One theory in vogue now in explaining China-U.S. relations is that of power transition. In his recent book — “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?” — American scholar Graham Alison identifies China as the rising power and the U.S. as the incumbent, on the assumption that American power is transitioning to China and that the bilateral relationship is precisely in line with his theory about emerging and incumbent powers. There has thus been a craze over the so-called Thucydides trap in China and the U.S., and in the international community at large. Some scholars have taken it a step further, based on the narrowing gap between Chinese and U.S. GPD, as well as the fact that the two are leaving the rest of the world further behind in terms of GDP. They conclude that the present international power structure is increasingly tilting toward a new bipolar configuration, even believing that it is already a matter of fact and that 2020 was its first year. The idea is inconsistent with the reality of the current international order and may lead to misunderstandings. To clarify, we need to answer the following questions:
Has globalization led to the centralization or decentralization of power in international politics? The answer is no doubt decentralization. Globalization is a powerful current trend, and despite the tides of de-globalization, they won’t be able to stop it. Real life has shown that one of globalization’s effects has been the decentralization of power among countries.
Globalization has eroded some aspects of countries’ sovereignty. In the process of globalization, all countries amortize part of their sovereignty. At the same time, they enjoy sovereignty amortized by other countries. For example, tariff autonomy used to be considered an important aspect of a country’s sovereignty. But now all countries participating in the WTO need to reduce or exempt tariffs under WTO stipulations, and all countries can enjoy the part of sovereignty that is surrendered by others. That involves the question of seeking benefits while avoiding harm.
International organizations and conventions place restraints on state sovereignty. Under the Paris agreement, for instance, all participating nations need to put forward their emission reduction goals, and that places limits on sovereignty. Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement exactly because he thought it had too many restrictions and undermined U.S. sovereignty.
More non-state actors, such as cross-national corporations, terrorist organizations, international crime organizations and drug cartels, are now taking part in international politics. They enjoy far greater power in the international community but are subject to limited control. The 9/11 terrorist attacks were the epitome of the damage terrorist organizations can do to international politics. Trump asked American companies to decouple from the Chinese market, but few have done so, indicating that multinational corporations have developed restrictions on the powers of the U.S. government.
Technological progress has also dealt a blow to state powers. For instance, the internet has expanded access to information, bringing with it a free flow that was unthinkable in the past. Problems are just now emerging, and will become increasingly prominent in step with such technologies as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
The aforementioned erosion and restrictions touching national sovereignty that globalization has brought exist in all countries, including those in dominant positions in international affairs. Even hegemonic control by states over international affairs has been eroded and restricted by globalization.
How to evaluate the present international order? After the collapse of the bipolar pattern, many in American political and academic circles concluded that the world had entered America’s unipolar moment and a unipolar pattern. The majority of Chinese scholars see one superpower and multiple major powers, although the disparity between the superpower and others remains substantial. China and Russia have issued multiple joint statements to clarify their positions. The one released in April 1996 said the world was showing a multipolar trend. However, the world is not peaceful; hegemony and power politics still exist; and clique politics are manifest in new ways. The statement also proposed “building new international political and economic orders that are just and reasonable.” An April 1997 statement emphasized that the two parties would strive to promote multipolarity around the globe and establish a new international order in response to the pressing needs of the times. The current international power structure is undergoing transition, from the U.S. unipolar pattern to a multipolar one. But the transition will be a very long, slow process.
Will multilateralism result in a bipolar pattern? The answer is also a clear no: It will only result in a multipolar order. Multilateralism gradually came into being in the aftermath of the collapse of the U.S.-Soviet Union bipolar pattern that marked the end of the Cold War. With emerging economies playing greater roles in the new century, multilateralism in international politics has done the same. Practicing multilateralism means forsaking unilateralism, with international affairs being handled on the basis of consultation and the fate of the world determined by all countries, rather than being subject to the dictates of a few. In the past, big countries had louder voices in international affairs, while smaller ones received little attention. Therefore, small and medium-sized countries have united to form regional organizations to assert themselves in international affairs. The African Union and ASEAN are two easy examples, the latter in particular. ASEAN countries collectively follow the principle of ASEAN centrality. In accordance with that, ASEAN has launched and led such mechanisms as the 10+1 (ASEAN plus China), the 10+3 (ASEAN plus China, Japan and South Korea), the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum. It got rid of manipulation by major powers, successfully assumed a leadership role in regional affairs, and acted as a strategic middleman between major neighboring countries. ASEAN centrality has taken shape in the process of decades of development, and it has proved effective. It is conducive to maintaining regional peace and has begun to exert influence in international affairs. Such practices in international relations are completely incompatible with a bipolar order, because they embody multilateralism. The UN and its subordinate organizations all practice multilateralism.
Do conditions exist for the emergence of a bipolar pattern? The emergence of the U.S.-Soviet Union bipolar pattern had two background conditions, one of which was the anti-fascist war, during which the U.S. witnessed a dramatic increase in its comprehensive national strength and formed a global alliance system. The Soviet Union’s strength, military in particular, also developed substantially in the war, which made it a military power second only to the U.S. Its influence also saw unprecedented expansion. The other was the Cold War, during which the Warsaw Treaty Organization and NATO were formed and the world was divided into two camps, where a bipolar order featured confrontations and standoffs between the two groups. Conditions today are completely different. Chinese diplomacy emphasizes a policy of no confrontation, along with non-alignment, avoiding targeting third parties, forming partnerships (but not alliances) and developing friendly ties with all countries. So there is no such thing as camps.
Meanwhile current international relations are far more complex than in the days of bipolar confrontation. China-U.S. relations are more complicated than those between the U.S. and Soviet Union, as there wasn’t such broad and deep interdependence in the latter case, such as China and the U.S. have today. Nor are U.S. relations with its allies what they once were. On some issues — mainly security and values — they still basically follow the U.S.; but in other aspects, such as non-traditional security — especially economy and trade — each of them seeks its own interests. With all countries pursuing their own interests, and having their own positions and purposes, a bipolar pattern is out of the question.
Currently, the U.S. remains in an advantageous position against other countries or groups of countries in terms of comprehensive national strength, and no other country can lead the world in all, or even many, of those aspects. When it comes to strategic balance, especially nuclear strategy, the issue is only between the U.S. and Russia, and the advantageous U.S. position will be sustainable in the long term. In terms of science and technology innovation, as well as core competitiveness, the EU and Japan also have advantages. The former is in a leading position in environmental protection and carbon emissions reduction; the latter leads in addressing issues related to aging.
China’s main advantage lies in GDP, not only in terms of today’s total volume, but also in terms of growth momentum and potential. But we should also see the challenges facing the Chinese economy. As the world concentrates on climate change, China has committed to reaching peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060. Accomplishing such goals is difficult for any country but especially for China because its energy input for each unit of GDP is 1.5 times that of the global average.
Aging is another common challenge to all nations, but particularly for China, because the average Chinese GDP as it entered an aging pattern in society was much lower than that of advanced nations. All this means we are in relative short supply of resources for coping with an aging population, and the impacts of an aging society have begun to present themselves. But this is only the beginning.
Thanks to the trend of power decentralization in international politics brought by globalization and technological progress, it would be unrealistic for power in international politics to be controlled by a couple of countries — which is also a primary reason why U.S. hegemony is in relative decline. But equally clearly, the part of power the U.S. has lost has not been fully transferred into China’s hands but instead has been dispersed among many developing countries and emerging economies. One evident example is the G20. The U.S. and a small number of advanced countries were unable to handle the financial crisis, so they were forced to engage emerging economies. Emerging economies have thus been able to participate in decision-making processes that are significant to both international finance and global economy. From the perspective of the current international pattern, no country other than the U.S., which still has relative advantages in more aspects (but which are weakening), can claim the advantage in all or many aspects and qualify as another pole in a bipolar pattern.
A multipolar world is a dynamic concept in a state of change. The 21st-century international political order in general displays one prominent characteristic: One country or collection of countries may play a leading role in one aspect or some aspects; others have advantages in other aspects. But international powers will not be highly centralized in the hands of one or two. International politics of the 21st century not about the U.S. decline and China’s rise, or about China replacing the U.S. as a new hegemon. The rise and fall of hegemons is bygone history. It is obsolete in this century. This is the basic international backdrop of China’s decision to pursue a path of peaceful development.
The goal of Chinese national rejuvenation is not to overtake the U.S.; China has no such intention. More important, times have changed. It is a serious strategic misunderstanding and misjudgment for the U.S. to worry that China will challenge and take over U.S. global leadership. The Thucydides trap doesn’t apply here. Nor is “power transition” a proper theoretical framework for observing and analyzing China-U.S. relations. The road ahead for the international power structure’s evolution toward a multipolar pattern may be long and tortuous, but the prospects are definitely promising. This is the fundamental reason why we should not be overly pessimistic about China-U.S. relations.