Conflict and Leadership
US-China Competition Won’t Produce a New Bipolar World

The US-China competition seems unlikely to produce a wholly multipolar system despite the many differences from the US-Soviet Cold War. In practice, the international system will probably combine features of bipolarity and multipolarity; it may even resemble a competition between bipolarity and multipolarity, in which each structure enjoys advantages in certain sectors, writes Valdai Club expert Paul Saunders

Escalating geopolitical competition between the United States and China is likely to have increasing impact on the international system in the coming years. While some have compared the competition to a new version of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the US-China rivalry—and the twenty-first century international system—will probably produce something quite different and considerably more complex.

One central question is the extent to which US-China competition will move the international system toward a new bipolar structure like the one that existed during the Cold War. In other words, will US-China competition in effect order the wider international system by forcing other states to choose sides? And will this process define the international system? This seems less likely today than in the past, for several reasons.

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First is the role of the US-Soviet nuclear relationship. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an intense nuclear arms race that drove the two countries to build massive nuclear arsenals. When their combined stockpiles peaked in 1986, the United States and the Soviet Union together possessed over 98% of the world’s nuclear warheads. The nuclear world was demonstrably bipolar.

This mattered because the nuclear arms race established an environment in which the combination of these massive arsenals with systematic thinking about how to employ nuclear weapons contributed to the emergence of strategic nuclear deterrence as a perilous force for stability. The nuclear arms race and extended nuclear deterrence (explicit or implicit threats to use nuclear weapons to defend others, including those implicit in the risk of escalation in any direct conventional conflict) in turn encouraged other states to choose sides, to ensure their security.

While the United States and post-Soviet Russia still hold roughly 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads, it is less clear that nuclear weapons can provide the same structure for the international system today. On one hand, mutually assured destruction may not be as credible today as it was forty or fifty years ago—will modern leaders really risk a global apocalypse? On the other hand, the perceived consequences of even a single nuclear warhead striking a major city may be more dire today than in the past. This strengthens the deterrence capabilities of governments with smaller nuclear arsenals, including China’s. 

As a result, China is able to act like a US superpower peer without having a comparable nuclear force—its smaller force is a sufficient deterrent to provide Beijing with the freedom of action necessary to compete with the United States. At the same time, this dynamic allows for a degree of multipolarity by permitting other states with smaller nuclear arsenals (and smaller economies and military forces) to deter nuclear and conventional attacks, guaranteeing their security while providing some autonomy vis-à-vis the two leading powers. France embraced this status during the Cold War; North Korea is inconveniently independent from Beijing in much the same way today.

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The global economy works against bipolarity too. Most significantly, the European Union’s combined economy rivals those of the United States and China in both nominal and especially purchasing power parity terms, where the three are nearly equal. Since the United States and the EU are economic competitors and seem likely to remain so despite periodic alignments to defend shared political and economic principles, there are in fact three rather than two global economic poles. Moreover, as many have noted, the US and EU economies are considerably more integrated with China’s economy than they were with the Cold War-era Soviet economy.

No less important than this has been the evolving structure of the global economy, especially the rapid expansion of larger developed economies relative to the US and European economies. Some view this as a problem for the United States in that by shrinking Washington’s share of the global economy, it reduces US economic influence. Another way of thinking about this transition is that it is a tremendous success for America and a result of decades of concerted effort, with the essential support of US allies, to stabilize the international system in a manner that facilitated broad prosperity. Whatever view one takes, the rise of the G20 relative to the G7 demonstrates the diffusion of economic power away from one, two or three poles.

Global competition surrounding technology largely follows this economic competition but has increasingly driven US efforts to unwind US-China economic integration and to persuade America’s allies and partners to look closely at whether or not they should use Chinese technologies in critical infrastructure. This has been longstanding policy in the defense sector and is now highly visible in information and communications technologies. Energy and electricity systems seem likely to follow. The balance between bipolarity and multipolarity in the technological world will depend on the extent to which the US, China, and others are successful in driving domestic innovation and how much they and other technology leaders seek to force exclusivity in international technology cooperation.

For the two leading geopolitical competitors, bipolarity can look more attractive than multipolarity, in that it may seem to provide greater control and to limit unpredictable risks. (Whether bipolarity actually accomplishes this is less important than whether or not it appears to do so.) As a result, the two members of the bipolar pair have parallel interests in competing for influence over others and pressing other states to choose sides. Some states will eagerly join one side—for example, if they perceive an immediate threat from the other—while most will be reluctant to participate in a competition between others that impinges on their sovereignty and offers them more costs than benefits. During the Cold War, this latter tendency contributed to forming the Non-Aligned Movement, which still exists today.

The United States and China have tried to sway these nations as well as established and rising great powers that are likely to form the additional poles in a multipolar system. Like during the Cold War, this contest centers partly around political ideologies and systems of government. Yet the global public diplomacy battle also largely centers around which nation is defending the status quo and which nation is assaulting it. In the Cold War, the United States successfully and very usefully positioned itself as defending the status quo, which was not difficult in contending with an avowedly revolutionary power like the USSR.

Defending the status quo is inherently the more desirable position because it allows potential governments to do what they want to do anyway—to continue business-as-usual within their own borders—which is more attractive to potential allies (or acquiescing neutrals) than risky efforts to overturn the existing global order. Defending the status quo during the Cold War encouraged the United States to be fairly tolerant of others’ domestic practices, so as to maximize its support and isolate the Soviet Union. The clear advantages of this defensive position explain why China (and Russia) have worked hard to portray the United States as destabilizing and dangerous even as the United States (and its allies) have criticized China (and Russia) for threatening the rules-based international order. This element of bipolar competition is probably unavoidable.

With this in mind, the US-China competition seems unlikely to produce a wholly multipolar system despite the many differences from the US-Soviet Cold War. In practice, the international system will probably combine features of bipolarity and multipolarity; it may even resemble a competition between bipolarity and multipolarity, in which each structure enjoys advantages in certain sectors. The two structures will also likely have varying appeal in different places around the world—much like the historical English nobility or the Russian boyars who resisted their sovereigns, existing and emerging great powers might be the least inclined to embrace a new bipolar system in which they may have more to lose than states unable to compete for global influence regardless of the international system’s structure. Whatever happens, the Cold War will have only limited value as an analytical model in thinking about the looming US-China competition.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.