It has been a long time since the world has seen any nation other than the United States hold a true ‘world power’ status. No country has been able to challenge it, and especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the world has grown accustomed to an age of unipolarity, with the United States as the most dominant global power. Its unparalleled and unchecked influence indeed spans the entire world.
Yet for the first time since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the balance of power in the world is readjusting. The rise of China and a resurgent Russia is beginning to tip the balance of power in favor of developing nations. The international climate is certainly changing, and this will have profound consequences for every nation; after years of adjustment to a world order where the United States held undisputed hegemony, the emergence of a new era of multipolarity will force many nations to revise their longstanding practices in foreign policy.
This is the first post in a multipart series analyzing how the world is moving towards a multipolar era.
Emerging from Disaster
The phenomenal, almost miraculous, rise of China is a well known story to everyone. It had been through the ‘century of humiliation’ where China suffered under a succession of plights: mistreatment at the hand of Westerners, a draining show of resistance against Japan in World War 2 preceded and succeeded by internal civil war, and finally the despotic reign of Mao Zedong which would cost the lives of millions. The ‘Celestial Empire’, once a glorious, proud civilization that understood itself to be the ‘Middle Kingdom’ which all other nations must orbit around, emerged from the first decades of Communist rule as a country starved, isolated, and economically ruined.
The economic rise that began after Mao’s death changed all this. Proclaiming that “to be rich is glorious”, Deng Xiaoping, architect of China’s transformation, began opening up the Chinese economy. In the process, the government’s new policies would lift millions out of poverty and begin to restore China’s status in the world.
What is China’s status, however? This is actually one of the most pressing and profound questions facing the world today. For millennia China has seen itself as the center of the world, unparalleled in greatness. It was the sole superpower of East Asia. It had not been able to assert a ‘superpower’ role in the past century, however, due to its own numerous internal problems, allowing the United States to be the unchallengeable greatest superpower once the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, for China was not yet in a position to claim global leadership.
But now that China is once again rich and powerful, the question that arises is: where is China’s position in the international order? This was a country that used to be the leading military, economic, and technological power, at least in East Asia, and in hindsight we know that the superiority of the Chinese civilisation would have outranked many other empires in other parts of the world. Now, however, it had to coexist with another superpower, the United States- something that a powerful united China has never had to do in the past. The Qing Dynasty at its prime never had a serious rival; it could bully and conquer at will. Only in its weakened state was it forced to tolerate the existence of the West. But the modern People’s Republic of China is no weak state, and it has inherited millennia-old feelings of civilizational superiority along with memories of itself as the Middle Kingdom. What would its actions look like? How will it assert itself?
We are already seeing the economic impacts of the rise of China. Firstly, China has begun to invest heavily in other regions of the world. Globalisation, not a force that was present at any other time in Chinese history, has allowed China to reach its tentacles into regions of the world that its culture had previously never touched. One such example is Africa, which is gradually moving into China’s sphere of influence- an unprecedented trend in history; this is a result of large-scale Chinese investment in the impoverished continent. Even the US finds it hard to resist Chinese economic influence; China has been the largest holder of US Treasury Bonds, although at the time of writing that position has been, probably momentarily, taken over by Japan. China’s own neighbourhood, the Asia-Pacific region, is also an area with heavily growing Chinese influence. Some may argue that economic influence is the precedent to political influence, and if this is the case, China has laid the groundwork for increasing its political influence in many parts of the world.
But most importantly, however, China seems to be making moves towards reforming the current financial system that it views as being dominated by the West and their interests. The formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), spearheaded by China, is attracting a large following of countries seeking to become a member. This comes despite US declarations that joining would be akin to the “accommodation of China, which is not the best way to engage a rising power” (The UK joined anyway, ignoring the protests of its American ally). The AIIB is important for a number of reasons: firstly, it allows China to use its money to invest in more economic opportunities overseas that will benefit it. Secondly, it gives China a bigger chance at internationalising the yuan. This action only expands China’s economic influence while eroding the US’s. And, most importantly, the AIIB will allow China to lend more money to finance infrastructure projects in many developing countries, which will then foster international trade and China’s own economic growth.
Economics is hardly the only area where Chinese influence is on the rise, however.
Even if China is still years, possibly decades, away from rivalling the US’s military superiority, it has not been scared to assert itself in its own region. It is still difficult to guess the long-term security and military goals of the Chinese government and where exactly it intends to place itself. What we can tell from its actions is China is not satisfied with its current role in international politics. This is understandable: it is now the world’s second largest economy, but it is only accorded limited voting rights in institutions such as the IMF, and the United States is still the dominant player in its very own neighbourhood, the Asia-Pacific region. This is a source of discontent. China intends to change this.
These intentions has led to an increasingly assertive Chinese stance in the Asia-Pacific region. The South China Sea is the most obvious example of a current hotspot for military tensions. China’s claims that it has a right to ownership of the South China Sea based on historical claims is perceived by historians as quite dubious- the maritime boundary was only drawn by Chiang Kai-shek, who had become fascinated with the Nazi concept of ‘Lebensraum‘ (living space) in 1947- but this does not change the fact that China is still extremely determined to take over the South China Sea, and whatever natural resources lie within it. To this end, China has taken a number of steps, from imposing fishing rules of its own to constructing a ‘Great Wall of Sand’, namely, artificial islands on which military bases can be built. The cries and concerns of all other South China Sea claimants, which include Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines, are usually ignored.
This is not the only area for tensions. The East China Sea is also under dispute between China, South Korea and Japan. The Japanese controlled Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyu islands in China, is one such disputed hotspot in the East China Sea, as although they are uninhabited, vast oil reserves are thought to exist under the sea. And while military action is very unlikely, due to increasing economic integration between Taiwan and China and developing cross-strait relations, President Xi Jinping did call for Taiwan to accept the ‘one country, two systems’ model that China has applied on Hong Kong- implying a more uncompromising stance.
The Flopped US Pivot
We have spent much of this post discussing the rise of China, in terms of its economic and military power. But what of the United States, who was the most dominant power in the region since the end of the Second World War?
President Barack Obama did point out the importance of the region to American interests. Realising that as chaotic as the Middle East is, it will no longer be the key that ensures American dominance in world politics; rather, the United States must rebalance its economic and military resources from the Middle East and concentrate them in the Asia Pacific. After all, America cannot ignore an area where nearly half the world’s population resides. This policy became known as the US ‘Pivot to Asia’.
The ‘Pivot to Asia’ is widely suspected, but officially denied, as essentially a Chinese ‘containment’ policy. But if we evaluate Obama’s East Asian policy in these terms, then the United States’s pivot to Asia has been nothing more than a flop. After all, Obama is now widely seen as a paper tiger in the region, who espouses much rhetoric but offers little in terms of concrete action. China seems free to do what it pleases in the South China Sea, despite Obama’s promises for an increased American military presence in the region. The much publicised Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have promoted American economic cooperation in the region and imposed a constraint on China, now seems to be on the verge of being dismissed by the US congress. Increased engagement with its partners has been mostly increased engagement with Japan, whose Prime Minister is trying to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow Japan to play a larger security role, but that will be a lengthy and arduous process.
A New Era of Chinese Hegemony
And so, what conclusions can we make? Chinese power in the Asia Pacific region, and consequently in the world, is rising quickly. On the other hand, American power is gradually decreasing. The trend is clear: China is on the rise, and the United States is on its decline. While this is a very broad, simplistic conclusion, it is one that can be drawn by looking at the events of the past couple of years.
And China shows no signs of stopping. Its economic growth may be slowing down, but one cannot expect a country to maintain close to double-digit growth forever; China will eventually have to transition to a more stable economic model. Its political leadership, however, is the strongest that it has had in decades. Xi Jinping is proving to be China’s most powerful leader since Chairman Mao himself, and Chinese foreign policy has become significantly more muscled since his ascension to power.
The United States, on the other hand, will still be under gridlock for the year to come, with a lame duck President who is now being pulled back to deal with issues in Iraq. There is also little hope that its next President will be the necessary foreign policy sage who can successfully contain China and increase American power; the Democratic nomination will most likely fall to Hillary Clinton, who showed no promise in foreign policy as Secretary of State, and while the Republican nomination will still be hard fought for, there are certainly no Richard Nixons or Henry Kissingers among its candidates. The American public also has little stomach for more foreign adventures, and its energy is still consumed by the Middle East.
China is on the rise, and it seems there is nothing that will stop it. And this has dangerous implication. As noted by Fareed Zakaria:
The stability of the world will not rest on whether the Houthis win or lose in Yemen. (Yemen has been in a state of almost constant conflict since 1962.) It will be shaped by how the world’s established superpower handles the rising one, China. As Harvard’s Graham Allison has noted, of the 15 cases since 1500 where this transition has taken place, 11 times the result was a war.
The future of the Asia-Pacific, and the world, as it enters a new age of multipolarity is perhaps quite troubling as every player may be prone to miscalculations that will lead to military conflict. But at least here, war has not yet broken out. In other regions of the world where American power is receding, it already has.
In the next post in this series, we’ll be looking at the resurgence of Russian power under Vladimir Putin — and why this rise has much shakier foundations than China’s, but will still change the landscape of foreign policy.