18 February 2021

The USA’s position as the sole superpower is threatened – “We are moving towards a multipolar world order”

The global balance of power is at a critical juncture. The enormous defence investments of China and Russia, are threatening the USA’s hitherto unique position of power. This is the assessment of FOI’s report, Defence Economic Outlook 2020.

A map over the world

The global balance of power is undergoing a transformation. Around 2030, China will probably have become the world’s largest economy and its navy will likely outnumber its American counterpart.

“During the last century, we’ve seen a change in the world’s economic and military balance of power. This trend will probably continue in the coming decade. We have to seriously think about what this changing global power balance means for Sweden,” says Per Olsson, one of the study’s authors.

The global balance of power is undergoing a transformation. Around 2030, China will probably have become the world’s largest economy and its navy will likely outnumber its American counterpart, according to the report.

“It is obvious who the USA now sees as its foremost opponent. The pendulum has swung from fighting international terrorism to great power rivalry. Above all, China is seen as the major challenger. It’s not yet a question of a cold war or an arms race, as the one against the Soviet Union, but we definitely see increased great power rivalry and an expansion of military capabilities on both sides,” says Per Olsson.

This is the third report on this theme, and FOI releases a new edition every second year. The purpose of the report is to give a multifaceted picture of the balance of military strength between the world’s great powers, and provide an assessment of economic and military trends in the coming decade.

The USA’s position as sole superpower threatened

The USA and its allies currently retain a military advantage. Nevertheless, China and Russia have steadily advanced their positions and reduced the gap in capability. Between 2000 and 2019, China invested considerable resources in modernising its armed forces at the same time as it, quite literally, fortified its claims to major portions of the South China Sea by constructing artificial islands.

“At the same time as China’s economic power grows, it seeks to modernise its military, especially its navy. China views the South China Sea as its territory and Taiwan as a runaway province. If one wants to assert such claims, extensive naval resources are required in order to counter eventual interventions from the USA and its allies,” says Per Olsson.

Meanwhile, Russia has repeatedly shown that it is ready to use military means to attain its political objectives, such as during its intervention in Syria and the war in Ukraine. Although Russia has long invested in its military, spending growth has slowed in recent years. This has in part been due to a tougher economic reality, but also, because previous investments have delivered desired results. It is likely that Russia’s military capability will continue to increase in the coming decade.

The USA has adapted to this new reality by increasing its defence budget in recent years. At the same time, several European countries have either increased their military spending or announced their plans to do so. This is partly due to Russia’s increased activity, but also because of pressure from the USA to meet NATO’s goal of spending two per cent of GNP on defence. Interest in more enhanced defence cooperation within EU has also intensified.

Russia and China’s advanced positions are posing new demands on our decision-makers.

“We have to seriously think about what the changing global balance of power means for Sweden,” says Olsson.

A unique study – several variables considered

What distinguishes the report, “Defence Economic Outlook,” is that it looks at multiple factors to illuminate different aspects of the global military and the economic balance of power.

In order to obtain a picture that is as correct as possible, the study investigates how much money countries spend on the military and how much equipment they have access to, as well as the quality of the equipment each great power has.

“What we do is focus on what different countries get for their money. Russia spends about as much on its military as France, but its navy is just as large as, and its army has more materiel than, what the four major European powers (France, Germany, the UK and Italy) have combined. On the other hand, European equipment is generally more modern. All this affects the balance of power, so if you look at only one perspective, there’s a lot you will miss,” says Per Olsson.

The USA continues to dominate in the air and under the seas

The analysis of the military equipment involves the numbers of warships, submarines, tanks, artillery pieces and combat aircraft major global powers have access to. The equipment is categorised according to both how modern it is and the capacity it has. Some examples of the classification are the number of missiles, as well as their range and maximum speed. The USA still has a qualitative advantage, especially in the air and under the water. But, within most other areas, rival great powers such as China and Russia have narrowed the gap.

“Our conclusion is that in ten years the USA will still be the world’s dominant military power. But this dominance will have been reduced dramatically as the other major powers, primarily China, continue to advance. We are moving towards a multipolar world order. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that the USA will lose its global leadership, which relies on alliances as much as its own strength,” says Per Olsson.