World heading toward a bipolar order: eminent scholar

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/7/7 18:18:40

Yan Xuetong Photo: Feng Qingyin/GT


Editor's Note:

Since the US launched the trade war against China, it is widely believed that bilateral relations have come to a crossroads. Where are China-US relations headed amid profound changes in the international landscape? How will intensifying bilateral competition influence the international order? Yan Xuetong (Yan), dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University and secretary-general of the World Peace Forum, shared insights with Global Times (GT) reporter Yu Jincui before the Eighth World Peace Forum which will be held in Beijing from Monday to Tuesday. 

GT: What is behind the theme of this year's World Peace Forum - "Stabilizing the international order?" What are the characteristics of the current international order? 

Yan: Changes in the international order have become a global concern over the past two or three years. Especially since US President Donald Trump took office, unease has mounted over US policy that deviates from Washington's traditional foreign policy prescription. Even relations between the US and its allies have become strained. When it comes to China-US ties, trade conflicts have been growing from 2018, spawning the label of a trade war. 

We are face-to-face with a new international situation which people are not familiar with. Many observers describe it as a new cold war. But I don't think it's appropriate to apply the concept of Cold War to analyze the situation. 

During the Cold War, there was no trade spat or decoupling of technology as the US and the Soviet Union seldom had any economic and people-to-people exchanges. The confrontation between the two powers was different from the one now between Washington and Beijing. 

Conventional strategic competition based on geopolitics can no longer explain today's situation. Simply put, strategic competition in cyberspace has no geographical barriers. It's not subject to geographical environment. In a digital economy, data becomes a resource. Different from natural resources, what matters is not who can control or occupy it, but who can use it. Strategic competition in such a context is not what we are familiar with. In this sense, many people think we are witness to international politics which does not have a precedent. 

But from the academic perspective of international relations, the nature of strategic competition among powers has remained unchanged for thousands of years. It is in essence about the redistribution of power. In sum, we are heading toward a bipolar configuration featuring China and the US, under which the character of strategic competition remains the same but its forms and content change. 

GT: How do you define China-US relations under the new emerging bipolar configuration? 

: I once wrote an article about the false friendship between China and the US. Today I still believe China and the US are not genuine friends. But the friendship has become more insincere than before. Since 1998, the friendship between the two countries has been a false one, with intense competition amid cooperation. Such a relationship will continue.   

GT: President Xi Jinping and US President Trump agreed to restart trade talks and not to raise tariffs for the time being. Will this tentative truce lead to an end to the trade war that lasts for over a year? 

: I don't think it implies a suspension of the trade war. There is no truce. US tariff hikes on China haven't been reduced. The conflict is on. China's retaliatory tariff hikes on the US haven't come down either. So it is too early to say China and the US have reached a trade war truce. The trade war is on, but has not further escalated. The conflict can be compared to one between military divisions, not armies. There's no escalation, but no truce. Why did stocks surge after the leaders of China and the US met? It is because negotiations have resumed. It means tensions won't go up further. It doesn't mean that the conflict has been resolved.

GT: What's the worst-case scenario for China-US strategic competition? Will a war break out?

: The possibility of a direct war between China and the US can be ruled out because both nations possess nuclear weapons. Even a proxy war is unlikely. No one knows what the case will be in decades or centuries. But a proxy war is unlikely during Trump's presidency. He was bellicose over the Korean Peninsula and Iran nuclear issues. He had prepared for military strikes against Iran, but called off at the last minute. He will not wage a war. 

As far as I have observed, one of the characteristics that differentiates Trump from his predecessors is that he is not willing to use war as a means to solve problems. Hence, I don't think there will be a proxy war between China and the US during Trump's tenure. 

But it doesn't mean strategic competition between the two countries will not exacerbate. The two are bound to have intensifying strategic competition, especially in the fields of trade, economy and technology. Trump said during the G20 summit that he wouldn't ban American companies from selling equipment to Huawei. But no one in China believes him. Nobody thinks the US will stop sanctioning Huawei. 

GT: Some US politicians have expressed support for the violent protests in Hong Kong. How do you see US intervention in Hong Kong affairs? Is it an extension of China-US strategic competition?   

: Washington is more concerned about finding ways of preventing China from catching up with the US in terms of technology and national power. Ideology is not the focal point of China-US competition. Because of so-called political correctness, the US may issue some statements on Hong Kong. But I don't think this means it is trying to compete with China in the ideological field. Some politicians within the Trump administration, for example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, may hope so, but Trump himself is not interested in it. 

China should try to avoid the ideological battle with the US. In other words, if we can avoid ideological competition, we can avoid a new cold war. We must stick to the principle of not allowing ideology to meddle in foreign policy. This is very important.

GT: Given an emerging bipolar configuration that features intensifying China-US competition, how would the future international order look like? 

: It's certain that there will be more uncertainties in the future international order. The international order will become unstable and chaotic, but the bipolar configuration will be stable. More countries will choose not to comply with international treaties and opt for economic sanctions to deal with disputes. There will be fewer multilateral agreements. Bilateral diplomacy will become the main driving force for problem-solving. 

GT: The just-concluded G20 summit leaves the world with a question about global governance leadership in the future. Against the backdrop of the US continuously withdrawing from international treaties and organizations and swearing by "America First," does Washington still have an interest in leading global governance? 

: During his tenure, Trump won't have a strong interest in the US shouldering responsibility as a global leader. He is not willing to pay the price. We cannot exclude the possibility that the next president, imagine a Democratic president being elected, would re-prioritize the strategic goal of making the US a global leader and return to some conventional American practices. But what about the one after the next? Who can ensure that the US won't have a second Trump? Because of Trump's influence on US international strategy, the erosion of US strategic credibility makes no one in the world dare believe in big powers. Mistrust among major powers is rising, so is it between small and big countries.
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