New Bipolarity: While Interdependence Grows, Interaction Shrinks
Online Discussion
List of speakers

On June 16, the Valdai Club held an international online conference, titled Prospects for a New Bipolarity and its Impact on Asia-Pacific with the participation of leading experts from Russia and Asia-Pacific countries. In his opening remarks, Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club and moderator of the discussion, noted that bipolarity does not come down to the confrontation between the USA and China, in that now there are many conflicts both between countries and within national borders. In this connection, it is especially important to understand whether the region can live in such conditions without the United States or without a conflict between the United States and China.

Victor Sumsky, Director of the ASEAN Centre at MGIMO University, said that we are now witnessing the destruction of the cooperation that has developed in the Asia-Pacific region, and the APR as a project, as an inclusive community based on economic cooperation. “Bipolarity is not a prognosis, but a diagnosis,” he emphasised. Its coming puts an end to the old model of regional development and may bury hopes for the future “Asian Age”. However, in parallel with it, there is a tendency toward multipolarity, and China will be able to overcome the conflict with the United States with honour if it declares itself not as a contender for world hegemony, but as one of the leaders of a multipolar world.

Dino Patti Djalal, founder and director of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia, dedicated his speech to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the region as a whole and Indonesia in particular, highlighting its political implications. According to him, COVID-19 has become the most powerful “political virus” in generations. This is the first time biological factors have influenced politics so much, he said. Hongyul Han, Professor of the Department of Economics at Hanyang University (Republic of Korea), developed the theme of the effect of coronavirus on the economy and society. He stressed that quarantines violated the supply chains and this could ultimately lead to deglobalisation. At the same time, efforts to contain the pandemic worsened the situation with inequality, leading to an increase in the Gini index. These negative factors can be overcome only through international cooperation, the Korean economist noted.

Yoko Hirose, a Professor at the Faculty of Policy Management at Keio University’s Graduate School of Media and Governance, also spoke about the impact of coronavirus on the regional economy, pointing out that the pandemic had reversed the trends that have dominated the world for decades. In parallel, in her opinion, the situation with unemployment and inequality could be aggravated by the development of new technology. She also called for international cooperation as a possible way out of the crisis. The moderator of the discussion, however, noted that recently the situation with international cooperation is had left much to be desired. “Interdependence is growing, but interaction is shrinking,” he said aphoristically, noting that the pandemic itself, in a sense, is the result of a reduction in interaction.

Speaking about the US-Chinese conflict, Alexander Lomanov, Deputy Director and Head of the Centre for Asian-Pacific Studies at IMEMO RAS, said that the world had long feared such bipolarity, but hadn’t been ready for it. It seemed to many that the outcome of the confrontation between China and America would be a foregone conclusion, but now it is obvious that it will persist for a long time, with the APR as its main arena. According to Lomanov, this confrontation is noticeably different from the Cold War, in that neither side is ready to acquire full-fledged allies. This makes one wonder what course of action should be taken by those countries that are on the periphery of the confrontation. Bilahari Kausikan, Chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, confirmed that Singapore cannot, in the full sense of the word, call either party an ally. According to him, relations in the region are multifaceted and the Asia-Pacific countries will continue to diversify their risks, seeking to maintain good relations with both Beijing and Washington. He rejected the possibility of the conflict entering a military phase, adding that America and China still could not completely decouple themselves from each other.

Xin Zhang, Associate Professor at the School of Advanced International and Area Studies, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Russian Studies at East China Normal University, looks at the situation in a similar way. At the same time, he noted that the final bipolarity in the region has not yet taken shape and that the confrontation between the United States and China has not yet reached the level of the Cold War. He also considers the transition to a full-scale conflict unlikely, since the United States and China are closely interconnected. In addition, China is behind the United States in economic and military terms, it does not have an ideology that it could offer the world, it has not created an alliance, and is not a messianic centre of power. Nguyen Hung Son, Director General of the Institute for the South China Sea at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, added that there is no clear bipolarity in the region, because “the world does not want to split”. Everyone is convinced that it could be better to protect their interests if they do not take one side or the other. However, it is entirely possible that China perceives the pandemic as an opportunity to expand its influence in the region and could act aggressively. There is also an increase in militarism, and a risk of accidental clashes between American and Chinese forces is possible. The Vietnamese expert called on both sides to exercise restraint and play by the rules.

An interesting look at the situation in Russia in connection with the new bipolarity was presented by Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Club. According to him, historically, Russia’s security has never depended on the order and balance of power. It has been poorly integrated into the global economy and politics and provides its own main goal – security – on its own. However, it needs order to achieve non-core goals, those of development. In the current situation, Russia expects that globalisation will not allow the confrontation to escalate into a new Cold War and that neither side will prevail in it. Against this background, Moscow will have great diplomatic significance, developing relations with third countries, including those in the Asia-Pacific region.