Toby Irwin

Policy From Polarity

In 2001 the American financial services company Goldman Sachs published a report investigating the economic growth of rising powers. Brazil, Russia, India and China (with South Africa being incorporated later) came to be known as the BRICS. What is significant to this development is how a shift in world polarity will affect the current international system. Crucially, this can be seen as a dilution of power away from the United States (US) towards more numerous regional powerhouses. ‘Declinists’ in the US use these growing centres of power as both evidence and stimulus for a new type of foreign policy.

Source: Navy Live
USS Ronald Reagan, deployed in the Philippine Sea (2015)

China, with a population of almost 1.4 billion and a GDP of around 14 trillion USD, is set to overtake the US as the largest economy by 2025. Policymakers in Washington often cite China, after or alongside Russia, as the chief rival and threat to US hegemony. China currently has a defence budget of around 175 billion USD and is conducting an extensive modernization program across all sectors of its armed forces. The trend is set to increase, with an 8.1% increase in defence spending by 2019. For comparison, the US has seen a sharp decrease in military spending under the Obama administration – falling from around 700 billion USD in 2010/2011 to around 600 billion in 2016. This represents a huge reduction in investment, and although the budget saw a small increase under the Trump administration (609 billion USD in 2017), the trend seems quite blatant.

In terms of geopolitical objectives, Chinese goals seem clear. Beijing has an interest in enhancing its position in Asia by dominating smaller nearby states both economically and militarily. China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea and claiming them as sovereign territory much to the alarm of neighbouring states such as Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. When combining growing Chinese ambitions with an increasing economic and military potential it is easy to recognize why Washington feels the need to react. Furthermore, the recently sparked ‘tariff war’ between the US and China can be seen as evidence of rising tensions; with an emphasis on economic competition.

With China so clearly growing in relative power, it becomes necessary for US policymakers to gradually shift their focus. In the future it is likely that the US will continue to divert greater resources to the pacific theatre and by extension strengthen security and diplomatic ties to regional allies such as South Korea and Japan. This will likely coincide with a reduction of presence in the Middle East and Europe. This will have profound and interesting consequences for the respective regions, with Moscow likely to capitalize on any opportunities. After all, the Crimean Crisis of 2014 and the Georgia Crisis of 2008 – along with various ‘soft power’ cultural ties – all point to a Russian desire to maintain influence over former Soviet territories. Equally, a retreating United States from Europe will likely invite greater strain on relations between NATO members. Consequently, European members of NATO will have the unavoidable choice of either increasing defence spending across the board or move towards a more Eurocentric defence initiative excluding the United States and likely Canada also.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Joint US-Indian Malabar Exercise in the Indian Ocean (2015)

The view of this article maintains that the greatest opportunity for the United States in its strategic revision will be India. Another one of the BRICS states, India in recent years has been pushed into greater tension with China. Much of this is economic – centering around control of the Indian Ocean and its incredibly lucrative shipping lanes – but also is becoming a conflict actualised in hard power capabilities. India has been pushing for a ‘Blue Water Navy’ capability, with a target of around 30 new frigates and destroyers, a handful of new aircraft carriers and 24 modern nuclear submarines. At the most basic level of realist analysis, it looks like India and China will inevitably come into conflict to some degree in the near future. If Washington is wise, it should look to New Delhi as an ally against a mutual threat. If the US does not pursue this route, then it may find that a India-China strategic partnership could potentially block the United States from the Asian theatre altogether.

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a second year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying Modern History and International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.