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Foreign Policy

Emerging Bipolarity in the Current Global Order

May 16, 2023
  • Yan Xuetong

    Distinguished Professor, Tsinghua University

Multipolarization is a concept proposed in the early 1990s after the end of the Cold War. This process has been going on for more than 30 years now, and we still cannot see that it is becoming a reality. Politically, insisting on multipolarization is a globally politically correct stance.

The fierce competition between China and the United States has put pressure on an increasing number of countries to choose sides, and one of the reasons is that the bipolar power structure is becoming more apparent in the global order.

The first to acknowledge the bipolar structure was President Emmanuel Macron. Back in 2019, Macron told a group of French diplomats in a closed-door meeting that Western hegemony may have come to an end, and ultimately the world will revolve around two poles, the United States and China.

Macron has just visited China, and why did he visit at this time despite domestic and international pressure? My understanding is that bipolariry is an objective reality, and all major powers must operate between China and the U.S. 

In his remarks to the 74th UN General Assembly in September 2019, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made clear his fear of a possible “Great Fracture” — the world splitting in two, with the two largest economies on earth creating two separate and competing worlds, each with their own dominant currency, trade and financial rules, their own internet and artificial intelligence capacities and their own zero-sum geopolitical and military strategies. In 2021, Guterres reiterated the same view at the 76th UN General Assembly.

Last June, former Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said the United States would not hand over global leadership and was planning on how to build alliances to contain China’s rise. But China would not give up easily, either. Both China and the U.S. now regard each other as long-term threats.

Let’s now take a look at the share of global GDP in 1990. The United States accounted for 26 percent, China for 1 percent, Japan 14 percent, Germany 8 percent and the UK 5 percent. By 2022, the U.S. GDP accounted for 25 percent of the global total; its proportion had not undergone any fundamental change. If we compare the U.S. GDP with that of Japan, Germany and the UK, the gap between them and the U.S. is widening, not narrowing. Japan accounted for two-thirds of the U.S. in the 1990s and now accounts for less than one-third; Germany went from one-third of the U.S. to less than one-third; and the UK went from 5 percent to 3 percent, from less than one-fifth of the U.S. to one-eighth.

The gap in strength between the United States and the world’s major powers is widening, but the gap with China is narrowing, with China growing from 1 percent to 18 percent last year, nearly 70 percent of the United States.

This economic strength comparison determines that the United States will be very worried that China’s share of 18 percent of the world’s GDP will continue to expand to 25 percent. In fact, China’s growth has not squeezed out much from the United States. What has shrunk are Japan, Germany and the UK, whose share of the global total is decreasing. The United States certainly does not worry about China’s growth causing share to decline. What America is worried about is China also reaching 25 percent, on par with it.

Let’s remember that it’s a proportional or relative strength comparison, rather than an absolute strength comparison, on which international competition is assessed. This metric is why Macron, Guterres and Goh remarked that a bipolar structure has already formed. If the U.S. viewed the world as multipolar, it would not consider China as its sole strategic competitor. A containment strategy, on the other hand, is more suited for a bipolar world.

At the core of Sino-U.S. strategic competition is digital technology. The digital economy broadly includes data collection, processing and analytical technologies. The United States is erecting barriers to prevent China’s digital technology innovation from catching up. If it cannot stop China, it will ban it, aiming to make China’s progress relatively slower than its own, or at least maintaining the current gap and potentially widening the gap in technological innovation.

The United States believes that the core of Sino-U.S. strategic competition is not ideology but digital technology, and the core of digital technology is chips. The U.S. government passed the CHIPS and Science Act in July to compete with China in science and technology — to prevent China’s technological innovation speed from surpassing the United States.

Facing anti-globalization and deglobalization headwinds, China has proposed a dual-circulation strategy prioritizing domestic circulation. This strategy emphasizes the development of purely domestic industrial chains, without any international cooperation, to avoid disruptions due to international politics.

Many European countries are considering reducing economic cooperation with China to prevent potential industrial chain disruptions over politics and to avoid growth risks. After EU President Ursula von der Leyen’s visit to China, she explicitly stated in a news conference that Europe wants to reduce economic dependence on specific countries.

It’s not just European governments but also European and American companies that have begun to take steps to reduce their risks. They are reducing (or shortening) international cooperation in their industrial chains. For example, they might reduce the cooperation pool from 50 countries to 20. This reflects the realities of anti-globalization trends, as the needs of small and medium-sized enterprises and government strategies combine.

If the last wave of globalization lasted for more than 20 years, say from the end of the Cold War to 2016, the current wave of anti-globalization might do so as well. The world will once again stand at a historic crossroads. In February this year, the Chinese government issued its Global Security Initiative Concept document, which states that “the world is once again standing at a historical crossroads as we witness changes in the world, the times and history.” The word “crossroads” in Chinese has never been used to describe a bright prospect for humanity but rather a pessimistic one.

It is becoming clear that the United States in fact regards China as its biggest and most comprehensive strategic challenge. Both sides see each other as a primary threat, and the current relationship is worse than it was before diplomatic relations were established in 1978. U.S. policy toward China is based on a three-pronged approach — cooperation, competition and confrontation.

Competition in technology, military, aerospace, talent, finance, investment, and trade is the core of the policy. Cooperation in areas such as climate and energy is considered less essential. Confrontation in areas such as human rights, Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan is a tool whose real focus is competition.

To outcompete China, the United States has resorted to a club strategy wherein several countries form cliques whose goal is to contain China. Examples include the Clean Network Initiative, G7 Digital Alliance, OpenAI, 5G Alliance and the U.S.-Japan-South Korea-Taiwan Semiconductor Alliance, all of which focus on digital technology. The strategy is akin to the notion of “small courtyard, high fence.”

What the future holds for bilateral ties is uncertain. So far this year, we have seen a declining trend line. In coming years, we might see a faster decline at times, slower at other times, but overall a downward trend.

One more point I would like to discuss is the U.S. adoption of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework last year. Since then, the strategic balance has begun to tilt toward the United States. East Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea, used to rely on China for their economy and on the U.S. for their security. However, with the introduction of the IPEF, participating countries now include not only U.S. allies such as South Korea, Japan and New Zealand but also non-allies such as India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.

This means that while these countries still rely on the U.S. for security, there has been a shift in the economic dependence on China, and they now seek to maintain balance between the two. The original strategic balance of relying on China for the economy and the U.S. for security has begun to tilt in the U.S. direction.

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