The United States of America is vast- both socially and geographically. What initially was 13 small colonies on North America’s Atlantic seaboard is now a transcontinental nation- the largest economy the world has ever seen, a place that people with Asian, European, Latin American and African ancestries can call home.
It is also the third largest country in the world by area- extending from the Atlantic in the east to the Pacific in the west, consisting of mountain ranges, deserts, wetlands, lakes, plateaus, islands, flat plains and rivers.
Geopolitically, the United States is ideally located in a friendly neighbourhood, with allies to the north and south- Canada and Mexico respectively. The Atlantic Ocean acts as a physical barrier between it and Europe, due to which much of the political instability on the continent in the twentieth century was not felt in in the US.
An isolationist policy was followed and there was overwhelming public support for keeping out of conflicts in Europe and Asia after the first world war and Great Depression. However, this policy came to an end in 1942, with the Hawaiian naval base of Pear Harbour being attacked by the Japanese. This led to the US being involved in the second world war.
While much of Western Europe and Eastern Asia was devastated, the USSR, like the US, was less so. The partnership between the two broke down, now that their common enemy, Nazi Germany no longer existed.
Thence, started the Cold War- an ideological war that continued all the way up to 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. This ideological conflict was one between capitalism and socialism and was fought through many proxy wars between the two super powers in Korea and Vietnam and was evident on continental Europe, with late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill calling the divide between capitalistic western Europe and communist Eastern Europe an ‘iron curtain’.
A rising Russia?
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, marking the end of a bipolar era, where two powers- it and the US dominated much of world politics. The new world was now unipolar, with the United States outpowering every other major nation in the world.
Russia underwent a painstaking process of transforming its economy from being a communist to a capitalistic one and it took more than a decade for it to recover from the economic shock of the disintegration.
Meanwhile, the US had built its military bases in what the USSR considered its ‘near abroad’- the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and Poland in Eastern Europe. There was now a US military base just 800 kilometres west of Moscow in Latvia, and all of USSR’s previous Eastern European satellite states had become NATO or European Union (EU) members by 2014, barring Ukraine and Belarus. Having Finland and Denmark as allies also meant that the US could keep a check on Russian Air Force activity in the Baltic Sea region, as had occurred when the Royal Danish Air Force intercepted a Russian bomber near the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea in August 2017.
Russia also lacks a proper navy, since it does not have a warm water port- a harbour where water does not freeze for months on end during the winter. This lack of a warm water port was also partly why Putin invaded Crimea. He wanted to secure Sevastopol port for himself, and to use it as a base for a potential Russian navy. However, Sevastopol is located by the Black Sea- which is an inland sea. In order to access the Mediterranean Sea, ships have to cross through the Bosporus Strait which is controlled by Turkey, a US ally and NATO member since 1952. This is also why Russia is supporting the incumbent Bashar al-Assad government in Syria- it has a naval facility in Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and a stable Syria would enable Russia to develop this port further and increase its influence in the Mediterranean Sea, that is so heavily dominated by NATO and EU navies.
Therefore, Russia has been choked by the United States and its allies at crucial locations around its neighbourhood and as American diplomats would like to think, this has largely thwarted the rise of a Russia that could threaten the US’s status as the largest power.
Can a Rising Dragon Threaten the Bald Eagle?
In 2010, China overtook Japan to become the world’s second largest economy by nominal GDP. It currently has a GDP of 13.6 trillion dollars compared to the US’s 20.5 trillion, and Japan’s 5 trillion. To put these figures into perspective, India has a GDP of 2.7 trillion dollars.
Adjusted for Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), the Chinese economy already is the largest, at 26 trillion dollars, while trailing behind are the US and India at approximately 20 trillion and 10 trillion dollars respectively.
According to estimates by the World Bank and IMF, the Chinese economy could overtake that of the US as early as 2024. This could be amplified by the fact that industrial production has rebounded in China as the pandemic is largely under control there, while the US economy has shrunk by a record breaking 32.9% in the second quarter of 2020.
Complementing China’s economic miracle is its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that seeks to revive the ancient silk route from China to Europe.
Under this initiative, China has secured access to the Gwadar port in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Controlling these waters would lead to the Chinese exercising greater influence over the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway between Iran and Oman, that is only 39 kilometres wide at its narrowest. This waterway is of particular strategic importance, since over 20% of the world’s petroleum liquids pass through it (see references- 9), making it a problematic chokepoint and the site of various conflicts between the US and Iran.
Controlling Gwadar would also reduce China’s dependence on the Strait of Malacca/South China Sea route for energy imports from the Middle East.
Currently, 80% of China’s energy supplies pass through the Strait of Malacca, which is controlled by three powers- Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. All three are friendly to the US and in the event of a conflict, can choke the strait and starve China of the energy resources it so desperately needs to fund its economic miracle.
Petroleum can be shipped by sea to Gwadar from the Middle East and then be supplied to China through pipelines that would run the length of Pakistan.
While the Strait of Malacca acts as a geographical chokepoint in the South China Sea/ Indian Ocean region, the presence of US military, air force and navy bases in Japan’s Okinawa islands, South Korea, Guam and the Philippines prevent China from accessing the Pacific Ocean directly. Bases in South Korea are of particular worry to China, which is also why it supports the North Korean regime, for a unified western-allied Korea that would stretch all the way up to its frontier would be worrisome. North Korea thus acts as a buffer zone between China and the US bases in South Korea.
Therefore, the US has vital strategic geopolitical advantages over China. If it is to ever challenge US hegemony as a whole, it would need to overcome these disadvantages, which it is trying to do through the BRI and by building an alternative to the Panama Canal in Nicaragua.
Moreover, the amount of soft, demographic, strategic and structural powers the US possesses cannot be overlooked.
The US would be fully energy self-sufficient by 2020 owing to the vast shale deposits in its west.
In a recent Gallup Survey, at least a quarter of international migrants rate the US as their preferred destination. Unlike Europe or Japan, the US population is not shrinking and the median ages in China and America are the same, with the average Chinese and American being 37 years old. The US continues to attract skilled labour from across the world and is a democratic nation, that can always play the trump card of having a ‘decent’ human rights record as compared to China’s autocratic, one-party regime.
In conclusion, while it has been fashionable in the academic world to predict an end to US hegemony in world politics for at least the past 20 years, the same has not happened yet. China sure is a big challenger to the same and can overtake the US someday, but it would take many more decades for something of that scale to happen.
- Book- Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall https://books.google.co.in/books/about/Prisoners_of_Geography.html?id=QpEyrgEACAAJ&redir_esc=y