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The winner of China–US conflict rides on national leadership

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U.S. President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping shake hands after making joint statements at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 9 November 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj).

In Brief

Strategic competition between the United States and China is driving the global order towards bipolarity. The present China–US trade conflict foreshadows the emergence of an unstable global order in the coming decade. It is still too difficult to predict which side will win the competition. But it is possible to explain what will determine the direction of transition from the post-Cold War unipolar order dominated by the United States.


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Moral realism explains the transition from a configuration with one dominant state to a configuration with a rising state challenging that dominance. International power transitions are the result of the rising state’s national leadership possessing a greater capability to enact reform than the dominant state. Under this framework, the effectiveness of national leadership is measured by a government’s capacity for reform.

A government’s capacity for reform in an era of globalisation and digital economics is important because national wealth as well as comprehensive capability are generated mainly from communication technology invention. As communication technology is so crucial to national wealth and security, new norms are now required to maintain the global order. Moral realism argues that under these conditions, leading by example is more important than punishment in establishing new international norms. Leading by example relies on other states voluntarily following the principles of either the dominant or the rising state because they believe those principles will help them become prosperous amid changing international conditions.

National leadership guides a government’s reform, by which a state will be able to multiply the efficiency of its economic, military and cultural resources. With dramatically improved capability, a state will be able to provide international leadership for establishing new international norms. This means that national leadership guides the state to reform itself under globalisation’s changes, which greatly affects military, economic and cultural resources. In contrast, when the political capability of a state decreases, and the national leadership fails to adapt to changing conditions, the efficiency of these resources decline.

Treating the national leadership of superpowers as the most important factor unifies three levels of analysis: individual policy makers, states, and international systems. Assessing the national leadership of both the Chinese and US governments can then help us to understand the global order’s current trend towards bipolarity.

National leadership can be categorised as inactive, conservative, proactive or aggressive. These different types of leadership inform how a state behaves at an international level. Changes in the global order are mainly dependent on changes in international leadership. International leadership can be categorised as humane authority, hegemony, anemocracy or tyranny.

Both the US and Chinese governments presently claim to be reforming their countries. The side that achieves more reform will have a better chance of winning the strategic competition involved in bipolarity.

But now, the competition seems more likely to be decided by the government that generates less retrogression rather than more reform. Neither the United States nor China appear prepared to undertake the international leadership needed to establish norms for global governance. Since 2017, both countries have spent great efforts on bilateral rather than multilateral diplomacy, favouring a sovereign normative order over a liberal normative order.

The recent popularity of strongmen in major states will also devalue the strategic credibility of foreign policy and only increase the uncertainty of international politics in the coming decade. Such leaders’ personal interests may often overwhelm national interests, including strategic credibility. As personal interests are mutable, policy becomes unpredictable. Suspicion and mutual distrust may become a common phenomenon between states. This trend is currently illustrated by trade conflicts between the United States and other major powers.

Although the coming decade may witness a bipolar world with neither superpower eager to take on global leadership, millennials in China and the United States may provide progressive leadership when they come to power in the 2030s or 2040s. US liberalism still wields greater influence than any other ideology, and China’s rise will expand the international influence of the country’s traditional values.

There is a possibility the next generation of Chinese or US millennials will provide international leadership in the category of humane authority, as advocated by moral realism. Should such international leadership come to pass, it will lead to an international order based on norms of fairness, justice and civility.

Yan Xuetong is Distinguished Professor and Dean of the Institute of International Relations, Tsinghua University.

One response to “The winner of China–US conflict rides on national leadership”

  1. I wouldn’t put too much hope in American millennials. I believe the trajectory of America will be embroiled in continual culture wars, i.e. abortion, LGBTQ issues, to be able to think beyond itself. Furthermore, there could possibly be destabilizing battles fought over wealth distribution. The wealthy will continue to leverage their power to protect their interests, and the populace may forcefully rip out the status quo. America is much too stuck in its own problems to know how to lead anymore. Everyone is right in their own eyes and so confusion and infighting will continue.

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