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Evolution of the Balance of Power principle in light of emerging power equations in the world

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Douglas Daniel D’sa

An introduction to international order

While each state exercises its own and respects the other’s right to sovereignty, they are not inherently equal. Some states wield greater power and influence, while other states merely react and try to develop their economic and political might. But it is sufficient to say that international affairs are predominantly a struggle for power amongst states.[1]The purpose of this essay is to evaluate contemporary international order and assess how emerging power equations alter the ‘balance of power’. Before doing so we must first define ‘balance of power’ and determine the current international order.

Balance of Power

Following WW2 international order was majorly divided into two camps based on ideological differences- the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) led by the United States (US), and the Warsaw pact led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This is in line with the Realist’s theory on ‘balance of power’, where States continuously seek to increase their own capabilities while undermining the capabilities of others.[2]  This perpetuates a system of international anarchy, where no singular state can become the global ruler. [3] Realism was designed to explain the endless repetition of behavior and was therefore unable to predict the collapse of the USSR. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the triumph of Western liberal democracy over Eastern socialism- with Fukuyama believing that humanity had reached the culmination of its ideological evolution.[4] As the sole surviving superpower, the US established a new world order- one who’s residuals we still experience to this day.

Power-transition theory

In 1958 Organski (1958) introduced the concept of ‘Power transition’, in which the international status quo is determined by a dominant country.  International order is established- through the setting up of rules that guide economic trade, diplomatic and political communications, and military interactions.[5] According to this theory international order is established by a powerful nation which imposes trade relations onto lesser states. This is done to extrapolate benefits in the forms of economic power, security, and prestige. Over time these relations are stabilized not only between lesser states and the dominant nation but also amongst one another- with habits and patterns for trade, diplomacy and war becoming established. Power in this system is measured by internal growth, with the relative power of states changing over time. Thus, if a country achieves a ‘power parity’ with the dominant state, it can challenge the dominant state for control over the ‘status quo’ of the international system.

Since the dissolution of the USSR, the US has become the dominant country that Organski once wrote about and by having the largest economy and the world’s strongest military the US has had the most influential voice in the international arena. This period under US hegemony has seen the avoidance of any major global conflict and can be viewed as an extension of the ‘long peace’ that was experienced during the Cold War.[6] The next section will analyze emerging threats to current world order.

Emerging threats to this ‘long peace’

In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine citing the highly controversial ‘Crimean status referendum’ and the disputed doctrine of protection of nationals abroad as reasons for interference and moving their troops into Crimea.[7] Yet in reality, the reason for the annexation is the strategic importance of Sevastopol as a warmwater base which allows for Russia to project its naval power across the Black Sea.[8]

Russia was once at the helm of the USSR and therefore wishes to regain its status as a superpower. However, it’s actions in Crimea have soured relations, to the worst extent possible, with the West who have resultingly imposed several economic sanctions upon them.[9] Unfortunately, this has had the dual effect of pushing Russia closer onto China, as Russia finds its access to Western markets denied- which has resulted in the increasing trend of arms sales from Russia to China.[10] This relationship between the two giants is troubling for the US and for most of the Western World.

Similarly, Iran is another county which has experienced a very tense and complicated relationship with the US. This began in 1953 when the CIA launched ‘Operation Ajax’ in collaboration with the British to oust democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and planted the Shah of Iran as a puppet ruler that they could control.[11]This kept Iran in the US’s back pocket for 25 years until the 1979 revolution toppled the Shah.[12] This brought to the forefront an anti-American theocracy that has been at grips with the US ever since. In 2002, it was internationally revealed that Iran had been developing their nuclear capabilities in a clandestine nuclear facility which resulted in the imposition of deep-economic sanctions under the Bush-administration[13]. It was only in 2015 after an extensive diplomatic outreach- facilitated by the EU, that an Iran nuclear deal was established.[14]

President Trump, however, withdrew from the US-Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and imposed economic sanctions on Iran and on the 28th of December Trump ordered the use of a drone strike to take out General Soleimani, who was the chief-military strategist and the right-hand man of Ali Khamenei.[15] This led to the tensest period in US-Iran relations and the whole world held their breath as they waited to see if this would escalate to an all-out war between the two nations. Fortunately, it did not escalate to anything beyond retaliatory ballistic missile attacks with no reported casualties[16]. Regardless, the situation remains jittery but with the election of President Biden it is hopeful that US-Iran relations will transfigure into one that is more pacific.

The problem of China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) opted for an isolationist policy- first growing inwards under the leadership of Mao Zedong- before slowly opening its economy to foreign investment in ‘Special Economic Zones’ during the late 1970s.[17] Since then, and within 35 years, China grew into the world’s largest manufacturing powerhouse, producing nearly 50% of the world’s major industrial goods,[18] while simultaneously and steadily growing into the world’s second largest economy behind the US.[19]

Out of all the countries mentioned so far, China is the closest to reaching a power parity with the US, slowly amassing the wealth and influence necessary for doing so. China has slowly begun to challenge the general prerogative that the US experiences within the current international system, this becoming increasingly evident through initiatives such as the establishment of the ‘Asian Development Bank’ to counter the influence of the World Bank,[20] the establishment of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ to expand their political and economic influence,[21] and by providing cheap infrastructure as a means of extending influence to developing African nations.[22] Similarly, it’s recent aggressive expansionist policies in the Indo-Pacific and the establishment of military bases in the ‘String of Pearls’ project are all symptoms of China’s burgeoning audaciousness.[23]What’s left to assess is what this change in power equations means for the international system?

Change in power equations

Since all states function on the Westphalian model of sovereignty, the pursuit of power is the common denominator to which all foreign policy can be reduced. The battle for global dominance and influence may be fought between the incumbent and the challenger but every other nation will act and align in a manner that preserves their national interest. To talk about each nation’s foreign policy would too cumbersome a task, therefore, in a bid to maintain focus this paper will focus on two emerging power camps- ‘The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’ and the ‘Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations’.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue was an informal dialogue first proposed by PM Shinzo Abe of Japan in 2007, who was troubled by China’s increasing assertiveness.[24]The other participants were Australia, India and the US and these strategic dialogues were accompanied by naval exercises that were dubbed as ‘Exercise MALABAR’.[25]However, its effectiveness was blunted when Australia withdrew from the Quad, under PM Kevin Rudd.[26]

Each of the nations has a point of contention with the Peoples’ Republic of China. For the US, China represents a new threat in a world where it has largely reigned supreme. Meanwhile, Japan and China share an enmity that is drenched in a shared history of repeated conflict- the Sino-Japanese wars, the issue of the Nanking massacre, and disputes over the East China sea.[27] Australia, on the other hand, saw its relationship with China deteriorate after growing increasingly vocal about Human Rights Violations committed against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, which further exacerbated when Australia supported an international inquiry into China’s handling of the coronavirus.[28] This resulted in a trade war with tariffs being imposed and certain commodities being banned by China, which was particularly detrimental to Australia since China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and purchases a third of all its exports.[29]

Finally, despite the Indo-Sino wars of the 1960s and a brief standoff during 1987 the relations between India and China witnessed a period of cool down, until the Galwang Valley incident of 2020. This incident transformed into a skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops and led to casualties on both sides.[30] This led to a heightening of tensions and an exacerbation of relations between both nations. These events coupled with an increase in aggression in the Indo-Pacific led to the resurgence of Quad, which was initiated by India inviting Australia to join the trilateral naval military exercises conducted in the Malabar alongside itself, Japan and the US.[31] This joint-naval exercises translated into a virtual Quad Summit amongst the leaders of the four democracies and culminated in a number of resolutions such as the Quad Vaccine Partnership, the Quad Climate Working Group, and the Quad Critical and Emerging Technology Working Group.[32] While not explicitly mentioning China as the reason for the group’s revival, the Quad has as its objective a “free and open Indo-Pacific”- the exact antithesis of what Beijing desires.[33]

It is important to note, however, that the Quad is not an Asian-NATO- as India heavily opposes such an assertion- with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar asserting that India has never had a “NATO mentality” and formalizing such an alliance would mean relinquishing a certain degree of national-autonomy.[34] While the Quad still lacks a formal military agreement, the common will to cooperate threatens China, as the Quad could evolve into a stronger and more formal alliance if China continues its regional assertiveness. This is a clear threat, and in a bid to rebalance the scales of power China has been looking to forge closer ties with nations not on good terms with the Western Bloc.[35]

Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations

Citing the preservation of the UN Charter as their official motive, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and other nations have petitioned for the formulation of a new coalition titled as the ‘Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations (GOF, for short).[36] The official reason may be to defend the UN Charter by opposing the use or threat of force and unilateral sanctions but the question to be asked is why propose this now?

The use of force has been illegal for almost a century now, yet states contravene this principle whenever they see fit (US in Afghanistan), which shows that this isn’t some newly occurring phenomenon. Secondly, China, if anything else, has been using the threat of force as of late- tightening its grip on Hong Kong, engaging in an armed confrontation over borders in India, and additionally has been escalating tension with a host of its neighbors such as Australia, Japan, Philippines, and Vietnam.[37] China and Russia are therefore in direct contradiction to the position they stand. Furthermore, the member states that seek to defend the UN Charter, ironically, are the same ones who violate human rights and fundamental freedoms within their own countries, thereby already breaching the UN Charter. It can therefore be inferred that the true motives for the formation of this coalition are not to protect the UN Charter but to counter the growing influence of newly emerging alliances such as the Quad and pre-existing ones like the NATO.

Conclusion

What we are witnessing is a reversion to an era of power blocs, nascent as may be, led by the predominant powers- the US and the PRC who compete for global influence. These power blocs are not yet formalized in nature so it may be a bit presumptuous to assert that this is a new Cold War. Still, we are certainly steering away from an era dominated solely by US foreign policy and into an age of multilateralism as more and more countries act out of self-national interest. There are lots of interesting developments presently occurring that require further elaborating- such as the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative,[38] the question of whether negotiations with Iran can result in a new nuclear deal,[39] and whether the influence of the European Union will diminish in the light of Brexit.[40] Hopefully these can be brushed upon in future papers. However, it is evidently clear that the US and the PRC are presently the two most influential countries and that the policies they extend will shape International Relations in the years to come!


[1] Walt, International relations, 31

[2] Niou, Peter & Gregory, Balance of Power,75

[3] Antunes & Camisao, Introducing Realism in International Relations, 03

[4] Fukuyama, End of History, 03

[5] Organski, World Politics, 315

[6] Gaddis, The Long Peace, 100

[7] Yuhas and Jalabi, Ukraine Crisis, 01

[8] Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, 45

[9] Stent, Why are US-Russia relations so challenging, 04

[10] Detsch and Mackinnon, China and Russia deeper ties, 03

[11]  Kinzer, All the Shah’s men, 169

[12]  Kinzer, 197

[13] Maloney, U.S. Policy towards Iran, 26

[14] Landler, Trump abandons Iran nuclear deal, 02

[15] Singh, Implications of Soleimani’s Killing, 12

[16] Safi, Oliver, & Ahad, Iran launches missiles, 01

[17] Crane et al. China’s special economic zones ,99

[18] Wen, China’s Rapid Rise, 09

[19] Brown, Rise of Xi Jinping, 206

[20] Perlez, China creates a World Bank of its own, 01

[21] Chatzky and McBride, China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative, 02

[22] Shepard, What China is up to in Africa, 04

[23] Pehrson, String of Pearls, 09

[24] Roy-Chaudhary and de Estrada, India, the Indo-Pacific, and the Quad, 181

[25] Ali, New Strategic Partnership against China, 02

[26] Baghi, Australia to Pull out of ‘Quad’, 01

[27] Kokubun et al, Japan-China Relations in The Modern Era, 19

[28] Hurst, Australia insists WHO Inquiry into COVID, 03

[29] Butler and Nicholas, Trade War Fallout, 03

[30] Liu and Yuandan, China reveals truth about Galwan Valley Clash, 01

[31] Miglani and Needham, Australia joins Naval Drills, 04

[32] Taken from the White House Briefing Room. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/12/fact-sheet-quad-summit/

[33] Lendon, Analysis: Quad Alliance, 01

[34] Basu, Quad is not ‘Asian NATO’, 02

[35] Western Bloc here refers both to NATO and the newly emerging Quad.

[36] Nichols, China, Iran, North Korea seek support, 01. The other founding members of this group include Algeria, Angola, Belarus, Bolivia, Cambodia, Cuba, Eritrea, Laos, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Syria and Venezuela.

[37] Jha, China has adopted a more aggressive approach, 02

[38] An initiative sponsored by the G7 who seek to counter excessive Chinese influence in developing nations.

[39] Tirone, Iran casts doubt on reviving nuclear deal before elections, 01

[40] Holden and Rose, EU and UKs sausage war, 02