The recent killing of General Soleimani and subsequent reactions have raised the specter of a new war in the Middle East. Given the size and power of Iran, a foot-loose USA, and the aggressive diplomacy of Turkey and Russia, there has even been talk of this conflict escalating into a regional or world war.
In our view the Iran-USA conflict is a skirmish, a side-show. It is possible that we may face a world war in the coming decades. However, should there be a war it would most probably be led by the USA and its allies on one side, and a new bloc that is rapidly forming around China. A look at two numbers – Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and military spending – suggests that this is a frightening but credible scenario.
First, let us look at GDP. War is an expensive business and requires huge resources. Until recently, the economic might of the USA had not only won two world wars but also brought the USSR to its knees. However, the economic balance of power in the world has changed at breakneck speed over the past few decades. The economic dominance of the USA has been successfully challenged by a rapidly growing China. GDP in China is now about USD 15.3 trillion, compared to around USD 22.3 trillion for the USA (data from the IMF). However, these figures do not take into account that the cost of living in China is much lower than in the USA. If a correction is made for differential in purchasing power, China’s GDP most likely exceeds that of the USA by 20-30 percent. Other countries lag far behind China and the USA. Japan is number three in the world with a GDP of USD 5.4 trillion, followed by Germany at USD 5 trillion, and France, India and the UK at around USD 3 trillion.
Russia, despite all the posturing by Putin, appears a midget compared to the USA and China with a GDP of only USD 1.6 trillion.
Second, let us look at military spending. Using figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the USA tops the league table of military spending with a whopping USD 650 billion per year. This is around the double of Pakistan’s entire GDP ! Once again, the only country that comes near is China with expenditures of around USD 250 million.
Correcting for lower costs, particularly of personnel, Chinese military expenditures may be around two thirds of that of the USA. The next set of countries in terms of military spending are Saudi Arabia, India and France (around USD 65 billion) followed by Russia with USD 61 billion.
Having the capacity and capability to wage war does not necessarily mean that there will be war. During the Cold War, the USA and the USSR came close to armed conflict several times but did not cross the threshold. Maybe, memories of the Second World War and of the destructive potential of atomic weapons were still fresh; or maybe it was that both accepted the others “sphere of influence.” Whatever the reason, these two super-powers found ways to compete, without ever formally going to war. Memories now appear to be fading and increasingly the USA seems willing to go to war to defend its interests – in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria and maybe in Iran. It is increasingly acting as if it is the only global super power. Even in its trade disputes with China, and other countries, the USA is acting as if the world needs it more than it needs the world.
There seems to be little inclination to accept that we are once again in a bipolar world and that the USA will need to engage with China as an equal partner. Sooner or later there will be a clash with an increasingly assertive and well prepared China, most likely this would be over control of resources in the Middle East or Africa.
Where are other countries likely to stand, if it comes to a war between China and the USA? Clearly, long-standing allies such as the UK and Saudi Arabia will stand with the USA. So too would India, as a strong China would threaten its strategic position in South Asia. Possibly Russia and its allies would find it better to side with China and expand their influence in Europe.
So what does this mean for Pakistan? Should we side with the USA, our long standing strategic partner, with who we have a love-hate relationship? Or, should we take the risk and “Swivel to the East”?
Daud Khan is a retired UN staff based in Rome.
Leila Yasmine Khan is an independent writer and editor based in the Netherlands