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Foreign Policy

International Order Won’t Be Bipolar

Jan 21, 2020
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Fellow, CASS Institute of American Studies

There are various assumptions in academic circles about the pattern of the international relations power structure in the 21st century. Some say a “bipolar” China-U.S. structure is a virtual matter of fact. If that’s the case, then the U.S. has to cede power to China, or China has to grab power from the U.S., and a bipolar confrontation will be likely.

However, international relations in the 21st century will no longer follow the old model of power being transferred between two countries, so we need to get rid of the obsolete “power transfer” way of thinking as we observe China-U.S. relations.

Economic globalization has accelerated since the end of the Cold War, and the 21st century remains a time of world trade. One effect of globalization has been the decentralization of powers, which has in turn led to multipolarization.

How should we understand decentralization of powers among countries?

First, globalization has eroded some rights of sovereign states. In the process of globalization, each sovereign state ceded a portion of its sovereign rights, while at the same time enjoys the benefits of those ceded by others. For instance, in old China, the most important economic sovereign right China ceded to world powers was tariffs. Both the 1842 Nanjing Treaty and the 1844 Wangxia Treaty stipulated that China could only levy a 5-percent tariff on imported goods, and if it wanted to adjust that rate, it had to consult foreign consulates.

Tariff autonomy was not taken back until 1929 by the Nationalist government. Since most countries have joined the WTO, they must follow corresponding WTO rules on tariff cuts or exemptions, and such cuts or exemptions must be reciprocal. Some countries have made better use of others’ cuts and exemptions. That’s a matter of seeking advantage and avoiding disadvantage.

Second, the United Nations, other international organizations and international treaties all put restrictions on state power. Once a state becomes a member of a certain international organization or treaty, it must abide by its rules and fulfill corresponding obligations — which means restrictions on its powers. But it’s fair to the states involved.

The Trump administration in the United States has withdrawn from various international organizations and treaties, claiming they undermine U.S. sovereignty and are inconsistent with his idea of “America first”. But such moves have invited universal criticism from the international community.

Third, while sovereign states remain the main international actors, increasingly powerful non-state actors have participated in international relations, also placing restrictions on state power. Multinational corporations, terrorist organizations, doctors without borders, journalists without borders, international criminal organizations, drug cartels and so forth have become factors in globalization and international politics that cannot be ignored.

In the process of globalization, the formulation of a global industrial chain is mainly the outcome of corporate behavior, where companies are the main players. Since the U.S. Trump administration launched its trade war against China, it has called on American multinationals investing in China to return to their home country, yet has received few positive responses. Instead, many of them are planning to expand investment in China, which vividly illustrates the limits of Trump’s power.

Fourth, technological progress undermines state powers. The extent of freedom the internet has given people in acquiring information would be unimaginable in past centuries. It’s still difficult to predict what impacts such new technologies — artificial intelligence, quantum computing and space exploration, to name a few — may bring to society.

Given the trend of power decentralization, it is unrealistic for global power to be concentrated in the hands of one or two, as in the past. It is also why U.S. hegemony is in relative decline. Yet, equally clearly, the part of power the U.S. has lost will not be transferred entirely into China’s hands. Even though the present international order is not a mature multipolar one, such a pattern is on the horizon.

Economically, China’s rise is an outstanding example of globalization and world economic growth. China and the U.S., the world’s two largest economies (each exceeding $10 trillion), seem like “two poles.” But Chinese per capita GDP is only one-sixth of that in the U.S., still ranking in the middle worldwide. In terms of quality of growth, China remains in the midrange of the world industrial chain, or slightly above midrange, with considerable room for improvement. Globalization of the Chinese financial sector has a very long way to go.

In terms of security nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, the main players in international arms control are still the U.S. and Russia, with the two remaining in a state of “mutually assured destruction.” Strategic nuclear weapons in China’s possession are not of the same order of magnitude by comparison with the U.S., and that gap won’t be narrowed in the short term.

In science and technology, according to Zhao Gang, a fellow at the Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development, authorities invited more than 8,000 experts to evaluate 10 high-tech companies and 1,149 technologies. That review found that China is in leading positions in 15 percent of them, in step with global industry leaders in 30 percent, and lags behind in more than 50 percent. Overall, the country is 13 to 15 years behind the U.S., and eight to 10 years behind South Korea. Obviously China doesn’t qualify as one of the “two poles” of the world in the tech sector.

China has a lot to learn from Europe about coping with climate change and protecting the environment. China has committed to peak greenhouse gas release by 2030, followed by absolute emissions reductions. It is working hard to honor that promise. Europe leads the world in such fields as coping with climate change and protecting Earth’s ecology. China has paid a heavy environmental price for its rapid development over the past 40 years and faces daunting challenges in ecological restoration.

When it comes to social concerns, China has already crossed the threshold of an aging society. Thanks to its population base, the global conundrum is especially conspicuous in China. It faces such dramatic challenges as universal healthcare and pension security. Our neighbor to the east, Japan, whose people enjoy social stability and affluence, has had many successful experiences in meeting the challenges of an aging society.

China’s influence in international affairs indeed continues to increase, but still mainly in East Asia. In other areas, such as Europe, Africa and Latin America, Chinese influence remains selective. In the important Middle East, China’s main interest lies in oil and gas resources. In some significant hotspots, China’s influence is far behind that of Russia and European countries.

Some mid-sized, even relatively small, countries in some areas have formed regional alliances and are playing significant roles in regional and global affairs — the EU and ASEAN being outstanding examples. Some countries and regions, including India, Africa and Latin America, have strong potential for growth and development and should absolutely not be underestimated.

To sum up, given the current world order, except for the U.S. still holding the advantage in more aspects (though such advantages are on the decline), no single country can claim to have an advantage in all or relatively more aspects to qualify as another “pole.”

Of course, a multipolar world is a dynamic concept, an unfolding state, and the general picture of the 21st century is this: Thanks to power decentralization, while a particular country may play a leading role in one or many aspects, others may have advantages in other aspects. But economic power won’t be highly concentrated in the hands of one or two countries.

In short, as scholars such as Fu Ying and Wang Jisi once said, 21st century international politics won’t be a simple story of the U.S. declining and China rising to take America’s place as a new hegemonic state. The rise and fall of hegemonies is part of the history of past centuries, which in this century is an obsolete concept.

That is a fundamental reason we don’t need to be overly pessimistic about China-U.S. relations.

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