Transformation of The Global Order: The End of Unipolarity and US – China relations

By Benyamin Poghosyan

The COVID – 19 pandemic triggered a fierce debate among experts of international relations on the key features of the post COVID-19 world. There are several predictions and assessments – the end of globalization, the enhanced role of nation states, and a shift in global supply chains. It’s too early and difficult to assess what the world will look like decades from now, however, almost all experts have agreed on one thing; there will be no return to the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, when the US enjoyed absolute power and unconstrained possibilities.

“The unipolar moment” as was described by key scholars of international relations in the 1990s ushered in a new US grand strategy – “Liberal hegemony,” which replaced the grand strategy of the cold war – “Containment.” In all US national security strategies published by Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama, the promotion of democracy and the establishment of a global community of liberal states with market economies was among the key goals of American foreign policy. The enlargement of NATO, the 2003 Iraq invasion, and 2011 military operations in Libya were all in line with this grand strategy.

In the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s, the US enjoyed unprecedented strength which allowed Washington to take any steps it deemed necessary. The US was a preeminent military and economic power in the world, while other key players – such as the UK, Germany, France, and Japan were all US allies. Russia was reeling after the collapse of the Soviet Union, while China just started to accumulate economic power. It seemed that nothing may hinder the transformation of the post WWII US led liberal international order into the Kissingerian standard liberal world order, in which nations work within the same set of constraints and aspire to meet the same set of rules. However, the course of history has proved the opposite. Since the mid 2000s the US’ unrivaled hegemony had started to fray. The core roots of this process had both domestic and external dimensions. At home the US was witnessing the growing polarization of population and dysfunctional state apparatus, rising social and racial tensions, and the stagnant income levels of the middle class. In the international sphere, several states have emerged, in particular China, who accumulated enough power not to be intimidated and threatened by the US.

The global financial crisis of 2007-2009 was the first harbinger of relative US decline. It shattered the post – cold war myth of unparalleled US economic might. America’s failure to reach its intentions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the emergence of the Islamic state and a more assertive Russian foreign policy, but above all the rise of China, contributed to the gradual transformation of the international system from a unipolar one into a more diverse and simultaneously more unstable order. Since the late 2000s, key American thinkers and foreign policy experts have been actively discussing the future contours of the Post – American world.

Since the election of President Trump the US has concentrated its focus on the great power competition. However, despite denouncing multilateralism and globalization, the current US administration believes that the US should continue to be the world preeminent power. In this context the key challenger of the US is China. Heeding to the “Hide your strength, bide your time” formula, China has registered astonishing economic growth and has already surpassed the US in terms of GDP per purchasing power. According to several predictions, China will surpass the US in terms of the nominal GDP in 15 years.

Not surprisingly President Trump’s administration launched a multi level anti – China campaign. The US seeks to undermine Chinese economy by launching a trade war and to dismantle its thriving IT sector through targeted sanctions against digital giant Huawei. The US has put into circulation the notion of a “Indo – pacific region” and has attempted to establish anti-China coalitions in Asia promoting defense and security cooperation among such states as India and Australia. Simultaneously, the US attempts to prevent the Chinese international investments in both physical and digital infrastructure, accusing Beijing of ‘debt diplomacy.” Washington actively calls other states to reject Chinese investment offers and criticizes the Chinese flagship “Belt and Road” initiative. The COVID – 19 pandemic and the significant failures of President Trump’s administration in its fight against the virus have deepened the US’ anti-China “blame game.” Most probably, China will be among the topics of the upcoming Presidential campaign.

However, neither the US, nor the world will gain from growing US – China animosity. No state wants to be forced to choose between the US and China or cancel mutually beneficial economic cooperation deals with Beijing as a result of US pressure. The United States must decide whether to continue to view China’s rise as an existential threat and try to hold China back with all available means or to accept China as a major power in its own right. The second choice is the best way to work constructively to uphold a stable and peaceful international order.