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Present Strategic Context
We are heading into a new phase of geopolitics; the power of ‘the West’ declines and shifts to ‘the East’ which will have a significant impact on the international security situation.
The coming era will be one of multi-polarity and fragmentation. One of the key issues at play, which I discussed at length with my Japanese peers, is the eroding of the international rules that ‘the West’ created over the last centuries and decades. There is a high probability that these rules will not stand as we move into an era where new rules have to be developed which by definition leads to friction in international politics as we are unfamiliar with the behavior of the new team players.
To illustrate how the situation has changed it is interesting to note that up until about ten to five years ago in was quite easy for ‘Western’ countries to carry out an intervention into another country with a mandate from the United Nations. There are also instances however where ‘the West’ intervened without a mandate anyway, as happened for example in 1999 in Kosovo. Such courses of actions are becoming increasingly difficult however as mandates have become harder to obtain because of opposition by countries such as Russia and China, and for good reason. Russia and China have different views on democracy and human rights as well as a more traditional view of sovereignty which makes them less accepting of interfering into the affairs of other countries. The coming period the economic and political centers of gravity will move away from ‘the West’ and shift towards ‘the East’, accompanied by a rise of power politics, while at the same time the classical challenges such as climate change, scarcity and demography remain.
How ‘the West’ reacts
So how does ‘the West’ react to this new developing security situation? As a direct reaction populist parties are emerging, as we do not know how to cope with the changing circumstances. One option is to close the borders and to try to protect ourselves through isolationism and protectionism, while the other option is to embrace the changes and open the borders instead. I think none of these options seem sustainable. The changes are met in ‘the West’ with curiosity, because some of them have been anticipated such as the rise of China and Africa, as well as the emancipation of certain parts of the global population. We are also, however, confronted with the consequences of such developments.
They are met in the West with reactions that give rise to anti-globalization, the rejection of interdependencies in this part of the world, political fragmentation, nationalism, protectionism and separatism. There is also an increase in a certain degree of sympathy for autocracy and state capitalism, of which what is currently happening in Hungary and Turkey is a good example. I am convinced that there will be a backlash on this development, but that would first require some adaptation to the new situation that we are in, of which the first step is to recognize that we are in a new situation to begin with.
The ‘diffusion of power’ is another problem that we face. The widespread use of internet has given a voice to the populace on social media that had not been heard before. People can share their opinions more freely on debates taking place in different countries. This certainly has consequences for the ways in which we adapt to the new situation. What we see for example is that non-state actors have a profound impact on the international political situation, whether it is Greenpeace or IS; there is a new way of dealing with the interdependencies that exist between countries and organisations.
Another debate I had with my Japanese colleagues was on the topic of the preferred instruments of disruption. The military is no longer the preferred instrument to coerce, but rather an instrument for deterrence and only to be actually used as a last resort. The instruments that are currently favoured are the ones that tax on the interdependencies.
An example of such an instrument that is often used is that of the cyber-attack, which is in a way the ‘poor man’s military force’. Economic warfare is another instrument that is playing a larger role. State capitalist powers for example make use of foreign direct investments as well as state-owned enterprises. Russia and China are two countries that are also very strong in wielding the instruments of economic warfare such as foreign direct investments and state-owned enterprises. Russia for example has the state-owned Gazprom, the biggest producer of natural gas in the world. China on the other hand has greatly invested in the Greek harbour of Piraeus which has far-reaching political implications. Commodities can be used as an instrument of power as well; examples are rare earth elements and materials. During the crisis around the Senkaku Islands, China threatened for example to stop the export of rare earth elements to Japan which affected the Japanese car industry among other industries. This clearly demonstrates an attack on various existing interdependencies. The influencing of trade in raw materials and trade in general are key instruments.
In the same way transport is currently affected in the South China Sea. I had lengthy conversations with my Japanese peers about the so-called A2/AD capabilities of China. A2/AD stands for ‘Anti-Access and Area Denial’, and is a term used to describe how certain weapons restrict access to, and passage through, a certain area. China’s robust A2/AD capabilities enable China to easily stop vessels passing through the South China Sea which has implications for the sea lines of communication (SLOC), boycotts, and movements of people.
A clash of political and strategic cultures
In Europe there is the idea that soft power is more important than hard power. While this might be true, soft power needs to be backed by hard power in order to be convincing.
Europe’s emphasis on soft power stems from the fact that among the European Union member states military force and power politics do not really play a role anymore. This is a situation that is quite different from other parts of the world, and as such it was an interesting topic for me to discuss with my Japanese colleagues, especially how the current process of immigration is affecting the political and strategic structure of the European Union. From the viewpoint of the European Union, security equals human security. For Russia and China however, security equals territorial security, which for a large part goes for Japan as well. The difference between the viewpoints of Europe and Japan lie in the fact that the European Union does not have the kind of territorial disputes Japan has. The issues of territory and security are therefore separated for most European countries which creates a very different view on international politics and the use of power politics.
The European Union and ‘the West’ put the emphasis on a rules-based international system, which Japan is preoccupied with as well. Europe has to deal with Russia much in the way Japan has to deal with China. In order to get a grip on the situation you apply the rules-based international system. This system however is going to change under the pressure of global developments, but the exact form it will take remains as of yet unknown. I guess it will be rougher and more traditional, as Russia and China put more emphasis on hard power and power politics and less on moral foreign policy, and also less on values such as for example the European Union tends to do. Russia and China have a more instrumental approach to rules and institutions, and this hold true for the United States as well. Especially under the Trump administration there will be even more emphasis on the instrumental approach. In short, Russia, China and the US will emphasize on what benefits their own countries and decline what does not.
The graph below displays the results of research by the The Hague Center for Strategic Studies research institute.
What can be seen in this graph is that the Russian level of assertiveness rose over the past thirty-seven years. We see several peaks but the peak of 2008 is of special interest and it is the same year that there was a war between Russia and Georgia. In this year there is a shift in emphasis from positive assertiveness to negative assertiveness. Positive assertiveness constitutes behaviour such as having an agreement on the topic of the environment, whereas negative assertiveness is defined as trying to coerce other countries by force. The year 2008 is a turning point for Russia from positive assertiveness to negative assertiveness which is the result of numerous diplomatic, economic and military activities. We can see a similar shift if we look at China’s assertiveness and the reason for this change is that in 2008 the financial crisis started. There was the ruling perception that ‘the West’ was in disarray and countries like Russia and China used this opportunity to have more leverage on global events.
This period also saw the rise in the creation of new ‘blocs’. Russia has traditionally been a great power. It developed from an imperial power to a continental power, to a centre of sovereign democracy, as did China. After the collapse of the Soviet Union there were several ‘blocs’ in which Russia exerted influence over its periphery; the Commonwealth of Independent States (1991), the Collective Security Organization (2002), and the Eurasian Economic Space (2012). After that, Russia began working on a “Eurasian Economic Union” which was realized in 2015 and currently has five official member states. In my opinion the Eurasian Economic Union only works if it includes Ukraine and this is also the reason why Ukraine is such a huge issue between Europe, the US and Russia.
The current oil prices are low which brought Russia on the brink of bankruptcy. These low oil prices make it very difficult for Russia to have a sustainable budget and this is precisely why it is expected that Russia will move forward and its assertiveness, especially negative assertiveness, will increase. As for Russia’s current policy, it builds on intellectual foundations laid out by Sergei Karaganov whose ideas consequently became known as the Karaganov doctrine. This doctrine argues that when Russian speaking minorities are threatened outside of Russia, Russia does not only have the right, but the moral obligation as well to intervene on behalf of those minorities. This policy is not a secret and is openly described in Russia’s Foreign Policy Doctrine, which is however only read by a small number of people.
Power politics as previously described have not only recently been used by countries such as Russia and China; they have been used by ‘the West’ as well in recent decades. However, because ‘the West’ carried them out from their own point of view, they have often not been acknowledged as such. In my opinion, the use of power politics is not something recent or special but rather something that is an integral ‘part of what countries do and it has always been on the table.’
Hybrid warfare is a merger of military force and economics which has become increasingly important. Military force is considered, as stated before, an instrument for deterrence and a back-up used to dissuade other parties from using military force. Below the radar however a lot is going on; covert operations, economic instruments like the ones mentioned before, and raising support in foreign countries.
An example of how Europe uses such power politics, a fact which is not well-known in Japan, is the use of SWIFT which is a global system that makes the international banking system possible. If you keep a country out of SWIFT its economy will surely suffer a very heavy blow. When Russia moved into Ukraine, for example, the EU and US threatened to cut Russia off from SWIFT which would have destroyed its economy. Another way in which Europe exerts similar power is by using competitive laws as instruments.
Russia has created frozen conflicts in Europe in Ukraine and Georgia which can escalate and create tension in the area. Russia will keep the initiative and has the influence to create good or bad situations in those areas. Japan finds itself confronted with a similar problem with the current status of the East China Sea and South China Sea.
China built an airstrip on Johnson Reef, one of the territorial claims by China which the international court in The Hague has ruled to be invalid. China had a similar reaction to this ruling as when Russia annexed part of Ukraine; the rejection of international law. I draw the comparison here between Russia and China because I believe they are behaving along the same lines.
The cases of Ukraine and Johnson Reef show something about the future that the rules-based international order will have, because it confronts and undermines this system.
The Chinese assertiveness shows a striking similarity to the pattern of Russian assertiveness. We can for example see that from 2008 onwards the problems between China and neighbouring countries increased as well, specifically in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
This is related to the rise of China, but to say that China is an emerging superpower would be incorrect. Rather, China is a re-emerging superpower that ‘is regaining its rightful place under the sun’. Just like Russia, China has the idea that it is historically a major player and therefore also has the right to be a major player.
China needs unrestricted access to rare raw materials in order to develop the economy and sustain its current growth. These rare raw materials however cannot be substituted and therefore such raw materials become the instruments of power politics. In line with this, China is developing its navy into an expeditionary navy which can protect its SLOC and is developing its army as well for expeditionary purposes.
This is not something that happens secretly because it is clearly described in the Chinese defence doctrine. It comes as no surprise we see activities aimed at protecting the SLOC in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the East China Sea. As a result, China and India for example have the biggest naval construction program in the world, and Japan’s naval construction program is quite impressive as well.
What we see is the battle for exclusive economic zones (EEZ). The International Court rejected China’s claims, but China in turn rejected the ruling of the court. If you control the area China claimed, you control huge resources as well as the SLOC that go through the area. This control is exercised with China’s A2/AD capabilities, all the missile systems directed at those who, in the eyes of China, unlawfully enter the area.
Conclusion: the future
Donald Trump has recently been elected president of the United States of America. I think that isolationism and protectionism will increase, which will affect the security situation of both Japan and Europe. Due to global power shifts there is a chance that China and Russia, more than before, will increase their assertiveness. This means that Europe and Japan will have to face Russia and China with less support from the US. More emphasis will be put on the development of military power which is a logical and natural development corresponding to the fast-changing global situation of the last eight to ten years. There will be increased concerns in Japan and Europe about security guarantees and as such it is no wonder that Prime Minister Abe immediately visited Donald Trump after the elections. In addition with Russia and China challenging the international rules-based system, it is my expectation that this system will change significantly.
I also expect new collaborations in Asia, a topic I discussed with Mr. Tomohiko Satake. The outcome of this discussion is that in case the TTP and TTIP will not be established, both of us expect that there will be a natural tendency to have a closer cooperation with friendly countries around the South China Sea and Australia. The countries involved in establishing the TTP, minus the US, would be inclined to use the existing ‘groundwork’ that was created for the TTP to create new ‘blocs’ and cooperate with countries in the South and East China Sea area. This will be a logical response to China and Russia’s rising assertiveness and the isolationism and protectionism of the US.