“This fascinating book expands our understanding of the functions of polarity in international politics and tells us a lot about the coming bipolar world. It is a pioneering work and a comprehensive study of contemporary China-U.S relations from a bipolar perspective.”
~ Yan Xuetong, Tsinghua University
This week we are featuring The Return of Bipolarity in World Politics: China, the United States, and Geostructural Realism, as part of our book giveaway. Today, we have a guest post by Øystein Tunsjø about the new superpower rivalry in the twenty-first century.
Remember to enter our drawing for a chance to win a free copy of the book.
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The global power shift during the last decade marks that the United States is no longer the only superpower. While China is not equal to the United States in power aggregate, it has narrowed the gap significantly and vaulted into top ranking. Equally important, the United States and China are much more powerful than any third state. They have become the superpowers in a new bipolar system of the twenty-first century. With rising conflict in U.S.–China relations, scholars and policymakers are grappling with two overarching questions: What will U.S.–China rivalry in the twenty-first century look like? Will there be war between the two most powerful states?
The rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union did not lead to any direct war between the previous superpowers, but instead a cold war with arms racing and global rivalry. In the midst of a trade war with dueling tariffs and the Trump administration referring to China as a peer competitor, it is important to examine whether the new superpower rivalry in the twenty-first century will resemble the superpower rivalry of the twentieth century. The book The Return of Bipolarity in World Politics is the first to compare two bipolar systems. It finds that primarily because the geopolitics of East Asia is different from Europe, the contemporary U.S.–China superpower rivalry is unlikely to resemble the U.S.–Soviet arms racing. However, a new bipolar system concentrated on maritime East Asia is likely to be more unstable and prone to limited war than the bipolar system concentrated on continental Europe was in the twentieth century.
“However, a new bipolar system concentrated on maritime East Asia is likely to be more unstable and prone to limited war than the bipolar system concentrated on continental Europe was in the twentieth century.”
Since there is water barriers between the two superpowers and their allies in the new bipolar system concentrated on East Asia, in contrast to the superpower confrontation on the land mass in Europe during the previous bipolar system, geopolitics impedes strong balancing. None of the United States most important allies in East Asia (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia) borders China. Instead, water and U.S. naval preponderance protect theses allies from China’s formidable land power. The United States and China are unlikely in the near future to pursue an arms race characteristic of the U.S.–Soviet pattern of behavior during the early Cold War.
While the arms racing may not be as strong, in some respect there will likely be more instability at the new power center in East Asia than there was in Europe during the previous bipolar era. Because the U.S. military does not need to fight China’s People’s Liberation Army on the East Asian mainland to maintain a regional balance of power, the United States remains not only superior to China in nuclear capability but also at the conventional level. This makes a limited war more likely, since the U.S. threshold for using military force may not include the use of nuclear forces. A future conflict might erupt in the South China Sea, the East China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. The most likely scenario is a limited war at sea that would not result in an invasion of China, the United States or its allies, but would likely result in devastating attacks on the military infrastructure of both sides.
“When geopolitical friction erupts, concern over the regional balance of power and security interests trump trade and economic interests.”
Many have suggested that economic interdependence will prevent a war between the United States and China. The current trade war undermines this argument. The United States and China have been willing to risk economic costs from dueling tariffs even when there has not been a security crisis. China is determined to push the United States out of East Asia, but the United States is not willing to let China dominate the region. When geopolitical friction erupts, concern over the regional balance of power and security interests trump trade and economic interests.
Instability at the power center in East Asia is likely to foster more stability at the periphery than during the previous bipolar era. The superpowers are more likely to be preoccupied with rivalry in maritime East Asia and less likely to be involved in proxy wars in other regions. By advancing to Berlin, the Soviet Union had obtained its core security goals and could allow itself to promote a worldwide communist movement. China, on the other hand, is likely to be preoccupied with security in its own region and less interested in confronting the United States globally. China prioritizes its regional ambitions and seeks to challenge the status quo in East Asian waters.
This comparative analysis of two bipolar systems opens up for a reconfiguration of Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism, the most well-known theory in international politics. By adding geopolitics to structural realism, the book develops a new geostructural realist theory that better explains and predicts superpower rivalry in a new bipolar system in the twenty-first century.
Read more about The Return of Bipolarity in World Politics in this excerpt from the book’s introduction.