While it cannot be categorically stated that the United States “won” the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic and political turmoil in Russia left the United States as the only surviving global superpower. In the early 1990s, the modern-day perception of a powerful, ascendant China had not yet solidified, and China remained unable to compete with the United States in spite of its rapid economic growth. Indeed, although it can be considered a regional superpower in Asia, at present China is a global superpower only economically.1
In the early 1990s, the People’s Republic of China still trailed behind the United States in measures of both economic and military might. Involvement in Korea and Vietnam had demonstrated China’s competence in regional military affairs, but the sheer cost of projecting power on a global scale prevented China from growing a worldwide military presence. With no real challengers to the United States’ position as world leader, this post-Soviet global military superiority became a defining element of U.S. foreign policy. To this day, the assumption of military dominance in conventional warfare remains prevalent among U.S. citizens and government officials alike, although the reality of such dominance is a matter of debate.2 What is certain, however, is that the days of the United States as sole global superpower are numbered.
The increasingly conflicting interests of the United States and Russia ensure a continuation of the rivalry that began in the Cold War period.3 Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014 heightened the strain on an already weak relationship, and Russian interference in Syria presents a constant challenge to U.S. interference in Syria. It is not surprising that this rivalry extends into the international arms trade. For Russia, an increasing share in the global arms market symbolizes not only economic growth for the country, but also a decrease in the United States’ military influence on countries that switch to Russian suppliers.
China and India, with the two largest militaries in the world, are among the top three purchasers of Russian weapons.4, 5 Although some Russian military technology has not yet matched that of the United States, in most instances it is sufficient to pose a significant threat. This effectiveness, combined with a closer source and lower cost of distribution, makes Russian weapons an attractive option in the Eastern Hemisphere. Particularly in Asia, the United States’ limited military presence is vulnerable to challenges from other militaries with greater regional prominence.6 Chief among these is China.
In 2017, researchers from RAND Corporation determined that although China’s military as a whole is still inferior to that of the United States, “[China] does not need to catch up to challenge the United States on its immediate periphery.”7 In a conflict for global dominance China would be outmatched; however, if the goal is regional dominance, China may already hold the winning hand. The current trade dispute between Japan and South Korea, the two key U.S. allies in Asia, has greatly weakened the United States’ influence in Asia. This trade dispute has led to South Korea’s announcement of intention to withdraw from a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, which would greatly complicate U.S. attempts to form a military coalition in response to a threat in Asia.8
Furthermore, cooperation with the Russian Federation has already greatly increased China’s aerial and missile defense capabilities. China’s purchases of Su-35 fighter aircraft could threaten the long-held assumption of U.S. dominance in aerial combat.9 Anti-ship ballistic missiles capable of destroying U.S. aircraft carriers, combined with the Russian S-400 missile defense system (which is considered one of the best SAM systems in the world),10 have the potential to greatly lessen the United States’ aerial response capabilities in the region.
Given the Chinese penchant for reverse engineering, it is only a matter of time before China is capable of producing these advanced military technologies domestically. At that point, it can be expected that China’s competitive advantage in mass-production will enable it to upgrade its armed forces relatively quickly, further cementing its regional prominence. If the United States does not find a way to counterbalance China’s military growth in Asia, it risks losing a major foothold in the Eastern Hemisphere. Even the strong U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea are likely to erode if the United States becomes unable to guarantee protection in an armed conflict.
Apart from the issue of regional dominance, the trend of powerful nations to seek global hegemony suggests that China will have at least some intention of becoming a global superpower. One theory holds that China’s intention is to gain the respect given to a superpower while avoiding many of the responsibilities that are often associated with superpower status.11 However, in the increasingly integrated global order, this model will likely prove unviable. China has acquired and continues to acquire many foreign interests, and when these foreign interests inevitably are threatened, China will be faced with the choice either to defend them or cede control to the threatening party. Thus, as attractive as the notion of power without responsibility might be, it is not a feasible option for a superpower.
If China is to successfully project its influence beyond its own region, its military will need to match its economy in becoming truly competitive on a global scale. The costs associated with maintaining a global military presence are tremendous, and for the time being these costs still impede China’s progression to becoming a superpower.12 However, this progression cannot be halted indefinitely, and sharing of military technology between China and Russia, a former superpower, will continue to accelerate China’s military development.
Another potential superpower, India, has historically maintained a friendly relationship with the United States. Indeed, for the past several decades, India has been one of the largest purchasers of American military equipment. Here too, though, the Russian S-400 missile defense system has led to significant changes in the established order. Following a 2018 agreement to provide India with five of these systems for $5.4 billion, as well as other purchases, Russia claimed the title of largest arms exporter to India. 13 This purchase was openly opposed by the United States government, at least partially because the S-400 is capable of detecting the U.S. F-35 fighter aircraft. However, it seems that India has no intention of cancelling this deal, as procedures to arrange the payment and delivery are still underway.14
In addition to the importation of Russian-manufactured arms, India is seeking to bolster its domestic arms production industry using Russian technology. Indian and Russian leaders have announced negotiations for the right of India to produce S-400 components locally, which would not only decrease Indian dependence on Russia for repairs to the S-400 systems it has purchased, but also pave the way for localized production of the entire system.15 Although this particular cooperative venture may require a large amount of preparation and planning, a joint venture to produce new Kalashnikov rifles has also been approved.16 As one of the largest importers of arms in the world, India stands to benefit greatly by transitioning to local arms production, as this would both create new jobs and also decrease military dependence on foreign powers.
The trend of increased defense spending and military buildup in Asia extends beyond China and India to many smaller, less-developed countries in the region. These countries view foreign military technology as a blueprint to use in improving their own defense industries, reaping the economic and security benefits of domestic production. For example, Malaysia is currently purchasing four Chinese patrol vessels as resources for advancing the Malaysian shipbuilding industry, and Indonesia requires a certain percentage of resources and labor used in producing imported weapons to be sourced locally.17 As arms production technology spreads, the balance of power in Asia will continue to shift further away from the old status quo.
Although credit for the emerging superpowers in Asia cannot be given solely to the availability of advanced Russian weaponry, the fact remains that without Russian arms none of these countries would be able to challenge U.S. military superiority. The argument is often made that Russian weapons are inferior, and therefore incapable of significantly altering the global military landscape. However, the S-400 missile defense system and the Su-35 fighter aircraft demonstrate that Russia can produce top-tier military technology that matches and in some cases exceeds the capabilities of its Western counterparts. Even those aspects of Russian arms that remain inferior to Western arms have still proven sufficient, in most cases, for their intended purposes.
While another true global superpower will not likely emerge for some time, there is a more pressing threat to U.S. military superiority. The propagation of advanced military technology allows regional superpowers, at least in their respective regions, to truly compete with the United States for dominance. If regional powers block the ability of a nation to project its influence globally, that nation is by definition not a global superpower. As this process continues, the United States must either funnel more resources into its own military development or accept a decreasing role in international military affairs.
1. Marcus, Jonathan, “Is the US Still Asia’s Only Military Superpower?” BBC, August 25, 2019.
2. Lynch, Justin, “The Myth of American Military Dominance,” War on the Rocks, August 15, 2019.
3. Polyakova, Alina, “Are U.S. and Russia in a New Cold War,” Brookings, January 20, 2019.
4. Brown, Daniel, “The top 10 countries that bought Russia’s most powerful weapons in 2017,” Business Insider, October 6, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-weapons-sales-top-countries-2018-4
5.“Military Size by Country Population,” World Population Review, October 24, 2019. http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/military-size-by-country/
6. Johnson, Jesse, “U.S. needs new bases and new capabilities in Asia to counter China threat, defense chief nominee says,” The Japan Times, July 17, 2019. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/07/17/asia-pacific/u-s-needs-new-bases-new-capabilities-asia-counter-china-threat-defense-chief-nominee-says/#.XckivjMzY2w
7. Heginbotham, Eric, Michael Nixon, Forrest E. Morgan, Jacob L. Heim, Jeff Hagen, Sheng Tao Li, Jeffrey Engstrom, Martin C. Libicki, Paul DeLuca, David A. Shlapak, David R. Frelinger, Burgess Laird, Kyle Brady, and Lyle J. Morris, The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR392.html. Also available in print form.
8. Ingber, Sasha and Anthony Kuhn, “South Korea to Scrap Military Intelligence-Sharing Agreement with Japan, NPR, August 22, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/22/753348880/south-korea-to-scrap-military-intelligence-sharing-agreement-with-japan?t=1573467252256
9.Elmer, Keegan and Liu Zhen, “What Russian weapons are being bought by China?” South China Morning Post, September 21, 2018. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/2165182/what-weapons-china-buying-russia
10. “Why the S-400 Missile is Highly Effective — If Used Correctly,” Stratfor, July 12, 2019. https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/why-s-400-s400-missile-long-range-turkey-russia-syria-effective
11. Brown, Kerry, “China’s Quest: To Be a Status Superpower,” The Diplomat, March 12, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2018/03/chinas-quest-to-be-a-status-super-power/
12. Champion, Marc and Adrian Leung, “Does China Have What It Takes to Be a Superpower?” Bloomberg, August 30, 2018. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-china-superpower/
13. Unnithan, Sandeep, “Arms Tangle,” India Today, August 2, 2019. https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/the-big-story/story/20190812-arms-tangle-1576007-2019-08-02
14. Bipindra, N. C. and Evgeniya Pismennaya, “India, Russia seek to skirt US sanctions threats to arms deals,” The Economic Times, July 15, 2019. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-russia-seek-to-skirt-us-sanctions-threat-to-arms-deals/articleshow/70227173.cms
15. “Russia Says Discussing Production of S-400 Missiles in India: Report,” NDTV, September 16, 2019. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/russia-says-discussing-production-of-s-400-missiles-in-india-report-2101406
16. “Soon, India-Russia will jointly produce Kalashnikov rifles: PM Modi,” India Today, September 5, 2019. https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/soon-india-russia-will-jointly-produce-kalashnikov-rifles-pm-modi-1595637-2019-09-05
17. Karma, Shiran, “India-Russia pact marks turning point in Asian arms race,” Nikkei Asian Review, September 24, 2019. https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Asia-Insight/India-Russia-pact-marks-turning-point-in-Asian-arms-race