2021年国际安全形势:不稳定因素增加 不确定风险上升
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The International Security Situation in 2021: Unstable Factors Increase, Uncertain Risks Rise

2021年国际安全形势:不稳定因素增加 不确定风险上升

The deputy dean at the PLA’s National Defense University overviews China’s regional and global security challenges in 2021, emphasizing the increasingly important role science and technology innovation play in the military domain.

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The pace of world change picked up in 2021. The international security situation was stable overall, but there was a continuous increase in internal tensions. Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread. The international security order was tested and subjected to shocks. Unstable factors in international security increased, and there was a rise in uncertain risks. The United States strengthened its maintenance and defense of its hegemony. While striving to uphold its original alliance system, it began to build a new security architecture, thus causing a further intensification of great power competition and a further tightening of the space available for international security cooperation. Geopolitical games triggered tension and conflict in some regions, with the potential for more serious runaway crises, while incubating possible new divisions and combinations. International security governance suffers from many defects. The original order is showing signs of loosening and dysfunction, but it is difficult to establish new norms. Overall, there has been no change in the continually evolving trend of international relations. Globally, the need to advance cooperation and strengthen coordination has correspondingly increased.


The Political Attributes of War Have Become Even More Prominent


Military force is no longer the sole guarantee of security, and total war is no longer the basic form of war. A militarily powerful country, like the United States, may find it easy to achieve victory on the battlefield. Even so, it will find gaining political and economic benefits from such a victory extremely difficult. In July 2021, the United States announced that U.S. military forces would not perform important missions in Iraq and planned to pull out of Iraq by the end of the year. However, so far, it has merely completed a “role conversion” of so-called combat personnel to instructors and advisers. In August 2021, U.S forces hastily withdrew from Afghanistan, and the Taliban quickly took power. The development of the situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan demonstrates the limits to the use of military force in global politics. Even if a country has absolutely superiority in technology and equipment and is capable of annihilating the opponent’s personnel on the battlefield and occupying their territory, it will fail to win a substantive victory on account of having confused war aims.


Given the current international configuration, the absolute laws of war do not completely apply to global political development. Neither a politician nor a military strategist can afford to make strategic decisions that focus only on battlefield outcomes. The more critical issue is the use of military force to achieve political objectives. Particularly in local hybrid wars, one cannot be sure of achieving one’s objectives by annihilating the enemy. The realization of major strategic goals needs to be based on military outcomes, but also should transcend military outcomes. Only then can one integrate military means with other means, namely the political, the diplomatic, and the economic, and thereby seize the strategic initiative.


Even if one is facing a relatively weak opponent armed with inferior weapons, one cannot solve all problems just by relying on a very well-equipped and well-trained army. A final victory is very hard to achieve in the absence of an accurate understanding of the historical evolution of a country or region’s politics and culture. Failure to understand the impact and constraints on the use of military force brought about by developments in the global political landscape may result in ultimately fruitless ventures, no matter how powerful one’s own country is. In 2001, the United States launched a war with the nominal justification of opposing terrorism. However, it takes more than military strength to strike a blow against terrorism. Dedication to extirpating the root causes of terrorism is even more important. The soil which nourishes terrorism and extremism is, more often than not, failures of state and social governance or defects in global governance. There can be no question that the fundamental eradication of terrorism requires long-term, comprehensive policy implementation and broader international cooperation. When we also consider the geopolitical strategic ambitions that lay behind the U.S. anti-terrorism war and the wastage of national power that it entailed, we find “strategic failure” and “political failure” behind the success of the military operations.


U.S. Military Deployments Heighten Great Power Strategic Competition


The United States gave prominence to great power strategic competition during the Trump administration. There has been no reversal of this trend since Biden assumed office. Rather, it has expanded in scope and encompassed a wider range of sectors, with impacts that are even more profound and far-reaching. In the military sphere, the United States has further reinforced its frontline presence in the Indo-Pacific and Eastern European regions so as to ensure that it has sufficient deterrents to meet any challenge. It has strengthened its military relationship with allies and partners and has built a more powerful defensive network. For a while now, the United States has greatly increased the frequency of activities such as military exercises, espionage and reconnaissance, and bomber flights along Russia’s borders and in China’s periphery. The U.S. nuclear submarine collision that occurred in the South China Sea suggests that the frequency of such operations by U.S. military forces has already exceeded what is normal for geo-military activities. U.S. strategic planning and military deployments bring with them signs of increasing danger. They exacerbate tense situations in the relevant regions.


In reality, the United States is the only country in the world that lacks a credible, comprehensive security threat. All those that it has deemed to be opponents are surrounded by its military bases and within range of its nuclear missiles. The United States has numerous military bases worldwide, and they constitute direct pressures and threats on some countries, including Russia and China. The intensification of such pressures and threats necessarily escalates great power competition. For example, the United States has increased the frequency of its military exercises in the Baltic and Black Seas and has been conducting exercises with aircraft armed with strategic weapons. The United States held “Global Thunder” strategic nuclear force exercises, in which its strategic bombers were, at their closest, only 20 kilometers from the Russian border. The U.S. Pentagon published an assessment report in November 2021 that revealed that the United States would strengthen its force deployments against China and Russia and improve infrastructure and that it planned to upgrade military bases in Guam and Australia.


In July 2021, U.S. Secretary of Defense Austin gave a rather complete explanation of the U.S. “integrated deterrence strategy.” He emphasized the combining of U.S. strengths with those of its allies and appropriately intertwining technology, combat concepts, and various capabilities into a network so as to form a reliable, flexible, and powerful deterrence capability. The “integrated deterrence strategy” will have an important pull effect on the future U.S. military defense posture. Austin also emphasized that it is no longer possible to rely solely on military force to defend against an opponent’s attack, but rather one should force the opponent to retreat in the face of the difficulties presented by “integrated deterrence.” The United States will likely make some major adjustments in accordance with this strategic design to its alliance system and even to its overall security architecture and thus intensify efforts to strategically squeeze and divide its opponents. Since 2021, the United States has been accelerating the implementation of its “Indo-Pacific strategy,” upgrading the “Quad mechanism” that includes the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, and trying to construct a “tripartite alliance” of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. All of these moves reflect the importance that the Biden administration attaches to coordination with its allies and partners. It is actively reshaping the United States-led alliance system.


At the same time, NATO is adjusting its deployments against Russia and is further emphasizing non-conventional war content. It is carrying out strategic adjustments that include nuclear strikes, cyberwarfare, and space war. These moves are highly likely to set off a new arms race. In the event of such a situation, the already tense state of affairs between NATO and Russia may gradually escalate. Russia’s Southern Military District has already announced that it is re-equipping units under its command and that over 70% of the weapons systems and specialized equipment have been improved. Russia strengthened its southwestern air defense capabilities in order to counterbalance pressure from NATO. In recent years, the main European nations have been updating or developing new national security strategies, which will give rise to a new round of strategic interactions. Russia is now beefing up deployment of long-range anti-ship missiles. The first batch of extended-range missiles will be delivered to the coastal defense brigades of the Northern Fleet and the Black Sea Fleet. In 2021, Russia brought out a new “national security strategy,” which contained all of the relevant factors and clearly defined strategic priorities. It especially emphasized that “the goal of information security is to strengthen the Russian Federation’s sovereignty in information space.” In planning for “strategic stability and mutually beneficial international cooperation,” Russia will lay even greater stress on the “multi-dimensional, multi-layered, multi-objective” line so as to uphold a beneficial equilibrium in foreign relations.


Strategic Concerns Cause Some Countries to Keep Expanding Arms Investments


As the changes occurring in the world grow more profound, each nation’s position, role, and influence within the international system is undergoing corresponding changes. The old logic of hegemonism, power politics, and capital expansion will not automatically exit the stage of history. At the same time, the relevant standpoints and efforts for building a new order have yet to be fully presented and affirmed. In the transition from old to new orders, the co-existence of multiple rules has highlighted the complexity of international relations as never before, and uncertainties in international security have become even more prominent. Thus, the strategic concerns of some countries not only have not decreased, but have in fact increased. An obvious sense of insecurity has arisen in the changing world. Against the background of a world economy that is universally depressed owing to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, some countries and regions are still increasing their investments in armaments. The total amount of global military expenditures in 2020 was 1.981 trillion U.S. dollars, the highest level since the end of the Cold War. While global economic growth declined more than 4%, global military spending grew 2.6% in the same period. According to incomplete statistics, global military spending in 2021 is expected to exceed 1.94 trillion U.S. dollars. Although this represents a slight decline relative to 2020, the level of spending remains high. In response to this, over 50 Nobel Laureates issued a public letter in which they stated that “some governments increase military spending under competitive pressure, leading to an intensification of the global arms race and constituting a colossal waste.”


Recent years have seen a rapid development of high technology in military fields. There have been continuous breakthroughs of disruptive technology in new fields. The building of new combat forces has become an important pull factor in the rapid growth of military fields. At present, the important new fields that are closely tied to national security include: space, deep sea, cyber, biology, and AI. Human “feelers” have gradually extended to virtual frontiers, deep frontiers, remote frontiers, and micro-frontiers and thus have brought about changes in national security structures and in the development and innovation of national security thinking. In international competition, new fields may often transcend traditional fields and have unique advantages. Pioneers can gain a leg up and seize the strategic initiative. Therefore, all the major powers have, one after another, expanded their investments in the relevant fields.


In 2021, the process of S&T innovation relating to disruptive technologies accelerated. Important progress was made in the AI, space, and near space fields in particular. There was an acceleration in the application of relevant technologies to specific military equipment, with critical technologies developing at an unimaginably fast rate. Russia and the United States have been developing these fields at impressive rates. In July 2021, Russia conducted its first large-scale military exercise for the purpose of defending against and intercepting hypersonic missiles. It did so in order to test and evaluate the state of guided dispatching and equipment training in the Russian military forces. As for equipment development, the Russian hypersonic missile, called Kinzhal, already possesses preliminary combat capability. After it is launched, it travels at high speeds and, swooping down from the sky at 10 times the speed of sound, precisely strikes its target. The Zircon anti-ship missile is also undergoing further testing and, according to plans, should be deployable to combat units in 2022. In a space test conducted in November 2021, Russia elicited the concern of many countries when it hit and destroyed one of its own decommissioned orbiting satellites. As soon as he assumed office, U.S. President Biden announced the institution of an aggressive space program, demanding that the U.S. Space Force simultaneously possess combat and combat support capabilities to implement rapid, sustained attack and defense space operations and thus maintain the U.S. lead in space. To enable its own hypersonic weapons and hypersonic missiles to become mission-capable sooner, the U.S. military performed multiple targeted tests in 2021.


As S&T developments and breakthroughs occur in the new fields relating to space, deep sea, biology, and AI, the security space will continue to extend into these new fields and spaces. Military operations will expand from three dimensions to multiple dimensions and from the tangible to the intangible. Space supremacy, deep sea supremacy, biosupremacy, and dominance of the AI field will become the new critical factors in winning great power competitions and wars, and the development of new forces will spur revolutionary changes in military force systems. The new fields are spaces in which new combat capabilities can grow. They are also the main vehicles whereby traditional military forces can be brought into play. They will play a critical role in high-end wars. For example, cyber warfare capabilities have become fundamental factors in military systems; unmanned combat systems will significantly raise the intelligentization level of combat operations; and hypersonic weapons will become the trump card of strategic strikes. This is a development trend in which new branches of the armed services will continue to appear and become incorporated into the original military force system—the space force, the cyber force, and even service branches that may become more important than the traditional armed services as they grow from strategic support forces into important combat forces. UAV and robot forces will be quickly developed and utilized.


Geopolitical Games Will Give Rise to New Divisions and Combinations


The continuous increase in unstable international security factors and the interweaving of traditional security challenges with non-traditional security issues are manifesting themselves rather noticeably in changes in geopolitical relations. The EU wants to create a “European Army” as a way of advancing the integration of its defenses; nuclear submarine cooperation between the United States, the UK, and Australia constitutes a serious nuclear proliferation risk; and Russia and Ukraine are massing troops along their border amidst an accelerating deterioration of bilateral relations. In Southeast Asia, some external factors have become the main causes of volatility, while, in South Asia, the situation in Afghanistan is again changing rapidly because the United States and some European countries are actively strengthening relations with India. Thus, this region’s security is beset by new complexities. There are alternating and growing tensions and conflicts in some regions. Local turbulence still ebbs and flows across the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Africa while new development trends appear.


Against a background of U.S. strategic retrenchment, new changes have arisen in the Middle East, with some moderation emerging in relations among the regions and nations there. A clash that occurred between Palestine and Israel in the Gaza strip resulted in an extremely tense situation between the two sides. In May 2021, Israel heavily bombarded the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian armed forces, mainly composed of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), fired rockets at Israeli targets. Both sides suffered major casualties and property losses. However, following the conflict, Israel and Palestine had more contacts and negotiations, which bore some fruit. Turning now to Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus, we find that the aftershocks of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have yet to subside completely; friction remains between the two countries of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Internal disputes persist in some countries. Political disputes in Georgia and Ukraine have intensified. The geopolitical games of foreign great powers have cast a huge shadow on these regions. In Africa, terrorist activities have intensified and spread. Terrorist attacks are becoming severe, particularly in the Sahei region of Northern Africa. The nations of Sudan, Chad, Mali, Ethiopia, and Guinea-Bissau have all descended into disorder. While Mali and Guinea-Bissau have experienced military coups, anti-government forces are approaching the Ethiopian capital, which has entered a state of emergency.


All kinds of problems and risks, both those that are predictable and those that are hard to predict, may arise in the midst of these profound changes in the world situation. There may even be some strategic surprises, such as indeterminate international coalitions, widespread financial crises, and, in some countries, political unrest. There is no returning to the past, even for transatlantic U.S.-EU relations. With the help of the Strategic Compass program, the EU wants to push forward with military fusion and thus, by 2025, will establish a 5,000-man joint force for autonomous response to crises. In the midst of a changing world, U.S. and European interests no longer overlap as they once did. They cannot remain as tightly joined as they were during the Cold War in opposition to the Soviet Union. General U.S. dominance over Europe will persist, yet it will, without a doubt, gradually weaken. Conflicts of interest are increasing between them, and their goals are inevitably diverging. The U.S. Biden administration has made many efforts to repair the transatlantic partnership, but a thorough turnaround is difficult to bring about given the influence of domestic politics. Independent defense has become an objective requirement for Europe in light of the evolving situation. It is also a necessary response to the United States tangible and intangible suppression of France and Germany and its method of roping in Central and Eastern Europe. If even European countries cannot solve problems for Europe, then no one can. The G7 Summit held in June 2021 produced minimal results. Practical solutions to the concerns of the European countries met with serious obstacles.


The “strategic autonomy” put forward by the EU not only aims to reinforce internal EU cohesion, but also is an actual requirement in response to changes in the European security environment. Without “strategic autonomy,” not only will Europe lack the ability to deal with security challenges such as terrorist attacks, refugee crises, and regional unrest, but also the centripetal forces binding together the EU countries will weaken over the long term. As for Sino-U.S., relations, Europe might benefit from a moderate degree of decoupling. To maintain the necessary strategic initiative, a policy of ambiguity is sometimes superior to clear-cut decisions or choosing sides.


International Security Governance Requires a More Effective Multilateral Governance Mechanism


Unstable factors have only increased globally, thereby aggravating the imbalance between supply and demand in international security governance. For example, the authority of the United Nations has been eroded, narrow military alliances have raised tensions, and the danger of an arms race and military conflict has risen. These many challenges, overlapping with the spread of the coronavirus epidemic, have exacerbated the pre-existing deficit in international security governance. Therefore, the international community urgently needs to build and perfect a more inclusive multilateral system to solve the lack or inadequate supply of international security governance.


As the world undergoes profound changes, the original international order led by the United States and Europe will become increasingly unable to provide the international community with enough security-related public goods or enough space for stable development. The era in which world affairs could be decided by a few Western countries coming together is already past and will never return. The changing world demands that all countries jointly work actively towards using more effective international coordination and cooperation to deal with transnational and global security risks and challenges and to placate and hedge against the enormous conflicts which might result from uncertainties. There remains a huge space in which the United Nations and the relevant regional cooperation organizations can play their roles, but they need to further adapt to new situations and make necessary reforms. At the same time, some new regional and international mechanisms continue to make progress. For example, security cooperation under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization framework has been playing a more active role in Central Asia. The ever-increasing demand for security cooperation and security governance will spur continuous change in international relations.


Although world disorder has become apparent, contradictions have deepened, and difficulties have proliferated, the need among the nations of the world for peace and development has not only not declined, but has grown more pressing. Repeated crises and conflicts warn us again and again that the international community should not only strengthen multilateral cooperation and strive to avoid war, but, even more importantly, it should actively build and maintain peace. Therefore, we must effectively advance the global governance process, gradually find channels and measures for resolving disputes and ending conflicts, and achieve a beneficial balance between institutional supply and practical demand, thereby promoting the realization of sustainable development and sustainable security.


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Cite This Page

唐永胜 (Tang Yongsheng). "The International Security Situation in 2021: Unstable Factors Increase, Uncertain Risks Rise [2021年国际安全形势:不稳定因素增加 不确定风险上升]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in Contemporary World [当代世界], January 15, 2022

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