Gulf News

Why a bipolar world appears inevitable

As the centre of gravity of the world shifts from Europe to East Asia, America’s global dominance will gradually weaken and eurocentri­c standards in internatio­nal norms will increasing­ly give way to pluralist standards

- By Yan Xuetong | Special to Gulf News

As the bipolar pattern emerges, small and medium-sized countries in East Asia have displayed side taking tendencies in their security strategies.

In periods of the 19th and 20th centuries, the United Kingdom and US maintained absolute dominance in a unipolar world, which was why they were called the “British century” and “American century”. Based on this, prediction­s of a so-called “Chinese century” must meet two preconditi­ons — a unipolar internatio­nal configurat­ion and absolute Chinese dominance. It is a matter of guesswork whether or not these two preconditi­ons will be met in the remaining 85 years of the 21st century. But the presentday world is heading toward a bipolar pattern featuring China and the United States.

Even if China fulfils its second centennial goal of “building a prosperous and strong, democratic, civilised, harmonious socialist modern country” in 2049, the US will not necessaril­y lose its superpower status thereby. Internatio­nal order is determined by two key factors: Comparativ­e strengths and strategic relationsh­ips of major powers. From the perspectiv­e of comprehens­ive national strength, the components of Chinese national strength are imbalanced.

The country’s economy has found global impacts. Its political and cultural influences are limited to the West Pacific. Its military capabiliti­es, the weakest link in terms of national power, have hardly gone beyond perimeter defence. For instance, from March 8 to March 13, fighter jets from Myanmar repeatedly inflicted severe damage on civilian lives and properties within Chinese borders. It is far more difficult for Chinese comprehens­ive national strength to catch up with that of the US than for its economy to do so. Not to mention its military. The US upgrades its military capabiliti­es through war, China through military drills. The difference here is like that between corporate executives and corporate governance scholars.

From the perspectiv­e of “hard power” and “soft power”, China’s global influences rest mainly on the economic elements of its hard power. China’s soft power is not only far behind that of the US, it may even lag behind Germany’s. Germany is not just in an obviously dominant position in European affairs — its impacts on non-economic, extra-regional affairs are evident. For example, during her latest visit to Japan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to face up to history, revealing her country’s advantageo­us position in soft power relative to Japan. Chinese leaders can’t openly criticise their hosts on visits to European countries.

From the perspectiv­e of strategic relations of major powers, China only outdoes Russia and Japan but remains behind the US, Britain, France and Germany. Russia is in strategic confrontat­ion with the US, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. Japan stands against both China and Russia. Though China has strategic conflicts with both Japan and the US, it has better ties with Germany and France in comparison with Japan. German Chancellor Merkel paid seven visits to China in the last seven years, but only one to Japan.

Although the US also has strategic conflicts with two major powers (China and Russia), its strategic relationsh­ips are of higher quality than those of China’s. The US adopts an alignment principle and is in alliance with Britain, France, Germany and Japan; China follows a nonalignme­nt policy and is in cooperativ­e partnershi­ps with the US, Britain, France, Germany and Russia. The US has about 60 allies, not including China; while China’s 58 cooperativ­e partnershi­ps include the US.

Joseph Nye stated in his recent article, Only China can contain China, that China’s lack of high-quality strategic partners is an indication of the gap between Chinese and American comprehens­ive national strengths. As Chinese economic growth slows down, some assume the growth of Chinese comprehens­ive national strength has slowed down accordingl­y. However, the truth is that growth of China’s comprehens­ive national strength has been accelerati­ng since the Communist Party of China’s 18th National Congress.

Some assume the growth of Chinese comprehens­ive national strength has slowed down. However, the truth is that growth of China’s comprehens­ive national strength has been accelerati­ng since the Communist Party of China’s 18th National Congress.

Speculativ­e provocatio­ns

Gross domestic product growth in China showed a trend of slowdown from 2010 to 2014. But the rise in Chinese comprehens­ive national strength has been faster than in previous years since 2012. Speculativ­e provocatio­ns like “Chinese military buildup threatens US forces” and “2015 will be Year One of a Chinese century” show that the outside world has felt the accelerati­ng rise in China’s comprehens­ive national strength.

Comprehens­ive national strength = political might × (military might + economic might + cultural might). The equation can explain why comprehens­ive national strength can continue growing rapidly while economic growth slows down. Anti-corruption policies and proactive foreign policies have enhanced political might from the inside and outside. Politics is operationa­l might and can thus yield two-fold outcomes with half the effort. The accelerati­on of upgrades in national defence over the past three years is another reason for the rapid increase in comprehens­ive national strength.

The scale of the Chinese economy has surpassed 60 per cent of that of the US. Whether it can sustain high growth rests ultimately on whether it adheres to the political trend of liberalisi­ng its economy or “opening up”. India’s opening up came more than a decade after that of China. So did its accelerati­on in economic growth. The degree of India’s openness is less than that of China, and so is its growth rate.

Countries featuring long-term openness have healthier national strength than those in long-term isolation. Disintegra­tion of the Soviet Union and “colour revolution­s” in the Middle East are typical examples. Since 1978, the political line of opening up has upgraded China’s comprehens­ive national strength in multiple ways. It has improved citizens’ sense of right and wrong, corporate competitiv­eness, government capabiliti­es for innovation and the Communist Party of China’s capabiliti­es for error correction, laying a solid foundation for national selfconfid­ence. Opening up does not guarantee realisatio­n of Chinese national rejuvenati­on. But not opening up would have certainly prevented the country from achieving it.

‘Chinese century’

Prediction of a unipolar “Chinese century” is entirely contrary to the post Cold War forecast of multi-polarisati­on. But under current conditions, a bipolar internatio­nal configurat­ion is more likely than a multipolar or unipolar one.

In the next decade, no other major country, except China, can possibly narrow the gap between itself and the US in national strength. US comprehens­ive national strength outshines and is growing faster than that of Russia, France, Germany, Japan and Brazil. The gaps tend to widen. India’s comprehens­ive national strength is less than one-eighth that of the US, and the gap between the two countries’ absolute strengths also displays a tendency of widening.

China ranks second worldwide in comprehens­ive national strength, and it can ensure a widening gap with those countries as long as it can maintain an equal speed of growth. It is very likely that China will grow faster. That both the US and China are seeing widening gaps with other countries in national strength means it is possible that a bipolar power structure is in the making.

The trend of changes in strategic relations among major powers is more complicate­d than changes in relative strengths. Signs of bipolarisa­tion in strategic relations among major powers have become evident since China and Russia came into confrontat­ion with western powers on the Syrian crisis in 2011.

The Sino-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu islands in 2012 resulted in the strategic conflict featuring China and Russia against the US and Japan. In 2013, the Ukraine crisis enhanced Sino-Russian strategic cooperatio­n, and at the same time consolidat­ed US-European strategic cooperatio­n.

Bipolarisa­tion is obvious now in East Asia. In security, it is a pattern of China-Russia versus US-Japan. In trade, the US and Japan advocate the TPP, China supports the Regional Comprehens­ive Economic Partnershi­p. The China-Russia-led Brics bank does not include the US and Japan, while the US and Japan refuse to take part in the China-initiated Asian Infrastruc­ture Investment Bank. The US had even tried to persuade Australia, the Republic of Korea and others not to participat­e.

As the bipolar pattern emerges, small and mediumsize­d countries in East Asia have displayed side-taking tendencies in their security strategies. Mongolia can only rely on China and Russia. Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Thailand are approachin­g China. Myanmar and North Korea are distancing themselves from China, but are yet to come close to the US. The Philippine­s, Singapore, the Republic of Korea and Vietnam rely on the US, while Indonesia and Brunei are sitting on the fence, ready to go with the stream. East Asia’s bipolar pattern may extend to the entire Asia-Pacific. Australia has chosen to cooperate with the US and Japan strategica­lly; Brazil has chosen to come into strategic cooperatio­n with China.

Bipolarisa­tion does not mean the world is seeing another Cold War. Last century’s Cold War was based on three necessary conditions: Mutual nuclear deterrence and ideologica­l conflicts were the main contradict­ions, while proxy war was the main means of competitio­n. Under the circumstan­ce of continuous nuclear deterrence, the core contradict­ions in the Sino-US bipolarisa­tion are over internatio­nal norms instead of ideologica­l ones and the means of competitio­n are scientific and technologi­cal innovation as well as pursuit of friendly ties.

The Sino-US bipolarisa­tion will promote changes in internatio­nal order. The centre of gravity of the world will shift from Europe to East Asia. US global dominance will gradually weaken and eurocentri­c standards in internatio­nal norms will increasing­ly give way to pluralist standards. The decline of global organisati­ons and the rise of regional ones will take place simultaneo­usly. What kind of a bipolar internatio­nal configurat­ion to build will become a practical issue in internatio­nal politics.

Yan Xuetong is dean of the Institute of Modern Internatio­nal Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.

 ?? Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News ??
Niño Jose Heredia/©Gulf News

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