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Foreign Policy

Building Order in a Multipolar Era

Mar 29 , 2016
  • Cui Liru

    Former President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Globally, two increasingly conspicuous trends will shape the evolution of international order.


First, at the level of global power structure, power is diffusing to more power centers, initiating a new round of balancing. The United States is striving to retain its dominant position in the de-centralizing (de-American hegemony) multipolar order, thereby enhancing containment of new, rising power centers. Major power competition at the regional level shows an even more complicated picture. With regional powers becoming more active and trying to play more significant roles in the formulation of regional order, competition between them gets increasingly fierce. Meanwhile, readjustments in the redistribution of power in such international organizations as the United Nations have become another important part of international order under new conditions.

Second, at the level of pattern of international relations, i.e., at the level of the degree of connectedness and ways of interaction between countries, disruptive changes have occurred thanks to in-depth development of globalization: Countries have been interwoven with one another economically, forming indivisible interdependence. Social and personnel mobility have become unprecedentedly open and convenient. Revolutionary advancements in science and technology changed ways of life, as well as the pattern of state-to-state ties. Owing to the rapid popularization of digitalization and the Internet, interconnectivity has leaped from virtual space into real world, the world gets more and more networked. Today we need to redefine the concept of state-to-state relations in the macro picture of a networked world.

At present and in the foreseeable future, a new structure of power and the pattern of state-to-state ties constitute the two dimensions of international order evolution in the first half of the 21st century. As basic units of international relations, countries and their foreign policies are caught in tremendous contradictions resulting from the conflicting dynamics the two dimensions have produced.

In the structure of power dimension, the fundamental philosophy and way of thinking are realistic: Social Darwinism, Hobbesian order and John Locke’s rule of competition are reveredThe dominant idea in foreign policies is: Competition is absolute, cooperation is relative between countries, war is the continuation of politics, or last resort and extreme form, peace is temporary compromise between countries. A country should always be on guard against its rivals, and be prepared for the worst scenario. The loss of balance and order has resulted in more uncertainty and unpredictability during the current pattern change, people are more inclined toward such pessimistic way of thinking and policy orientation. This is a major challenge for a multipolar world order. Pessimism leads to a vicious circle of worsening mutual distrust and precautions, thus increasing the risk of confrontation.

In the state-to-state relations dimension, the fundamental philosophy and way of thinking are idealistic, pacifist and constructivist. The dominant idea in foreign policies is: The Earth is our common homeland, co-existence is an essential condition for each country’s own existence in the future; confrontation hurts both parties, war means destruction, and should be replaced by politics; eternal peace is the supreme mission of state-to-state politics, cooperation is the fundamental way of existence in the era of globalization; fairness and justice should become a primary goal of international order.

Currently, international and regional orders are fumbling for balance between the two dimensions. State-to-state relations and individual countries’ foreign policies are struggling in the enormous tensions and contradictions derived from old and new momenta. It is very difficult for us to predict the prospect of international order in a multipolar era for the time being. But we believe it will be of decisive significance in which direction a country chooses to guide its reaction to other countries. Major countries, in particular, have substantial impacts in this regard. The Asia-Pacific region (especially East Asia and West Pacific) may become a main stage for China and the United States to play constructive roles. The Asia-Pacific has become a new gravity center of world economy and politics. The rise of emerging forces parallels the development of political pluralism and cultural diversity in the area. At the same time, the region is a focus of major-power competition and cooperation in an era of multipolarization. Globalization has resulted in powerful collisions between eastern and western civilizations in the Asia-Pacific, in the meantime it pushes the two sides to appreciate and learn from each other. Economic successes in the Asia-Pacific again prove that oriental cultures’ great inclusiveness and pragmatism can assimilate the cream of western civilizations in full measure. Mutually supplementary combination of eastern and western civilizations is an important source of the Asia-Pacific’s enormous vigor and endless potentials. That is of great significance to the construction of regional order in a time of multipolarization.

Currently, the tendency of conflict between the two aforementioned dimensions is extremely prominent in the Asia-Pacific, but a scenario of outright confrontation has not emerged. This is mainly because economic development remains a dominant aspect in state-to-state relations. However, political development (including such political relationships as that between China and the US as well as mechanisms of political construction) is obviously lagging behind, and will increasingly prove an outstanding problem in regional order construction. This is also a significant challenge for China-US relations in the new era. Sino-US relations have turned even more complex in a multi-polar structure: How best to handle the strategic bilateral relationship, which interlaces cooperation and competition, has to a great degree been entwined to the issue of order in the Asia-Pacific.

The process of globalization has dramatically transformed state-to-state relations at regional levels. As bonds of community of interest are being formulated on greater scales, cooperation will become a basic prerequisite for co-existence in the future. Both China and the US must squarely face such a historic change. While their strategic competition will become more evident, they will have to engage in strategic cooperation to jointly cope with common challenges. China-US cooperation in the construction of regional order for the Asia-Pacific is not only in their fundamental interests, but also the two major countries’ historical responsibility for the area.

Sino-US strategic competition has become a significant challenge to regional order. Handling strategic competition from the macro perspective of jointly constructing regional order may open up broader prospects for constructive dialogue and policy deliberations. Putting jointly dealing with regional hotspots into the logical framework of jointly constructing regional order will be more conducive to the formulation of a new-type major-country relationship between China and the US. Cooperation in the construction of future regional order must undoubtedly be based on existing, realistic relations. Henry Kissinger, a master of realistic diplomacy, stated in the book World Order that although tremendous changes have taken place in the world, politicians’ sense of history and geo-political awareness remain essential. Kissinger made the statement because he believed the doctrine of equilibrium had always been a basic truth in international order. However, sense of history and geo-political awareness has taken on some fresh connotations thanks to the changes in our time. Whether we can achieve deeper understanding of the new-era connotations and maneuver transcendence may shape the future of Sino-US relations and that of the Asia-Pacific order.

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