China’s growing power was bound to give it greater international influence. The Saudi Arabia-Iran deal—which sought to re-establish diplomatic relations between the two nations and was apparently brokered by China—is only an indication of this simple reality. Over the coming decade, we can expect many other signs of Beijing’s global influence to appear as its power and role in the international order become normalised. This is not just because China will seek a position commensurate with its strength but also because many countries will try to offset America’s predominance and play Washington and Beijing against each other. Welcome to the new 21st-century version of bipolar international politics.
Multipolarity is an aspirational goal
Recognising the nature of the current global order is important because it has consequences for how countries behave and how international politics works. A common error in Indian foreign policy rhetoric, but not exclusively an Indian mistake, is that the current order is multipolar. Sometimes, this belief morphs into an “aspiration”, as Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar put it some time back.
This is doubly dangerous because letting desires drive foreign policy is both a refusal to look at reality and, even more so, misperceiving reality. The consequences of taking leave of reality in foreign policy are not likely to be pretty. China’s economic power is now very close to that of the US, and its military power is catching up rapidly too. Moreover, these two are in a class by themselves, and no one else is even close, which is what makes the world bipolar.
The patterns and consequences of a bipolar world should be familiar because we lived through one for almost five decades after World War II. This was a world where the US and the Soviet Union competed fiercely, not only directly with each other in building up their military power but also diplomatically in every region in the world. It arguably made regional conflicts more violent, but the other side of the coin is often forgotten. This was also a world in which countries that were not directly allied with either of them had the choice to play one side against the other. This allowed smaller or weaker powers far greater autonomy, choice and benefits than would otherwise have been the case. It is no wonder that nonalignment became the developing world’s default option during the last bipolar period.
Nonalignment declined rapidly with the end of bipolarity for the same reason: There was only one power in a unipolar world, so the bipolar game of playing one against the other was no longer possible. For many countries, including India, having closer, better ties with the US—the reigning unipolar power— made more sense because Washington offered better returns. There was little other choice.
The world is returning to bipolarity
The return to bipolar politics will mean a return to many of these patterns. Expect China to play a large role in Africa and the Middle East, and possibly even Latin America and Europe. Some parts of the world will find it more difficult to be neutral between the two sides. Europe was the frontline of the US-Soviet bipolar competition. This meant that much of Europe had no choice but to take sides, willingly or not. Nevertheless, a few held out: Scandinavia, Yugoslavia, Albania and other smaller States were able to manage this difficult task.
This time around, it is the Indo-Pacific that is the frontline. This means that for Indo-Pacific powers, staying neutral will be as difficult as it was for Europe. Nevertheless, many ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries are trying to find that middle ground, though it is gradually shrinking.
A key difference between the last bipolar period and the current one is that both the US and China are deeply economically integrated, as are many others, especially in Southeast Asia. But over time, these economic ties will fray, even if they may not entirely decouple. That will create dilemmas for Southeast Asian countries, which would prefer not to have to take sides because it hurts their subsidiary economies. But they might eventually be forced to choose.
The last bipolar period also reveals some of the limits of the two polar powers. The availability of choice means that regional forces are not beholden to either polar power and can modulate their relationships, balancing one side against the other. This also limits the capacity of the two polar powers, this time the US and China, to engage in regional peacemaking, as Beijing is trying to do between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Think back to India and Pakistan in the 1960s. The US hoped to leverage its assistance to India during and after the 1962 India-China war to create a Kashmir settlement between India and Pakistan. On the other hand, Rawalpindi and Delhi preferred to keep fighting, and the US failed. After the 1965 India-Pakistan war, the Soviet Union stepped in, trying the same tactic. But Moscow was no more successful than Washington was.
Thus, Beijing’s efforts to build peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran are not much of a surprise. It reflects not only China’s strength but the desire of regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran to find alternatives to American dominance by seeking out another influential patron, one lacking until now.
This effort is unlikely to succeed. The differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran are far too deep to be bridged by any external power. Tehran, and Riyadh even more so, can seek other sponsors to express their unhappiness with Washington. But that is not a sufficient driver to resolve their deep-seated fear and hate of each other. The Saudis will soon seek a compromise in their difficult ties with the US. However, the relationship will no longer be as unbalanced as it has been in the last few decades of unipolarity.
Also read: China’s military power is catching up with its economic might. New era is indeed one of war
What the world must learn
There are lessons here for both the US and China. For the US, the coming of bipolarity means that it has to relearn some of the lessons it learned during its competition with the Soviet Union, hopefully without making the same mistakes all over again. On the other hand, China has been disciplined and careful in its extra-regional ventures, prioritising the pursuit of hegemony in the Indo-Pacific. But the temptations of an extra-regional, global role are great. Whether China will be able to manage these carefully remains to be seen.
There were many reasons for the Soviet collapse, but a contributing factor was the cost of its extended empire, having to prop up economically incompetent regimes such as Cuba, Angola and many others. China will face similar problems.
For India, it is time to recognise that bipolarity is here to stay for the next few decades, and that competition will likely intensify. Much like Southeast Asia, India’s choices are somewhat more constrained than those of countries in the Middle East and Africa because its proximity and conflict with China prevent New Delhi from playing one off against the other. The sooner India gives up its fantasies about multipolarity, the better.
The author is a professor of International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Views are personal.