The world has entered an era of multipolarization, and we are still in a process of historical transition. A stable structure of power has yet to emerge, not to mention a constructive international structure that fits in a multipolar era. There still is considerable room for changes in comparative strengths of old and new power centers. An old equilibrium has been broken, and a new one is yet to be established.
The United States is undoubtedly the most important character in the process, which tries everything possible to preserve vested interests (including practicing remnant hegemony). Its gaming with other power centers is the most decisive dimension in the many facets of a developing multipolar pattern.
Unparalleled strength and subsequent leadership role are the two sides of the coin of American diplomacy. In the unipolar era following the Cold War, with the support of its all-round advantages in national strength, the US has assumed the role as world leader. Correspondingly, American hegemony, characterized by unilateralism, became a major hallmark of the international order at the time. In the era of multipolarization, however, US advantages in comprehensive strengths are no longer sufficient for supporting its unilateralist, hegemonistic policies. A multipolar pattern is an outcome of the diffusion of power, which takes the form of the collapse of the unipolar pattern in the real world. Despite the irreversible weakening of its leadership, the US is taking advantage of its remaining advantages and tremendous clout in the current international system to sustain its dominant status in a multipolar era. That is also a central diplomatic task for President Barack Obama, who assumed office in a time of historical transition. Obama’s adjustments in diplomatic policies have been wise in that they are meant to modify the way American diplomacy is practiced, the essence of which remaining safeguarding US dominance in three roles: As a dominant character, a leader and a balancer in a new world order.
However, considerable disagreements exist within the Washington establishment over how to achieve a US-dominated equilibrium in strategic principles for handling relations with rising powers. The business community, led by major transnational corporations, and financial movers and shakers on Wall Street, wants to continue developing the policy of pragmatic cooperation with China as a main stakeholder; special interest groups composed mainly of military-industrial complexes, however, on the pretext of guaranteeing US leadership and national security, advocate tougher policies against any practical or potential source of threat, and view Russia and China as the foremost strategic rivals. As a major strategic countermeasure tailored to changes in the international order, the Obama administration’s rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific is a compromise scheme, the core still including the concepts of power politics and hegemonistic aspirations of the past. On the other hand, implementation of Obama’s general principle, which attempts to readjust American global strategy, has proven difficult due to the chaos in the Middle East and the Ukraine crisis in Europe. Vacillation in dealing with crisis scenarios further reveals the lack of strategic perspective and constructive leadership that our time of historical transition demands. As the US enters the political cycle of a presidential election, the country is on one hand seriously restrained by its economic difficulties and extreme socio-political polarization at home, and on the other hand stubbornly trying to sustain American hegemony despite significant changes in international relations. It is thus unrealistic to expect Washington to play a constructive leadership role in rebuilding order for a multipolar era.
Though Japan has once challenged the US economically after the Cold War, the US has by and large maintained undisputable status as the world’s sole superpower. More than a decade after the inception of reform and opening up, the Chinese economy began to take off in the second half of the 1990s, its increasingly strong momentum exerting a tremendous pull on the entire region. In 2010, China became the world’s second-largest economic entity, and the most important driver of global economic growth. Meanwhile, India, as the world’s second most populous country, also entered a fast lane in terms of economic growth, and has been considered an emerging economy with the greatest potential in the next decades to come. The eastward shift of global gravity center was mainly caused by the Asian economy’s enormous scale, vitality and room for development.
The peacefully rising China has become a major variable in the formulation of a new regional order. China-US competition has been on the rise in recent years, essentially because of the latter’s worries that China may challenge its dominant position. While the US suffered serious blows from battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the 2008 financial crisis, China showed strong upward dynamics. The contrast resulted in unprecedented changes in the two countries’ comparative strengths. A major change in Sino-US relations is that China has been seen as a major strategic rival. In order to preserve its dominance, the US has enhanced its input in East Asia, especially its military alliances’ counterbalancing functions against China. Such a change has made the existing structural contradiction in US-China ties more prominent: A serious imbalance between high-level economic relations and low-level political and security relations. The essence of the Sino-US diplomatic and military standoff over the South China Sea issue for more than a year is the conflict between the goals of a rising China wanting to preserve its rights to security and development and the US quest to maintain its dominance in Asia. Strategically, mutual distrust has deepened, mutual vigilance and counterbalancing have been escalating constantly. On the other hand, as the biggest stakeholder in each other, China and the US share the consensus that they should avoid confrontation, and disagreements should not be allowed to break their relationship. While not compromising on the pursuit of their main goals, they also have a common need to manage risks, through conspicuous cooperation at technical levels over the past two years. The two sides have continued to advance broad cooperative projects already in existence. They have strengthened coordination and cooperation in coping with such significant global challenges as climate change and pandemic control, and seen remarkable achievements. It is thus predictable that such co-existence and interweaving of competition and cooperation will become the New Normal of China-US ties for a fairly long time.
In the meantime, how two major regional issues evolve will affect the formulation of regional order in the Asia-Pacific.
One is the North Korea nuclear issue, which involves two other issues. One is the Korean Peninsula’s transition from a mechanism of truce to that of peace. The other is international nuclear non-proliferation. As the party that is obviously weak in strength under a truce mechanism, North Korea insists that its nuclear program is a necessary deterrent for guaranteeing its own security. But that is actually an adventure of unpredictable prospects. Developing nuclear weapons is a double-bladed sword for North Korea that brings huge security risks to itself, not to mention the heavy political and economic cost. Preserving the effectiveness of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime is of great significance to international security, regional stability and international order in a time of multipolarization. This has become a consensus of all major powers and an absolute majority of countries in the world. This is why North Korea’s nuclear adventure has run into universal opposition in the international community. China has actively pushed for resumption of the six-party talks, striving to achieve the goal of Peninsula denuclearization while taking into consideration North Korea’s security concerns. The current situation is that North Korea has explicitly announced it would absolutely not accept the request for abandoning its nuclear program, and is racing against time to upgrade functions of its nuclear weapons, erecting tremendous obstacles to the resumption of the six-party talks, worsening tension on the Peninsula, and placing itself completely against the international nuclear non-proliferation system. Of course the international community will not sit by and watch. The United Nations has just approved a new round of sanctions in response to North Korea’s latest nuclear and missile tests. At the same time, the US-and-Republic-of-Korea-versus-North-Korea standoff has been escalating. Peace and stability in Northeast Asia and the international nuclear non-proliferation regime face severe challenge.
The second regional issue is Afghanistan. Ending turbulence and realizing domestic political reconciliation and nation-building in Afghanistan are significant parts of the big picture of the international campaign against terror as well as peace and stability in Central and South Asia. Neighboring countries and such major countries as the US, China, Russia and India have parallel interests and consensus regarding this, which makes international collaboration possible in resolving the instability in Afghanistan. However, since some stakeholding countries face serious economic, political and social difficulties, their goals differ from one another. With long-standing historical problems and political divergences as well as thorny ethnic and religious contradictions, it will be extremely difficult to maneuver a multilateral compromise of substance.
One positive recent development is that China and the US have evidently increased their involvement, which may provide fresh momentum for local countries to reach a compromise in the next phase. If major-country cooperation can set an example of success in resolving the Afghanistan issue, it will be of tremendous significance for the formulation of international order in a time of multipolarization.
The present composition of power structure in Asia is the interests of five power centers – the US, China, Japan, India and Russia – plus those of the ASEAN have been bundled together to an unprecedented extent. Most Asian countries are striving to find a balance in the complicated entanglement of competition and cooperation between China and the US that is in their best interests. Along with multipolarization of the power structure come political pluralism and cultural diversity, which have together resulted in complex and vigorous characteristics of local development. In a sharp contrast with conditions in other regions of the world, competition and cooperation have intersected between Asian power centers, and relations among a small number of countries and local tensions have not shaken the generally stable regional situation. At present, from the perspective of the multipolar pattern in the Asia-Pacific, establishing a stable multilateral regional security structure is becoming increasingly imperative for maintaining long-term peace and development in East Asia.