Authors: Zhao Huasheng and Andrey Kortunov
The Chinese authorities have never accepted or used the concept of China-U.S. bipolarity. Neither the so-called co-governance (G2) nor the bipolar confrontation between China and the United States is consistent with China’s diplomatic philosophy and policy. The Russian official narrative has also rejected the idea that the world has been moving in the direction of a new bipolarity, insisting on a gradual transformation of the unipolar, U.S.-centered international system of early XXI century to a multipolar (or polycentric) world order.
In spite of this, there are more and more discussions on the bipolarization of China and the United States in academic circles both in China and in Russia. Especially after the COVID-19 outbreak, China-U.S. relations have deteriorated sharply, conflicts between China and the U.S. have intensified, and bipolarization has become a hot issue in academic and political discussions of international politics. More and more often, observers of contemporary international relations look at these relations through the optics of a seemingly irreconcilable confrontation between the West and the East (or between liberal democracies and illiberal autocracies, between Atlanticism and Eurasianism, between maritime and continental powers, and so on). This intellectual flavor of the month calls for an unbiased analysis of what bipolarity means for Beijing and Moscow and how it does or does not fit into the Chines and the Russian perceptions of the emerging world order.
There are at least three forms of bipolarities: political bipolarity, structural bipolarity and value bipolarity. Political bipolarity is the bipolarity in political cognition. It has certain political attributes and shows a number of political implications in terms of international status and influence. For example, bipolar co-governance or bipolar confrontation belong to political bipolarity. Structural bipolarity is bipolarity in material cognition. It reflects the explicit superiority of two big countries over other international actors in terms of material resources that they have at their disposal. Fundamentally, material or structural bipolarity is the foundation for political bipolarity; the latter emerges based on the former. Finally, value bipolarity implies that in defining poles, one should keep in mind value differences between major actors. In particular, libel democracies by definition cannot be divided into different poles because of their value proximity to each other; the borderline between poles should, among other things, reflect a clash in value systems — e.g., between Western-type democracies and non-Western authoritarianism of various sorts.
This triple attribute of bipolarity is an important theoretical presupposition in the analysis of bipolarization and a logical starting point for understanding the cognitive and theoretical differences between China, Russia and the West on this issue. In China, there is a tradition to emphasize the material dimension of bipolarity (or multipolarity). For the Chinese, the international structure has a natural attribute initially. Whether it is unipolar, bipolar or multipolar, these structures merge as a pure reflection of existing asymmetries in international players’ material potentials. If any two actors have material resources far superior to all other actors, we can define the system as bipolar. The term has no inherent political connotation. It is neither naturally confrontational nor cooperative. Its political nature is to be given by decisions of the two “poles” in question. These “poles” can either follow the idea of equal cooperation or pursue a policy of competition and confrontation.
In Russia, they tend to emphasize the political dimension in defining the “poles” in world politics. This approach reflects Russia’s active foreign policy and power projection initiatives, while the country experiences a relative deficit of material resources. In Moscow, they often claim that the United States, China and Russia constitute the top league of global politics. The material weakness of Russia can be allegedly offset by its remarkable ability to focus on achieving specific foreign policy goals, on its capacity to mobilize needed resources, on its readiness to sustain a coherent long-term strategy in various regions, and so on. In this paradigm, Moscow can punch way above its weight, bringing an important dimension to the U.S.-China equation.
In the West, it is common to emphasize the value dimension of bipolarity. This Manichean approach to international relations implies that bipolarity becomes confrontational primarily due to the gap in values, which might exist between major players in the international system. If the descending and the ascending world leader do not have this gap (e.g., the United Kingdom and the United States in the late XIX – early XX centuries), the system is not truly bipolar. At best, we can argue that the system contains elements of bipolarity. However, if the value gap exists (the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War), the system turns bipolar in the full sense of the word.
New Type of Great Power Relations vs “Thucydides Trap”
Based on the theoretical premise that the political relationship between great powers is malleable, China proposes the concept of a new type of great power relationship, meaning an equal, mutually respective, cooperative and win-win relationship. It is opposite to the popular “Thucydides trap” theory, believing that the confrontational nature of bipolarity is natural, inevitable and unchangeable. In other words, China questions the assumption that bipolarity means and can only be a confrontation.
It is at this point that the Chinese and the Western perceptions diverge. If great powers are destined to be antagonistic, the new type of great powers theory raised by China will lose its meaning. On the other hand, if the new type of great powers theory is reasonable, then the “Thucydides trap” is just one of the possible outcomes, and not the only one. Although both in theory or in practice the antagonistic relationship of bipolarity is much easier to appear than a cooperative one, because cooperative relations need to have a common intention of both poles, an antagonistic one could be formed by one side’s intention and behavior.
In Russia, they seem to share the Chinese view that there can be no determinism in the nature of relations between the two most powerful nations in the world. Indeed, even during the Cold War, there were periods of relaxation of tensions and limited détente between Moscow and Washington. Still, the predominant view is that the West (or, to be more exact, the United States) will not abandon its claims to global hegemony in the foreseeable future. Therefore, it will not accept a “cooperative” bipolarity or multipolarity, not to mention a truly democratic and inclusive polycentric world. The overall perception in Moscow is that unless there a fundamental change in the American foreign policy establishment, any U.S. leader will try to get back to the U.S.-led unipolar world, which is likely to result in an adversarial model of bipolarity. This bipolarity should not be “the West against the Rest.” It might take the form of “the U.S. against the Rest.”
As for the West, many political thinkers there assume that though there might be some ceasefires and truces in the U.S.-China confrontation, as well as in U.S.-Russian adversarial relations, at the end of the day, one can reconcile the global system only on the basis of common values. This assumption means that one side is destined to win and the other is doomed to lose. Needless to say, Western-type liberal democracy should ultimately prevail over its illiberal alternatives.
The Western logic of the “Thucydides trap” is that a strong country is bound to seek hegemony and is fight against alternative sets of values. In other words, it equates a strong country with hegemony and value universalism. In this regard, it also forms a division with China’s logic. According to China’s thinking, the relationship between a strong country and power politics is not necessarily corresponding. A strong country does not necessarily adopt unilateralism and move towards hegemony.
Moreover, a weak country does not naturally abide by just and reasonable thoughts and policies. Strength is also relative. Most countries in the world have a dual identity. They are weaker in the face of the stronger, but stronger in the face of the weaker. They can be strong in some fields but weak in others. They might be powerful in their material capabilities but powerless in their commitment to using them. Under different circumstances, nations have the status of transformation between “strong country” and “weak country,” and have the question of policy choice when facing the stronger or weaker country.
Here does not negate the basic role of structure to policy options, nor the basic principle of existence determines consciousness, and also understand the strong historical and realistic arguments of the theory of structural determinism. However, different from structural determinism, what we see in “existence” is not only the structure but also the historical civilization background, political system and culture, the changes of times and international conditions, the development and influence of technological means and other factors. More than that, the influence of existence on consciousness is not an absolutely one-way direction.
With national strength as the index, China’s status in world structure is not for China to choose. It is formed naturally and it’s not the result of a country’s choice. A state may desire for some kind of international structure, but it is only a subjective will, but not necessarily the objective reality.
Suppose that bipolarity has been already formed in material terms and China is one of it, what concept and policy will China choose? According to China’s thoughts, the most reasonable and possible choice is continuing to follow multilateralism. That is to say, China does not take the bipolarity as the center of international politics and does not regard the bipolarity as a super structure above the world, even if China’s national strength is higher than that of the other countries. China will assume greater international responsibilities, but it will still be willing to live with other countries as political equals.
This does not contradict China’s position as one of the two strongest poles, because multilateralism is a political attitude which is optional. The concept of multilateralism is closely related to multipolarization, so it is often treated as a similar or even the same concept, but in fact, they are different. Whether in Chinese, English or Russian, they are all nouns with different meanings. In nature, multilateralism is not only a method, but also a political thought and attitude with value orientation. Multilateralism is based on the principle of political equality, while multipolarization is mainly a policy based on relations of big powers. Multilateralism takes into account the interests of all countries related and is based on the balance of interests of all related countries, while multipolarization attaches importance to power and takes power as the main element. Multilateralism does not deny multipolarity and it can also contain multipolarity, but multipolarization does not necessarily contain multilateralism. It could be both compatible or contradictory with multilateralism.
Now as China’s status as a great power has been firmly established, and China is not only one of the many poles, but also possible one of the two strongest, China’s relations with the world have shifted to how it views relations with other countries rather than worrying about its own status. In this context, multilateralism, which focuses on relations with other countries, is more suited to China’s diplomatic needs. Multilateralism is not linked to a specific international structure and transcends the constraints of it. Therefore, it is not in contradiction with China’s status as one of the supposed bipolarity.
Russian-Chinese cooperation is gaining more ground, growing in all areas from the economic to political and security domains. The Chinese-Russian axis creates opportunities and temptations for neighboring and more distant states, resulting in the rapid institutional development of such entities as the SCO or BRICS. Though in Moscow they still refer to the notion of a multipolar or polycentric world, it seems that in reality, there is an increasing readiness to accept the new bipolar reality with the United States and China as the centers of gravity for this new polarization of global politics.
One might ask the question: is there anything fundamentally wrong about a bipolar world for Russia? Was it not the Soviet-U.S. bipolarity that served as the foundation of global peace and stability for some forty years after the Second World War? Isn’t it fair to say that a bipolar world – with all its imperfections and limitations notwithstanding – is still much better than the potential alternative of a gradual erosion of global governance and the arrival of anarchy and chaos in international relations? So why can’t Moscow simply accept this new polarity as a plausible and realistic option that can define the hierarchy and structure of the international system in the XXI century?
Some analysts in Russia have gone even further and maintain that this new global split has been historically predetermined and unavoidable, being based on “objective” realities. It is often argued that the Atlantic and the Eurasian civilizations have opposed each other from the days immemorial, that “land” powers have always and will always be different from “maritime” powers, that the “global continent” (Eurasia) is the eternal counterweight to the “global island” (America). And that it makes little sense to challenge the laws of history and geography. The logical conclusion is that we should take the emerging bipolarity as a natural and, in a way, even desirable state of affairs. The only realistic goal should be to maintain this bipolarity within a mutually acceptable framework in order to avoid an uncontrolled confrontation with unacceptably high risks and costs involved.
In our view, such a conclusion is at the very least premature. It is hard to deny that a trend towards a new bipolarity has already manifested itself not only in geopolitics, but also in the global strategic balance and the global economy. But whether this trend can be considered positive and whether it should be regarded as inevitable — these are points that can be disputed. Let me briefly outline a couple of arguments against these assumptions.
In the history of intellectual thought, any rigid determinism — be it religious, ethnic, economic or geographical — has always failed to explain and to predict social change and international developments. The period of the Cold War can hardly be described as an era of peace and stability — it included numerous regional wars and crises and an unprecedented arms race. Furthermore, in a number of cases, the world was very close to global nuclear conflict.
It is even more important to underscore the following. The modern world is very different from what it was in the second half of the XX century. Fifty years ago, the world was divided into two systems — the Western (capitalist) and the Eastern (communist) with irreconcilable (antagonistic) contradictions between them. In other words, the bipolar system was based on a solid ideological foundation. This foundation is gone and it is hard to imagine that it will reemerge in the foreseeable future. Nationalism, even in its extreme forms, and religious fundamentalism are unlikely to replace the fundamental ideological divide of the previous century.
Moreover, all of the main international players today have to confront essentially the same set of threats and challenges to their security, which are very different from the traditional threats and challenges of the XX century and earlier periods. Today, state leaders have to deal with international terrorism and political extremism, with transnational crime and illicit drug trafficking, with uncontrolled migration and climate change, with the instabilities of the global financial system and increased risks of technological disasters. Some of these challenges existed during the Cold War, but only in an “embryonic” form, being overshadowed by the all-embracing East-West confrontation.
One of the specific features of this new set of challenges is that most of them are not generated by other (rival) great powers. In fact, these threats have nothing to do with state actors of the international system, except for a small number of irresponsible, radical regimes (rogue states). The new generation of threats and challenges come from subversive non-state actors. They may represent the negative side effects of technological and economic progress, or the growing shortage of natural resources, or the obsolescence of many key international institutions and norms of international public law. This is a fundamental difference between the period of the Cold War and today’s world. Additionally, this is why a new bipolar system, even if it can be established, is unlikely to provide any long-term security or stability.
One should keep in mind another important difference between the contemporary international situation and that of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the Soviet bloc was economically almost completely separated from the West, as the two poles of the world did not depend on each other for their development. Today, in the era of globalization, the level of interdependence between the East and the West, between the “global continent” and the “global island” is unprecedentedly high. Therefore, any political bipolarity, which would have an inevitable impact on the economic, financial, cultural, and humanitarian dimensions of international relations, is likely to have much higher costs for everyone than the Cold War ever had. Not to mention the massive relocation of material and human resources from addressing numerous global problems looming on the horizon.
In sum, the trend towards a new bipolarity is troublesome and dangerous. Even in its modified and “modernized” form, a bipolar arrangement is not likely to successfully handle the critical international questions of this century. If the world is split once again, this will likely have long-term negative repercussions for the whole system despite some tactical gains that can be anticipated by the leaders of the new “poles.” It is in our common interest to avoid this option and move towards a more inclusive, democratic and truly global international system. Since “no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed.”
Looking at the current global geopolitical landscape, we have to conclude that, although the triangle is still a popular and useful analytical pattern and one of the possible future scenarios for U.S.-China-Russia relations, no U.S.-China-Russia triangle today resembles that of the Cold War. Instead, for a couple of years, we observed the U.S. policy of “dual containment” with Washington applying more and more pressure on both Beijing and Moscow. This pressure has become an important factor cementing the Chinese-Russian strategic partnership.
This situation is a clear strategic setback for Washington. Since at least the early 20th century, one of the most important goals of the U.S. foreign policy has always been to prevent any consolidated anti-American center of power in Eurasia. U.S. policymakers have perceived a divided Eurasian landmass as an indispensable prerequisite for the global U.S. strategic hegemony. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger understood the critical importance of keeping Eurasia divided better than anyone else did. He was more efficient than any U.S. leader before him in exploiting the growing rifts between Beijing and Moscow back in the early 1970s.
Can President-elect Joe Biden repeat Kissinger’s success and resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle with the U.S. at the top of it? Of course, almost 50 years have passed since the famous trip of Kissinger to Beijing in July of 1971. The world today is definitely very different from the world of the 20th century. The former bedrock theology of geopolitics may look old-fashioned and even antiquated. Still, let us consider the options that the U.S. leadership has in trying to keep Eurasia divided.
The first option would be to read Kissinger literally. That is to support the weaker U.S. adversary against the stronger one. Today, it would mean that Washington should try to bring Moscow to the American side in its predestined confrontation with Beijing. After all, Russia is a communist country no more, and Russian leaders should be concerned about the growing asymmetry of power between their country and China. To play the weaker adversary against the stronger one was a stated goal of the Trump administration, which it failed to achieve. U.S.-Russian relations did not improve under Trump. On the contrary, they fell to historic lows.
It is highly unlikely that Biden can be more successful in pursuing this goal than his predecessor was. The U.S. simply has nothing to offer to President Putin to make him reconsider his current close friendship with President Xi Jinping — be it in economic, political or strategic domains. Even if Biden were considering a new reset with the Kremlin, he would hardly be in a position to go for such a reset: The anti-Russian consensus in Washington is too strong and shows no signs of crumbling. It seems that the U.S.-Russian relationship will be locked in a confrontational mode for many years to come.
The second option for Biden in trying to resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle would be to play on the opposite side of the stage, seeking an acceptable accommodation with the stronger Beijing and putting the squeeze on the weaker Moscow. Turning Kissinger’s geopolitical scheme on its head is certain to find a host of supporters and advocates in Washington. For them, Russia makes a far more convenient opponent than China. America would have to pay an exorbitant price for a full-fledged confrontation with China: a drop in their bilateral trade, which is very important for the U.S., severance of established global technological chains, a rapid increase in military spending, etc. The U.S.-Russia confrontation will cost much less, given that there is very little economic and technological mutual dependence between the two states, and Moscow is far less prepared to engage in costly military competition with Washington.
However, is it realistic for Biden to count on a sweet deal with China? Such a bargain requires the White House to be willing to reconsider its fundamental ideas about the place the U.S. holds in the system of international relations. The U.S. will have to abandon its claim to global American hegemony similar to that of the times of Kissinger. Certainly, neither Biden nor his entourage is ready to do that. If a revolution in the U.S.’ self-perception and its perception of the world ever starts, this is not likely to happen earlier than 2024 and, until that time, Washington-Beijing relations will remain complicated and tense.
Even more importantly, just as Trump repeatedly saw throughout the four years of his presidency that it was impossible to tear Russia away from China, Biden will steadily see that China cannot be torn away from Russia. Beijing needs Moscow regardless of the current state of affairs and the prospects for China-U.S. relations. China’s leadership will be happy to act as an arbiter or “balancer” between Russia and America, but it will not actively support the U.S. in its desire to corner Russia. In other words, if a U.S.-China-Russia triangle could ever emerge, it would be a triangle with Beijing, not Washington, on the top of it.
Thus, the Biden administration will not accomplish a lot if it attempts to resurrect the U.S.-China-Russia triangle. Under the current circumstances, a version of a “dual containment” equation appears to be the most likely approach of this new U.S. administration towards Beijing and Moscow, with China being treated more as a peer competitor and Russia as a global rouge state. To cut the costs of dual containment, Biden will try to mobilize U.S. Western allies in Europe and in East Asia. It will also try to keep Eurasia divided by forging stronger ties to China’s adversaries in Asia — above all, to India. By doing so, Biden will inevitably push the world closer to a new geopolitical bipolarity instead of a modernized version of the U.S.-China-Russia triangle.
Multilateralism – A Path for Future China-Russia Cooperation
Over the past years, promoting multipolarization has been an important target for China-Russia international cooperation. Now the situation has changed. China is becoming one of the supposed new bipolarity, the status of China and Russia in the international structure will no longer be the same. It can be felt that Russia’s concern about it may be in an unequal position in Sino-Russian relations is increasing. In addition, it used to be said that China and Russia were a coalition of two weaker states in response to pressure from the sole superpower, the U.S. Now that China itself is becoming a “superpower,” what concepts will serve as the path for future China-Russia’s international cooperation?
Multilateralism certainly could play an important role in this, both as ideas and policies. Multilateralism opposes unipolarity but does not negate multipolarity. It still leaves the door open for Russia as a great power in a multipolar world. Multilateralism embodies the spirit of political equality. It stipulates China and Russia are equal partners both in international affairs and in bilateral relations. Multilateralism is consistent with Russia’s diplomatic ideology as well. Russia itself is a supporter of multilateralism and takes it as the banner of Russian diplomacy. Russia proposes that the future multipolarity should have a just and democratic character and that it should not be based solely on the balance of power, but on the interaction of national interests, patterns, cultures and traditions. This can be interpreted as a moral demand of Russia to international structure, and it is certainly true. Above all, despite all of the changes, China will still pursue the same goals in international affairs, such as anti-hegemony, anti-unilateralism, anti-neointerventionism, maintaining international strategic stability and establishing a more just and fair world order. Therefore, the goals of China and Russia in international politics will remain unchanged.
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