The emergence of a binary world order

ByMohan Kumar
Sep 26, 2021 07:52 PM IST

The world is headed for two power centres — led by the US and China. But despite the latter’s rise, on all metrics, the US is far ahead at the moment

For both academics and foreign policy experts, the world order has always presented a definitional challenge. Thus, the period when there was a tussle between the United States (US) and the erstwhile Soviet Union was referred to as the Cold War.

The impending binary world order will succeed in splintering the strategic landscape and, for that reason, could be intrinsically unstable (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
The impending binary world order will succeed in splintering the strategic landscape and, for that reason, could be intrinsically unstable (Shutterstock)

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1989, the era of unrivalled supremacy of the US began. This period, which lasted till 2008-2009, was rightly called the unipolar moment. The years that followed 2009, coinciding with the rapid rise of China, was initially characterised as a G2 system with the US and that country expected to significantly shape the world order. This did not last long, with serious friction developing between the US and China. This led to analysts describing the situation as a messy “multipolar world order” in full-fledged transition.

While it is clear now that the unipolar moment has definitely ended, and that the G2 system did not last long enough to have any meaningful impact, it seems as though we may be heading towards a binary world order. This binary world order has two power centres: One led by the US, and the other led by China. The impending binary world order will succeed in splintering the strategic landscape and, for that reason, could be intrinsically unstable. This instability may be expected to continue until there is some sort of equilibrium based on the balance of power leading to a settled multipolar world order.

The possible emergence of a binary world order deserves scrutiny. It must begin with a dispassionate assessment of the comprehensive national power of the two centres — the US and China. In terms of military power, it is hard to deny the overwhelming superiority of the US vis-à-vis China. Thus, military expenditure by the US outstrips China’s by a factor of three. It is true that in terms of boots, China has an edge. But then, the US does not need to station troops on its border, the way China has to. And in terms of airpower, the US has thrice as many aircraft as China. As for the navy, it is true that China has larger numbers, but this is only for corvettes and frigates (warships). In terms of destroyers and aircraft carriers, the US vastly outnumbers China, and in terms of submarines, there is a tie. In terms of nuclear arsenal, China has about 350 warheads as opposed to a whopping 6,500 for the US.

Add to this the prevalence of military bases that the US has the world over: By some estimates, it has 800 bases in some 80 countries. China has one confirmed base in Djibouti, though it may be acquiring others. To sum up, in military terms, there is simply no comparison between the US and China.

It is economics that often encourages people to talk of China being a superpower and say that it is a matter of time before China overtakes the US. In terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), this may well happen, though the timeframe may be a matter of conjecture. But even here, the tendency is to exaggerate the decline of the US, and to overestimate the rise of China.

Even if China’s GDP exceeds that of the US (which it will by virtue of its significantly larger population), the per capita GDP is perhaps a better indication of real economic power. Post-Covid-19, trade and investment will become more strategic in character as evidenced by resilient supply chains. It is, therefore, not obvious that China will possess more usable economic clout than the US.

In the area of soft power, China has a mountain to climb. Thanks to Wolf Warrior diplomacy, the opening of multiple fronts in the East China Sea, the South China Sea, Ladakh, and Taiwan Strait, not to mention an open confrontation with the US, China may have bitten off more than it can chew. Xi Jinping’s domestic woes and his own authoritarian instincts have not won him many friends at home, let alone abroad.

China has very few allies it can rely on. Pakistan is a rare example. But the relationship with Russia appears more like a marriage of convenience. Iran and North Korea will hope to benefit from their proximity to China, but can hardly be relied on.

The US, on the other hand, is retrenching from some parts of the world (such as Afghanistan) so that it can renew its focus on meeting the “China threat”. And in this endeavour, it can count on the explicit support of some countries and on the implicit support of others. The announcement of the AUKUS alliance — Australia, the United Kingdom, and the US — on September 16 took many by surprise, not least the Chinese who predictably went ballistic. On September 24, Quad leaders met in person in Washington. It is fair to say that the countries of AUKUS and Quad have no problem aligning themselves with Washington vis-à-vis China.

The European Union (EU) will continue to play the waiting game, under the guise of strategic autonomy. But it is the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and South Korea that are the big holdouts in this complex game. Be that as it may, it is hard to see the EU, Asean, and South Korea aligning themselves with China against the US. This then is the power dynamic that makes the impending binary world order fraught with tension and instability.

Mohan Kumar is chairman, RIS, dean/professor, OP Jindal Global University and a former diplomat

The views expressed are personal

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