Balancing and competition between the US and China will take place primarily in the economic realm, where the two nations are closer to parity. Balancing will be much less intense in the military realm, where China will be deterred in by US power. Economic balancing is much safer than military balancing and the current system will be more peaceful than the Cold War, writes Cliff Kupchan, Сhairman and Director of research at Eurasia Group.
The international system currently is one of emerging bipolarity, anchored by the US and China. This development alarms most observers, who fear a second Cold War like that between the US and the Soviet Union. But the new system will be quite different, with much less threat of military conflict between the great powers. This essay will explore the impact of emerging bipolarity and the coronavirus pandemic on the international system, and in turn on Russia.
We are in a period of emerging bipolarity because the US and China will be the world’s superpowers for the foreseeable future. The global distribution of power determines the nature of any system; its characteristics are set by empirical facts, not policy preferences. The US and China have emerged over the past decade as the clear leaders on the most important indices of power – military and economic. The US retains an advantage over China in the military realm; Chinese nominal defense spending in 2019 was about 36% that of the US, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The two are much closer in the economic sphere, with the US ahead on nominal GDP and China leading on purchasing power parity. Clearly separating the US and China from the rest, the number 3 county on both military and economic power lies far below China. There are specific, structural, and enduring reasons for their rankings that will not change because of Covid-19. For example, the US has an extremely strong financial system, while China has a very innovative population.
Soft power also affects outcomes, but to a lesser extent than hard power. It is influence through attraction. Both the US and China have had troubled policies during the Covid crisis and taken a hit to soft power. But the US had far more soft power before Covid and still does. (Pre-Covid, the Portland/USC rankings had the US at number 5 and China in 27th place.)
Emerging bipolarity has several key characteristics which impact the international system.