There are currently three main superpowers spaced around the world. Their direct power and jostling for position are throwing long economic and military shadows over the nations that lay between them.
- China is seeking to expand its spheres of influence.
- Russia is seeking to defend the security it enjoyed from its Cold War borders.
- The USA is struggling against becoming a fading superpower, in much the same way as Britain struggled against the collapse of its Empire in the previous century.
All of the ‘Big Three’ are engaged in economic, cultural and military proxy wars, seeking to maximise their own advantage and weaken their ‘enemies’.
The rest of the world is populated by smaller regional powers, fading twentieth-century powers, and the ‘small countries’. In particular, and sandwiched between the Big Three, the Middle East and remaining Asian nations have become particularly contested areas.
USA: From its North American home, the USA is entrenched in defending the prime position within the Western democracies that was its World War 2 prize. That war re-energised the US economy, built up its industrial base, and gave it access to nuclear weapons that its enemies would take decades to match. Money, Manufacturing and Nukes made the US a nation to be both respected and feared – attributes it used to maximise its influence during the Cold War. For a brief moment the US must have thought that it had won the global battle for supremacy when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991 – who was left that could oppose it?
CHINA: There is a saying that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. It took a while, but in the second decade of the twenty-first century China is emerging as a serious challenger to the US. Market reforms and increased industrialisation have turned China into a newly wealthy nation, and its population of around 1.4 billion people make it a powerful adversary with access to significant manpower. Nuclear-armed, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has become much more assertive across the globe, using a combination of soft and hard power to increase its influence.
RUSSIA: Between those two superpowers, Russia has now recovered from its post-1991 tribulations as a powerful regional force. It took a while to reorganise after the overall failure of Gorbachev’s attempted reforms. However, the country has been focussed under President Putin’s nationalistic leadership. Leveraging its legacy of Cold War nuclear firepower and around $25 billion annual revenues from exported natural gas, Russia is once again an assertive global power and investing quickly to renew its military forces.
Proxy wars fought by the Big Three can be very damaging.
Let’s consider three examples: Turkey, Iran and Nepal.
New Cold War: Turkey
During the Cold War, Turkey was strategically important in the regional power-play between the USA and Soviet Union. A member of NATO since 1952 and previously a home to US ICBMs, it lacked the motivation, institutional capacity and infrastructure needed to engage in its own proxy wars. However, some significant changes have occurred in the post-Cold War era.
Firstly, Turkey seems to have shifted towards a more right-wing government, especially under the leadership of Recep Erdogan. Tensions are high between the Erdogan government, NATO and the EU in a number of areas. For example, its $2.5 billion purchase of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles led the USA to impose sanctions against Turkey in 2020 under the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act”. Those sanctions put a ban on all U.S. export licenses and authorisations to Turkey’s defence industries, as well as asset freezes and visa restrictions on its top officers. Turkey has subsequently been cut from the US F-35 fighter jet programme (1). Seeing such a strong regional player and NATO member move towards the Russian sphere is a shocking illustration of America’s declining influence after the Cold War.
Secondly, a newly assertive Turkey has arisen since moving to defend its national interest during the Syrian civil war (2011- ). The risk of an intense hot war between Turkey and the Syrian government increased significantly when a Turkish fighter was shot down in June 2012 (2). Initially supporting the Free Syrian Army and training Syrian army defectors, military assistance was then given during border clashes in 2012, as well as direct military interventions from 2016.
Turkey’s support for the Free Syrian Army placed it in conflict with Russia, which provided direct support to Bashar al-Assad’s government after an official request for military aid against the opposing rebel groups. In December 2017, the Russian government announced that its troops would be permanently deployed in Syria (3). Russia’s support for the Syrian government perhaps aligns to a geopolitical objective of reducing US influence in Syria. President Trump’s decision to remove US troops from Syria in 2019, and the fact that al-Assad’s government only stands with Russian support, gives Putin the opportunity to ‘win’ control of a puppet-country. The military intervention shows the world what Russia’s firepower can achieve, perhaps discouraging so-called “colour revolutions” in other countries currently aligned with Moscow.
Terrorist attacks began within Turkey when the Syrian conflict had moved towards its border by 2015-16. Tensions rose in November 2015 when Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter close to the border (4). Turkey claimed the Russian jet violated its airspace, Russia said it was shot down over Syria. This was a rare moment when Russia’s proxy-war support for Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government risked rapid escalation into a hot war with Turkey and hence NATO.
By 2016, Syrian opposition forces were losing control of key cities and Turkey faced losing its ability to shape the future of Syria (5). As a result it occupied Northern Syria (6), commencing with Operation Euphrates Shield and primarily targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (6).
Both Turkey and Russia are seeking to gain as much power over the other as possible during the Syrian Civil War. Aerial confrontations between their forces have become increasingly common. Turkey continues to accuse Russia of violating its airspace as well as attacking Syrian Turkmens. Russia accuses Turkey of maintaining illegal economic relations with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and condemns its military interventions in both Syria and Libya (7).
Turkey has also intervened in Libya, which had become unstable after the UN-supported, 2011 overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi’s government in the First Libyan Civil War. A second civil war started in 2014 when its Supreme Constitutional Court nullified an amendment regarding the roadmap for Libya’s transition and House of Representatives elections. In January 2020 Turkey began deploying troops into Libya, providing training and operational support, drone air support, intelligence operatives and Turkish naval support. This intervention helped Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) to reverse the Libyan National Army’s 14-month assault on Tripoli (8).
Both the EU and NATO wanted a more political, de-escalated end to this second civil war. Turkey’s intervention once again strained its relations with its western allies (9). However, the risk of polarising its relations with both of those organisations was perhaps outweighed by the potential for securing access to the Eastern Mediterranean as part its Blue Homeland Doctrine (10), as well as countering Egyptian and Emirati influences in the Middle East and North Africa (11).
Turkey’s interventions place it in positions of support and conflict with both Russia, the United States and NATO. It is threading a narrow line between their differing interests but lately seems to be swaying towards Russia, risking becoming a front-line itself in the New Cold War.
New Cold War: Iran
For decades Iran has been the largest potential flashpoint for future conflict in the Middle East. The country has a political structure within which the church and state are intertwined, with fundamentalist religious principles often dominating States policy.
Iran’s best known ongoing confrontation is with Israel, the so-called Iran-Israel proxy conflict. Beginning with the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s stated foreign policy includes seeking the dissolution of Israel. The conflict escalated with the onset of the Syrian Civil War and by 2018 had turned into direct warfare between the two nations (12).
Anti-Israeli rhetoric from Iran has at times been extremely sharp – for example, in September 2015 it said that “… God willing, in 25 years there will be no such thing as the Zionist regime in the region, and secondly, during this period, the fighting Islamic spirit will not give the Zionists even a single day of serenity…” (13). In 2019 it said that Israel is a “sinister regime” that “must be wiped off the map…” (14)
No wonder Israel takes strong actions to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In 2010 it is widely believed to have assassinated top Iranian nuclear scientists in an attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear programme. Methods included booby-trapped vehicles, hitmen with bombs and straight out shootings. That June, the US and Israel are also believed to have used the ‘Stuxnet’ computer worm to damage around 1,000 centrifuges at the Iranian Natanz nuclear enrichment plant. Further attacks have allegedly focussed on Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives and government officials. These attacks reached a breaking point and escalated rapidly with the beginning of the Syrian Civil War (12).
The USA and most Western governments also seek to prevent Iran gaining a nuclear weapon. There is general awareness that Iran would pose a serious risk to both regional and global security if it obtained nuclear weapons. To date, their use of sanctions has strained Iran’s economy to the point that it is now focussing on its proxies. They are somewhat buoyed by a perception that the US does not seem willing to fight another large-scale war in the Middle East, while Sunni Gulf nations do not seem prepared to take any unilateral military actions.
Western economic sanctions were eased after a deal was signed between Iran and the “P5+1” group (US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) which limited Iran’s nuclear activities. Since then there has been a strong focus by the P5+1 Group and aligned Middle-Eastern states towards ensuring Iran’s compliance with the deal.
Meanwhile, one major commodity drives the Middle Eastern economy: Oil.
Despite a very broad global acknowledgement of man-made climate change arising from the burning of fossil fuels, nations have not yet generally made a substantive transition from fossil fuels to carbon-neutral energy sources. Hence Iran remains focused on securing sanctions relief and selling oil on the international market, including gaining further control over oil fields (15).
The need for oil sales brings another dimension into the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict, which began after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This proxy conflict is an ongoing struggle for influence across the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia have supported opposing sides in nearby countries, including during the Syrian Civil War. It is like a multi-layered Cold War between two nations seeking control of the region via geopolitical, economic and sectarian influences (16).
The tangles of international relations over Iran create a complex web. Iran states that it wishes to destroy Israel. The USA is a strong supporter of Israel. Syria gives support to Iran. Russia supports al-Assad’s government Syrian government, finding itself then in conflict with Western governments and Turkey.
New Cold War: China
In modern times China has not tended to be a big player in proxy conflicts. However, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, it is now emerging as a potential threat, both at a regional and global level, particularly to the US.
Since the end of the Nepalese Civil War (1996 – 2006), Nepal and China have remained close. Nepal has given China oil drilling rights in the Terai region, which borders with India. Terrorists have crossed this border area to sabotage railway lines in India (17), creating tensions that are part of the 2020 China-India skirmishes. Soldiers from both sides are involved in aggressive melees and face-offs along the ill-defined, 3,440 km disputed Sino-Indian border. There is a great risk to global security if this fighting escalates as both sides are nuclear-armed.
The USA and China are wrestling for influence across Asia. Between 2011 to 2016, the US sold $2.8bn of armaments to India, a further $2.4bn to Singapore, $1.7bn to Japan and $3bn to Taiwan. Chinese arms sales have been much smaller and concentrated towards non-India South Asia, particularly $3.7bn to Pakistan. There is an expectation of both a continued large-scale US military presence in the region, and an increased presence from China following its rapid economic growth (18).
A flashpoint between India and China, or India and Pakistan, could be disastrous. The strength of their nuclear arsenals and fears of mutual destruction reduces the risk of a direct confrontation between China and the USA, so proxy wars are likely to continue in the region (19).
Wherever you look around the globe, the Big 3 seem to fighting for power and influence in this New Cold War.
1 – “US removes Turkey from F-35 fighter jet programme” – BBC News – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-49023115
2 – “Turkey: Jet ‘downed by Syria in international airspace’” – BBC News – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18568412
3 – “Russian military intervention in the Syrian civil war” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_military_intervention_in_the_Syrian_civil_war
4 – “Turkey shoots down Russian warplane on Syria border” – BBC News – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-34907983
5 – “Turkey is now a Permanent Proxy Sponsor” – https://www.pwinitiative.org/turkeyhasembracedproxywarfare
6 – “Turkish involvement in the Syrian civil war” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_involvement_in_the_Syrian_civil_war
7 – “Russia-Turkey proxy conflict” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia–Turkey_proxy_conflict
8 – “Turkey, Iran fighting their proxy wars in Middle East with militia – analyst” – https://ahvalnews.com/nagorno-karabakh/turkey-iran-fighting-their-proxy-wars-middle-east-militia-analyst
9 – “Libya’s Expanding Proxy War May Be the Ultimate Test of NATO’s Resilience” – https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28918/libya-s-proxy-war-may-be-the-ultimate-test-of-nato-s-resilience
10 – “Blue Homeland: the doctrine behind Turkey’s Mediterranean claims” – National News – https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/europe/blue-homeland-the-doctrine-behind-turkey-s-mediterranean-claims-1.1063591
11 – “Turkish military intervention in the Second Libyan Civil War” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_military_intervention_in_the_Second_Libyan_Civil_War
12 – “Iran-Israel proxy conflict” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran–Israel_proxy_conflict
13 – “Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei: ‘In 25 Years There Will Be No Such Thing As The Zionist Regime In The Region’; America Is Worse Than Satan” – memri.org – https://www.memri.org/reports/iranian-supreme-leader-khamenei-25-years-there-will-be-no-such-thing-zionist-regime-region
14 – “’Nothing Will Be Left of Israel’: Iran Says It Now Has the Power to Wipe Israel ‘Off the Map’” – cbn.com – https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/israel/2019/october/nothing-will-be-left-of-israel-iran-says-it-now-has-the-power-to-wipe-israel-off-the-map
15 – “THE TRUE IRAN THREAT: PROXY WARS” – https://www.luminaegroup.com/blog/iran-threat-proxy-wars
16 – “Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy conflict” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran–Saudi_Arabia_proxy_conflict
17 – “Nepal Turns Chinese Proxy” – http://www.spslandforces.com/experts-speak/?id=622&h=Nepal-Turns-Chinese-Proxy
18 – “What U.S.-China “Proxy Wars” Mean for Asia’s Balancing Act” – https://magazine.wharton.upenn.edu/digital/what-u-s-china-proxy-wars-mean-for-asias-balancing-act/
19 – “INSURGENCY, NOT WAR, IS CHINA’S MOST LIKELY COURSE OF ACTION” – https://warontherocks.com/2019/12/insurgency-not-war-is-chinas-most-likely-course-of-action/