IN 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed from its own financial and bureaucratic weight, the United States emerged as the sole superpower in the world. At that crucial period, it would have been a great opportunity for the US to establish its global leadership and dominance worldwide. With the world’s biggest economy, its control of international financial institutions, its huge lead in science and technology and its unequaled military might, America could have seized the moment to establish a truly American Century.
But in the critical years after 1991, America had to make a choice between two divergent approaches to the use of its almost unlimited power: soft power or hard power.
Soft power was first conceptualized by Harvard University professor Joseph Nye, Jr. in his 1990 book Bound to Lead. Nye defined soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion.”
Hard power, on the other hand, is the exercise of military and economic means to compel others to conform to one’s designs.
The exercise of soft power would have seen America leading the world in the fight against poverty, disease, drug abuse, environmental degradation, global warming and other ills plaguing humankind. It would have meant America writing off the debt burden of poor, underdeveloped or developing countries; promoting distance learning in remote rural areas to empower the poor economically by providing them access to quality education; and helping poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America build highways, railways, ports, airports, hospitals, schools and telecommunication systems. Unfortunately, such was not to be.
If there was any effort by the US to exercise soft power at all, it was minimal, or with strings attached weighed heavily in its favor. It is ironic that the “soft power” concept originated in America but it is the Chinese that has used it to its geopolitical advantage. China has been busy in the past decade or so exercising soft power in almost all countries in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Middle East, winning most of the countries in these regions to its side. Using soft power, China has created a de facto global united front under its silent, low-key leadership.
The US, on the other hand, decided to employ mainly hard power in the exercise of its global domination. It adopted the policy of unilateralism and militarism in its foreign policy. It disregarded the United Nations. It set aside the advice of its close allies. It unilaterally discarded signed international treaties such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. It adopted the policy of regime change and preventive war. It led the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the 78-day bombing of Serbia purportedly for “humanitarian” reasons. It even bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, later claiming it was an “accident” in an age of precision-guided munitions.
Before 1991, it was hard to imagine China and Russia coming together to form a close-knit alliance politically, diplomatically and, most important of all, militarily. For more than three decades before the break-up of the Soviet Union, China and the USSR had been bitter rivals, even going into a shooting war with each other. But now the picture has changed dramatically. China and Russia have embraced one another and are helping each other ward off the military advances of the lone superpower in their respective backyards. In fact, it was a series of strategic blunders by the superpower that forced China and Russia into each other’s arms. How so?
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, it would have been the best time for the US to use soft power to win Russia over to the Western fold. Russia at the time was an economic basket case, with the price of oil at $9 per barrel. But the promises of economic assistance from the US and Europe proved empty, and Russian oligarchs became the main beneficiaries of relations with the Western powers.
NATO then slowly advanced eastward, absorbing many of the countries making up the former Warsaw Pact alliance by inviting them to join. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were the first batch to come on board, followed by Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The third batch included Albania and Croatia.
Serbia, a historical ally of Russia, was subjected to 78 days of continuous air bombardment. Regime changes were covertly instigated by US and Western-financed non-governmental organizations such as the George Soros Open Society Institute in Georgia, the Albert Einstein Institution in Ukraine and the USAID/UNDP in Kyrgyzstan—all former Soviet republics and in Russia’s backyard—giving Russia that eerie feeling of strategic encirclement by the US and its allies. There was also the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by the establishment of US bases and the deployment of troops in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
One of the successful “color” revolutions instigated by the US occurred in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The Rose revolution as it was called in 2003 replaced Eduard Shevardnadze with American-educated Mikheil Saakashvili. Emboldened by the tacit support he received from his American benefactors, President Saakashvili directed his US-trained and equipped troops to assault the breakaway region of South Ossetia on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Apparently, he miscalculated the severity of the Russian response and was soundly whipped. Russia’s prompt action served notice to the West that Russia will not tolerate any further encroachment in her sphere of influence.
But this was followed by another Western move of regime change in Ukraine that toppled the pro-Russian President of Ukraine. But this US adventure ultimately resulted in a humiliating reversal when Crimea voted in a referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. This prompted the US and its NATO allies to impose economic sanctions against Russia, driving the latter to establish closer ties with China.
The latest aggressive move against Russia is the US plan to set up ballistic missile defense systems in Romania, Poland and the Czech Republic that is being strongly criticized by Russian President Putin. Russia responded to the US plan to set up its anti-ballistic missile system in Europe by threatening to bomb the sites with its supersonic strategic bombers. Dmitry Medvedev, in his state of the nation address in November of 2008, stated that Russia was prepared to respond to this perceived threat from the US by deploying Iskander theater ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad. These highly accurate ballistic missiles can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads to a range of more than 400 kilometers. A lethal characteristic of the Iskander is its unique ability to evade anti-missile systems by varying its flight pattern on its way to the target. Its flat trajectory makes it harder for the Iskander’s target to react.
The aggressive geopolitical moves of the US pushed Russia into the waiting arms of China. The Chinese dragon’s thirst for Russian energy resources, modern weapon systems and military technology became more intense because of the US-led arms embargo imposed on China after the Tiananmen incident of June 1989. China also needed a reliable and militarily capable ally in Russia because of the perceived threat from the US.
Reinforcing this Chinese perception (of a US threat) were the outrageously wanton bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by US-led NATO forces in 1999; the spy plane spat with the US in April 2001; the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the ABM Treaty in December 2001; the concentration of seven aircraft carrier strike groups near Taiwan in 2004; the enhanced military cooperation between the US and Japan; the inclusion of Taiwan in the Theater Missile Defense program; the continuous subversion of China through the Tibet issue; and the setting up of a US military base in Kyrgyzstan, which is only some 250 miles (a few minutes by jet) from the Chinese border near Lop Nor, China’s nuclear testing ground.
Both China and Russia needed a secure and reliable rear, and both are ideally positioned to provide it. Moreover, their strengths ideally complement each other. It must be borne in mind that both are nuclear powers. The abundant energy resources of Russia ensure that China will not run out of gas in a major conflict—a big strategic advantage.
Russia is also supplying China with many of the modern armaments and military technology it needs to modernize its defense sector. This effectively mitigates the arms embargo imposed by the US and the European Union on China. Russia is also diverting some of the oil and gas it was formerly supplying to Europe to pipelines going to China. Russia in turn needed the increased trade and arms market of China and China’s financial clout.
The reconciliation of China and Russia was one of the most earth-shaking geopolitical events of modern times. Yet hardly anyone noticed the transition from bitter enemies to a solid geopolitical, economic, diplomatic and military alliance. The combined strength of the two regional powers greatly surpass that of the former Western nemesis— the Warsaw Pact. The current situation now may be likened to two brother male lions working in tandem and eyeing the reigning but aging alpha male lion of the pride. They know that it is just a matter of time before they eventually take over pride.
A graduate of Philippine Military Academy 1967 and an MPA 1990 from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Brig. Gen. Victor N. Corpus, (AFP, retired) spent five years with the New People’s Army (1971-76), was detained for 10 years under martial law and sentenced to death by musketry. He later became Chief of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.