Over the weekend, Reference News (参考消息), the newspaper published by the official Xinhua News Agency that clips news coverage from around the world, ran an interview with Yan Xuetong (阎学通), director of the Institute for International Relations at Tsinghua University and one of China’s leading foreign policy experts. In the interview, Yan discusses the rise of China and substantial changes — but not yet fundamental, he says — to the global political and economic system.

At the website of Reference News, the interview carried the headline, “Push for Independence in Taiwan Would Be the Biggest Crisis in the Future for China-US Relations.” At the website Aisixiang (爱思想) the headline was instead: “‘Chaos and Disorder’ Are Becoming the Normal State of the World.”

The following is a partial translation of the interview with Yan, for whom the return of bipolarity in world affairs is clearly a fait accompli.

Editor’s Note:

As a well-known scholar of international relations, and director of the Institute for International Relations at Tsinghua University, Yan Xuetong (阎学通) has long observed the shift of global power and researched China’s foreign policy strategies. In his books Inertia of History: China and the World in the Next Ten Years and The Transfer of Global Power, he explicates his theory of “moral realism” (道义现实主义) and his views on “political determinacy” (政治决定论), that “the success of a rising power comes when its political leadership is stronger than that of dominant countries.”

This year, as the West bursts out with the concept of “sharp power” (锐实力), whipping up a fresh round of “China Threat Theory” (中国威胁论), and is reduced to a “New Cold War” (新冷战) mentality, the familiar old predicament of China’s rise (崛起困境) has emerged once again. How can [China] accurately grasp the development of world affairs and determine a strategy for China’s rise? How can China face the risks and challenges that attend its rise? How can China’s international leadership be constituted? With these questions, our reporters sought out Director Yan Xuetong.

The Nature of the Global Order Has Not Fundamentally Changed

Cankao Xiaoxi: In the world today, it seems that “chaos and disorder” have become the ordinary state of things. How do you see the state of affairs today?

Yan Xuetong: We see different changes in the state of the world along different dimensions. When we compare today to the 20 years following the break up of the Soviet Union (1992-2011), we see that the world is moving now from a unipolar situation in which the United States is supreme, to a bipolar world in which the supreme powers are China and the United States. We are moving away from a state in which international norms are led by Western liberalism (西方自由主义) to a state where international norms are no longer respected; the international system is moving from a West-centered model to one in which power is redistributed; and [at the same time], the nature of the international system (国际体系) remains the hegemonic system of the post world war period, with no fundamental change in its nature.

The making of the new world order will take some time. The process of redistribution of power is the process of power devolution (权力分散) and the reconstitution of influence (势力重组), and so the normal state of things is chaos and disorder. In the midst of this process, as there is a lack of a dominant set of values, the bond of old norms is weakened, and new norms have not yet been built. The use of strategies of competition that do not respect norms or uphold commitments will become the normal state, and the worship of resourcefulness and lack of strategic credibility (战略信誉) will become a path that many countries are inclined to.

As nuclear weapons will prove a deterrent to war by any major power, these countries will tend to use economic sanctions as a means of competition, and protectionism will carry the day. Major powers will not wish to bear the costs of global governance and the preservation of order. Global governance and regional cooperation will stop in their tracks, and it’s possible that regionalization will see a reverse trend, including in the European Union. We could quite possibly be in a situation in which there is no global leader. The situation in the world right now has only undergone a change in degree (程度变化), and not a fundamental change in nature, a change in terms of the order but not a change in terms of systems — and this can’t be compared with the changes brought on by the two world wars. If we compare the situation of the past 50 years to what we face now, we can say that we are in an intermediate phase of change, because the changes now have not yet reached the immensity of what we saw with the end of the Cold War.

A “Bipolar System” Will Take Shape Within Five Years

Cankao Xiaoxi: Back in 2013 you predicted that by 2023 a bipolar system between China and the United States would establish itself. Is this still your view, and why?

Yan Xuetong: After the Cold War, the United States became the absolute leading power in the world, but its leadership position of late is not like that of the 1990s. In 2013, I predicted complete bipolarization by 2023. Looking at things now, we can ascertain even more clearly that multipolarity is impossible, and a bipopular system (两极格局) within five years is extremely possible.

We can judge the international system by comparing the strength (实力) of the major powers and their strategic relationships. Lately, the world’s third-ranked power cannot in terms of national strength be compared on the same level as China or the United States. By 2023, this gap will widen even further. Strategic relationships have also become quite clearly a matter of other major nations choosing between the United States and China. The international system after 2018 will be decided by the relative development speeds of the major powers. I believe that there is no science to determining what the international situation will be like after 10 years. The most I’ll project ahead is 10 years. Within 10 years, there is no way that China will be on par with the United States. The growth of our country’s comprehensive national strength (综合国力) has already slowed down, and there is a risk that this rate of growth in strength could continue to decrease.

Once the bipolar system is established, there will be a real question of whether the concept of “the West” as it is now used in international relations will be applicable. “The West” was originally a geographic concept, later it became a cultural concept, and in the wake of the Cold War it became a political concept. The present [process of] bipolarization has meant that Western countries and developing countries alike are experiencing internal splits, and the remaking of political strength will very possibly not happen any longer along Western and non-Western lines, but along ideological lines. . . . When Western countries no longer influence international politics in a unified manner, the political concept of “the West” will no longer objectively suit the study of international relations.

The Risks of Trump Uncertainty

Cankao Xiaoxi: You have said before that with the rise of China, we will face greater troubles and threats. Trade tensions between China and the United States have impacted the bilateral relationship. In the future, what risks and challenges do we need to prepare for?

Yan Xuetong: From the standpoint of international relations, within the next two years, one of the biggest problems we will face is how to deal with Trump’s unpredictability. Because he essentially makes decisions according to his own, there is little continuity between these decisions, and it is very difficult to predict, and so we must ensure that bilateral tensions do not spread to the ideological sphere. The core of the Cold War was about ideology, and only by preventing ideological tensions can we prevent a Cold War. Over the next five years, ideas of independence in Taiwan could develop further, bringing the risk of a full-fledged standoff between China and the United States, which we must be one guard against. Over the next 10 years, the biggest danger on the outside will probably be the question of Taiwan independence. For this we need to build effective prevention mechanisms to avoid [a crisis].