Two Academics: The emergence of a bi-polar world order

Today I present the ideas of two scholars, one Chinese and one American. I think the two pieces fit well together, not just because Aaron Friedberg and Yan Xuetong are both amongst the most preeminent thinkers on China-US relations in their respective countries, but because their world views actually appear to cohere on certain points – even if they are looking at the situation from different ends of the Sino-US rivalry.

Aaron Friedberg

Friedberg’s “Competing with China” feels like a fairly seminal piece, and is certainly representative of the current US hawkish consensus on China. You can read the long version here, or the short, adapted version here.

I recently had the privilege of hearing Friedberg speak on this topic – most of the points he talked on found correlates in the paper, but I’m paraphrasing his general ideas slightly.

Friedberg basically looks at the China-US relationship and sees a Cold War situation. Or rather, he’d like to see a Cold War situation in that he thinks the US, along with its allies, should openly declare the ideological nature of the contest. As in, we’ve become too delicate about calling the CCP out. According to Friedberg, it’s a rotten, illiberal, dictatorial regime through and through, and we are, or should be engaged in ideological warfare with the PRC.

He also lends some nuance to the “US engagement has failed” argument that has become prevalent in media. He details how and what way it’s “failed” – what forces were at play and what has changed from 2008 (a turning point) and now.

Friedberg sees the current trade spate as playing out in three possible ways: 1) either Trump accepts some small concessions and we have a continuation of the status quo; 2) the US persuades China to adjust or scrap its industrial policy; 3) we have a bifurcation of the global economic system – China cultivating its economic sphere on the one hand, and the US and its allies trading openly on the other. Friedberg sees number three as the most likely option.

Of course, given the current EU-US relations, the idea of free trade amongst the US and its allies is slightly jarring. It’s important to note that Friedberg implies Trump is an aberration – a disruption to the normal pattern of the US standing with its liberal democratic allies.

Yan Xuetong

Yan Xuetong’s interview with Caixin was very helpfully translated by David Bandurski and published on the China Media Project. It’s all fascinating, but in light of Friedberg’s essay, here are three stand-out paragraphs reproduced from Bandurski’s translation:

After the Cold War, the United States became the absolute leading power in the world, but its leadership position of late is not like that of the 1990s. In 2013, I predicted complete bipolarization by 2023. Looking at things now, we can ascertain even more clearly that multipolarity is impossible, and a bipopular system (两极格局) within five years is extremely possible.

As nuclear weapons will prove a deterrent to war by any major power, these countries will tend to use economic sanctions as a means of competition, and protectionism will carry the day. Major powers will not wish to bear the costs of global governance and the preservation of order. Global governance and regional cooperation will stop in their tracks, and it’s possible that regionalization will see a reverse trend, including in the European Union.

The core of the Cold War was about ideology, and only by preventing ideological tensions can we prevent a Cold War. Over the next five years, ideas of independence in Taiwan could develop further, bringing the risk of a full-fledged standoff between China and the United States, which we must be one guard against. Over the next 10 years, the biggest danger on the outside will probably be the question of Taiwan independence. For this we need to build effective prevention mechanisms to avoid [a crisis].

So – Friedberg and Xuetong are both flirting with the idea that we are witnessing the birth of a bipolar world system consisting of two economic spheres led by the US and China respectively.

The “ideology” bit is also interesting. Friedberg makes the point that PRC officials are always incredibly keen on steering the conversation away from ideology. They are constantly accusing their Western peers of a “Cold War mentality”. Here Yan is doing just that. Friedberg would argue that the CCP want to make tensions non-ideological because they are fundamentally insecure about the character of their regime. It suits CCP objectives to de-politicize the debate and make it about money and economics. For Friedberg, the contest can’t be depoliticized, essentially because of what the CCP itself stands for.

Whether you agree or disagree, it’s somewhat refreshing to hear this said outright. Often I feel that the China threat is couched in terms that suggest it is not China’s rise per se that is the problem, but how China goes about rising. Friedberg is just saying – nope, China, while it is represented and ruled by the CCP, is the problem.