Great Power Rivalry


Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and Kautliya in Contemporary Strategic Environment

According to Harry R. Yarger the strategic environment is an environment in which head of states interact with each other to get most benefits for their own country. This environment contains internal and external parts, relationships of countries, their main issues, the threats they pose to each other or to other states and the opportunities they offer to each other[1]. The contemporary strategic environment today is in constant flux, the war on terror launched by the US and its allies in 2001 changed the strategic landscape of various regions and of the world as a whole. The protracted wars US fought under the umbrella of coalition gave rise to its cold war rival, Russia (then The Soviet Union). The rise of China is yet another factor that changed the contemporary strategic environment to a greater extent. The US army war college term VUCA is best to explain this change, VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty Complexity and Ambiguity[2]. The contemporary strategic environment is in flux, and to predict a way forward we have to dust off the classical thinkers like Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Kautliya, and use their strategies in this changing environment, where world is no more a unipolar world. The Strategic Contemporary Strategic Environment can best be explained if we dissect the great power politics using separate case studies of great powers, and then we will be able get a conclusion, that which power is in rivalry with another and which great powers can enter into future alliance.

The Case of US/EU vs. Russia: Classical Rivalry Goes On.

From the beginning, Russia is seen as a threat by United Europe, under the umbrella of United States. The End of World War II and Cold War closed the chapter of ultimate aggression in and out of Europe. The past strategic environment was only confined to threat and use of force. But the contemporary strategic environment is changing in a sense that it also encompasses other factors like economy, diplomacy, industrial and technological base and influence on other regions. Sun Tzu is a classical Chinese strategist that best fits in this case. First chapter of his book, the Art of War offer an array of deception techniques to be used in Russia-US showdown. The US after the fall of Soviet Union stood as a sole power invading countries on the doors of central Asia, the classical sphere of influence of Russia, expanding eastwards, eroding another Russian sphere of influence and attacking and intervening in entirely all Middle East countries, which compelled Russia to act. The Russians who were seen as no threat by the Americans till Bush Administration, were caught by surprise when Russia employed Sun Tzu’s false appearance principle in the Ukraine conflict through continuous denial. “All War is based on deception” Deception which is also embedded in Russian Strategic thought and is called Maskirovka. The deception and denial strategy was used in Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014, when soldiers without Insignia were found on Crimean soil. These soldiers took over the government buildings, communication centers, and as a whole the entire peninsula. Yet no one was sure about who they are. With the discovery of shale gas and oil, the US poised to become the major producer of oil and other products associated with oil and gas. Traditionally the Baltic States depend on Russia for their energy needs. US trying to break that hold of Russian control of energy market by pushing Baltic states towards NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and EU (Europe Union), this Machiavellian move by Americans surely upset Russians because the Ukrainian Crisis was then used by Americans, on which Machiavelli himself wrote, “No enterprise is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy until it is ripe for execution”. Americans had done the same by trying to push Europe away from Russian Gas, and divert their energy needs towards US produced LNG, now the same rule was applied to the Baltic States. Russia which depend heavily on gas exports was caught by surprise due to this American move, because they faced a situation where their production would exceed while demand would go down. Russian strategy narrates Sun Tzu “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill”. To go for direct energy war over who will supply what to Europe, Russia instead opened its new way, a new gas market in Asia, by signing a gas deal with China, the Power of Siberia Gas Pipelines[3]. This counter strategy neutralizes the worst effects on Russian energy market in the longer run. The present environment is complex because the Russians have modernized their arsenal; the feared Borei Class SSBNs are in service again. The US after claiming a superpower status also emerged as a sea power, the new naval equation is not opaque, because of various reasons, one is that Russian Navy though small in number possess a vital punch, and Putin is extremely interested in naval realm, the activation of Arctic bases, Mediterranean exercises, the control of vital area in black sea from Crimea, is also, challenging American naval planners, who were unchallenged before on the high seas in the post-cold war world. TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) is yet another gigantic feat undertaken by United States to have a lasting impact in the world[4]. The largest ever trade agreement is no more less than a surprise for Resurgent Russia, who is trying to recover and poised to become a viable economic power and not just a military power. Kautliya leadership lesson explains Putin role “The king shall lose no time when the opportunity waited for arrives”. Putin is Ruling Russia in a very Challenging times when US influenced by its own economic agenda, trying to repair its tarnished role in Asia and elsewhere and be the ultimate guarantor of European security, Putin’s grand reforms agendas offer a clear picture of what a leadership can mean for a country and if there is any opportunity the leader must be wise enough to sense that, and cease that opportunity. The US’ protracted wars lead them to a mess, utilized by Russia by securing a Black Sea port in Crimea results in maximized power projection. Launching strikes into Syria to eliminate US backed terrorists and to complicate the strategic environment for US by cultivating good relations with Latin America and as mentioned earlier that Russia is looking towards in this Asian century to have lasting impact and tie Russia to the economic boom in Asia. But facing various Machiavellian moves by US, the TPP being one of them, though not directed at Russia, but TPP poses a very serious threat to Russian Economic Future.

Germany’s Unique Role in US vs. Russia Equation: Listen and Interact with Russia while staying with US.

Looks like Machiavelli is advising Putin to have a slightly different approach towards Germany, because the Germans may not be interested in their Nazi past, but German as a nation have existed for a long time. They have their own history, was an Empire and have both honor and military skills embedded in them, thus giving rise to their unique strategic culture as a nation. Snubbing Germany would be a folly for Russian ruler. Germany is not a yes man of Europe, US enjoys a considerable influence on other EU nations, but Germany is an exception, they usually follow a separate approach if it negates the German national interest. The present crisis in US Russia relations is a proof that Germany followed a balanced approach with Russia; repeatedly calling that Russia must not be isolated internationally[5]. The German support for Russia and call for a continuous engagement with Russia is a proof that Machiavellian advises of cunningness and Kautliyan principles of leadership are still relevant in the contemporary strategic environment.

The Case of US vs. China. New World Power vs. Existing Hegemon in the Order.

US and China are the biggest trading partners but due to China’s great power ambitions or perceptions, there is an underlying rivalry between the two. The European attitude towards China is entirely different because of financial interests or the lack of resources or will. Because it clearly goes against their national interests and the interest of European Union to confront China. China rose peacefully but due to the fact that ultimate hegemon was already there in the form of United States, both find it difficult to hide their conflicting interests. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, holds true to date in international politics the US special relationships with Taiwan, and Chinese special relationship with North Korea and other Latin American countries like Venezuela etc. is a proof that states will cultivate relationship with rival states’ enemy to puzzle their planners. The US relationship with Taiwan may be to upset China, but North Korea’s relationships with China are worrisome for US because of the stationing of large number of troops in the neighboring South Korea. Machiavellian lesson is mastered by the Americans but also it is relevant in the Chinese case too, looking at the contemporary strategic environment Machiavelli said: “The lion cannot protect himself from a trap and the fox cannot defend itself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves”. The post-Cold War world was changed because it reduced the risk of major powers going to wars, instead it introduced the major power to Machiavellian style of rule, means one must be clever, to counter enemy traps, mere fight or to react with violence doesn’t make sense at all. One must be able to frighten its enemies by getting relevance in the order. Lion is feared because it has more power and they attack, while the prey falls in trap. The US dollar is like a trap, the IMF and World Bank, if China and its allies come under these US backed entities they surely will fall in the trap, and then the US will have everything to frighten them. To counter these traps and to keep its allies protected from US influence, China proposed an IMF style bank of its own called AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). The bank is touted as a landmark achievement reflecting the rising China and its influence in the immediate regions it is connected too[6]. Another trap which China is trying to avoid is to divert their maritime traffic away from Panama Canal, The US have exclusive rights over Panama Canal collecting revenues from transiting ships. In case of any hostility or to limit dependence of future rival US, China is constructing its own canal through Nicaragua, the construction will introduce a competitor to Panama canal and will help China generate considerable influence in that region. A Sun Tzu lesson, “knowing the place and the time of the coming battle we may concentrate from the greatest distances in order to fight” holds true for the issue in South China Sea, which is heating up again with American petrol in spartlys. Chinese Navy lacks in aircraft carriers but it has anti-aircraft carrier missiles to target US naval carriers, knowing the fact that US navy traditionally enjoyed a superiority over sea and also subdued its enemy without fighting with its aircraft carriers. Chinese defense planners concentrate on A2/AD Area Access Area Denial strategies, to limit US navy access to Chinese maritime boundary but also a way to eliminate their naval force with their anti-aircraft carrier missiles. The Kautliyan principles are reflected in Xi jingling’s and Obama’s leadership, fair and firm, with a balanced statecraft, zero tolerance towards enemies both from within and outside, leaders of both countries possess experience and knowledge to conduct state’s affairs.

Major Powers Friendships and Rivalries: A combined case of US-EU vs. Russia-China

Chinese and Russian alliance is touted as the biggest geopolitical setback for US and EU. The former imperial power is now in official alliance with the new Major Power, China, which is also an Economic Power. The energy hungry China which was initially seen as a threat from Moscow is now seen as a friend. The same principle that enemy of your enemy is my friend can be seen in practice. But apart from that, the major gas deal which will feed Chinese energy needs further enhanced this alliance. The two enemies of US are now in alliance, though not officially but the growing relations and convergence of interests, calls for a more balanced International Order to have a clear place of both, both countries are in joint projects and the joint naval exercises reflect their desire to expand relations so that their common enemy can be dealt with easily. Russian-Chinese patch up under SCO Shanghai Cooperation Organization is yet another achievement which is seen as a future military alliance like NATO. The US on the other hand is employing a cunning technique offered by Machiavelli, by approaching Russian allies with active diplomacy, making things complex for the duos. The EU project of exporting gas from Azerbaijan via Southern Gas Corridor hints strong relations with Caucasus Russian sphere of influence is also seen as a threat from Moscow, because it is seen as the future enlargement of NATO, which is encirclement in other words and hints towards Sun Tzu principles, of encircling your enemy. The Chinese on the other hand expanding their strengths overseas, through projects like the Maritime Silk Route, which will include nations from Asia, especially ASEAN. Maritime Silk route and TPP are seen as rivals because both US and China are expanding their reach to Asian economies to maximize their power.


The classical thinkers are relevant in the present scenario using Great power rivalry as case study. Warfare, Leadership, and a clear system of government assure any country’s success or failure. Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and Kautliya all shed light on War, Peace and how to remain relevant in the contemporary World Order.

[1] Yarger, Harry R. Strategic theory for the 21st century: the little book on big strategy. Lulu. com, 2006.

[2] Ibid 1

[3] ‘Power of Siberia’: Russia’s Rising Eastern Gas Empire?” EurActiv. Accessed November 24, 2015.

[4] “What the Trans-Pacific Partnership Means for Russia.” Russia Direct. Accessed November 24, 2015.

[5] “The Astonishing Rise of Angela Merkel – The New Yorker.” The New Yorker. Accessed November 24, 2015.

[6] With the Initial Deadline to Join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) Fast Approaching. “Score One for China! U.S. Loses Asia Bank Tussle.” CNNMoney. Accessed November 24, 2015.


is a freelance writer, geopolitical issues interests him the most. He can be reached at [email protected]

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