American geopolitical scholar and analyst Walter Russell Mead, writing for the Wall Street Journal, argued that “the tools of statecraft and habits of mind the U.S. developed during the Cold War and its unipolar aftermath are in many cases poorly suited to the Indo-Pacific.” What is it about great power politics in the Indo-Pacific that makes it different from those during the Cold War bipolarity and the post-Cold War unipolarity? One could be that the United States needs to amalgamate and project power in a multipolar world order. By the relative and relational nature of power, the rise of other power centers means that they, by design or otherwise, are making a dent into the share of American power in the international system. Are these rising powers necessarily threats to American power, or do some of them intend to combine power with the United States to counteract the rise of an adversarial power?
The latest U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the National Military Strategy (NMS) categorically contend that the emerging great power competition with “near peer competitors” like China and Russia is the major threat to the United States. Countering hegemony is the primary occupation of any prevalent hegemon. The actor/actors posing this threat, and the way in which they pose it might change, but the threat of peer competitors, or in other words, the rise of another hegemon in the international system remains a constant feature of the global balance of power. In the history of American threat perceptions and responses, these actors that the NMS calls “near peer competitors” are not new entrants. During the Cold War, at different points of time, either both the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China were combined threats as communist brothers. Then the Americans chose to combine strength with the Chinese to counter Soviet hegemony following the Sino-Soviet split and the U.S.-China rapprochement. Are these “near peer competitors” discontented with the current world order, wherein the United States, despite its relative decline, remains the most preeminent power, with system shaping capabilities?
If yes, how do they express this discontent, and what does it mean for the projection of American power in the most crucial geopolitical region, the Indo-Pacific? Are China and Russia combining capabilities to push back on American hegemony? There is indeed a clear geopolitical rationale for a China-Russia strategic embrace, with the specter of American power in mind. For both China and Russia, a stronger alliance between the two and an overt projection of the same seems prudent to push back the implications of American pre-eminence in Russia’s traditional, as well as China’s expanding, geopolitical sphere of influence. Irrespective of the debates regarding the sustainability of a China-Russia alliance aimed against the United States, it is clear that with their combined strength, they do have the opportunity of punching above their respective weight categories while engaging with the United States.
The balance of power emerging in the Indo-Pacific is the most consequential for the new global order. This is the strategic theater where U.S. power will recurrently clash with the growth of Chinese power. In this geopolitical and geostrategic milieu, what is the grand strategy of the United States? Building new partnerships, besides strengthening its alliances, has been the hallmark of U.S. grand strategy, despite the pessimism attached to President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, which seems to be annoying allies and partners alike, while pushing adversaries into uncomfortable corners. The future of American power and the ways to wield it without inviting unmanageable dissidence from other countries, and without eating too much into the American treasury has been the subject of great debates. The vicissitudes of U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration has added new layers to the discourse on how the future of American power be will shaped in the brave new world.
What does the weakening of the post-World War II global security and financial order mean for the U.S. foreign policy toolkit? The notion of power in geopolitics and international relations is traditional but power also has the ability to morph and attain different shapes and sizes. How will the United States maximize its gains and minimize its losses in the emerging geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific? Alliances are loose and partnerships are easier to make but at the same time, difficult to sustain given the availability of alternatives and the lower cost of defection. This is amply reflected in America’s dynamics with a rising India. Despite sharing a strategic convergence with the United States to counteract China’s rise and unilateral activism in the Indo-Pacific, India’s innate balancing style put on display its own home-grown methods to deal with the Chinese and the Russians through both bilateral and multilateral formats. India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar speaking at the Valdai Club in Russia contended that the world was moving from an era of “alliances” to an era of “convergences” and that strategies of containment had no place in this world. India, which is seen as the one of the central planks of America’s partnership in the Indo-Pacific, has not bought either the prospect of an alliance with the United States, or the containment of China in the Indo-Pacific.
So, what kind of a geopolitical reality is the United States facing in the Indo-Pacific? It is clearer than ever that the United States is entering a new era of multipolarity, where it remains the strongest military and economic power, but a relative reading of American power vis-à-vis other powers suggests that America’s ability to wield that power to affect global and regional outcomes to its favor will be increasingly circumscribed. The United States is entering an Indo-Pacific era, filled with “near peer competitors,” asymmetric adversaries, and strategic partners sans the kind of allies it was hitherto used to dealing with during the Cold War bipolar and post-Cold War unipolar eras. It is in this new geopolitical environment that the United States will have to rethink new ways of amalgamating and projecting power.
Monish Tourangbam is Assistant Professor (Senior Scale) at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India.