I wrote an essay on "The Structural Consequences of China's Rise" for a conference on "the US Rebalance and the Asia-Pacific Region", organized by the Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi. The papers have now been put together by CPPR and is available as a book. My essay, more a brief and slightly abstract think-piece, is pasted below.
I have tried to explore the impact of China's rise from a Structural Realist perspective. One of my concerns with Structural Realism is its focus on just great power politics. Though Kenneth Waltz and other have their justification for such a focus (that great powers are more consequential) I think it is time that Structural Realists, and other Realists, started focusing more on regional politics. This is one among a few of my early explorations of how this might be done, so comments are very welcome.
The Structural Consequences of China's RiseRajesh Rajagopalan
China's rise, over the medium term, can lead to three possible structural consequences,
depending on different permutations of Chinese and US economic growth rates. These are (in random
order) a continuation of the current unipolar order; a bipolar system with China joining the United
States (US) as a polar power; and a multipolar system in which China and one or more powers join the
US as polar powers. Over the long term, there are other possibilities such as a non-polar order or a
unipolar system with China as the unipole, but these are not considered here.
Different international systems have varying consequences for maintaining global peace and
stability, developing norms as well as building and sustaining international institutions. On the other
hand, for India and the Asian region, the consequences are much less varied because the only
variations depend on how wide the disparity of power between China and the other Asian powers, such
as India, will become. This suggests a greater incentive for regional powers, such as India (and others)
to partner with the US as well as to develop intra-regional partnerships. Whether such partnerships
develop will depend on Washington, which might not have the same structural imperative.
These different structural consequences are examined by considering each possibility in turn:
unipolar, bipolar and multipolar systems. These different orders refer to the global balance of power,
but the consequences are also felt at the regional level. What follows is more of a thought exercise, a
set of relatively brief and cryptic hypotheses, rather than a fully-fleshed out argument, which requires a
A persistent unipolar order
One possibility for the near and medium term future is a continuation of the unipolar order, with
the US maintaining its position as the only great power with global reach. Though the relative power of
the US has eroded almost continually since the end of the Second World War, it has not declined
sufficiently for the current order to be anything but unipolar. Part of the reason why the relative decline
of the US has not altered its position as the unipolar power is that this decline has not benefited any
single power but several powers, including many US allies. The rise of Europe, Japan, Southeast
Asian states, as well as many states in the developing world has cumulatively reduced the US share of
world power. If this decline had favoured a single power, its effect on the global balance of power would
have been profound. However, because this benefit was shared by many countries, its overall effect on
US hegemony was not as significant. As importantly, most other states that gained from the decline of
American share of the world's wealth are America's allies, who have supported, not opposed the global
position of the U.S.
Nevertheless, China's dramatic growth, if it continues at a brisk pace and for a prolonged period,
could eventually lead to a bipolar world. While this is a possibility, it is not a certainty. In the last seven
decades, there were at least three other powers that sought to match the US. The surprising speed
with which the Soviet Union caught up with the US in high-technology in the 1950s led to expectations
that Moscow would surpass Washington. However, by the late 1960s, the inefficiencies of the Soviet
command economy had ensured that this scenario would not happen. Though the costly US
involvement in Vietnam coupled with the rapid growth of Soviet client states in the late 1970s made it
appear that Moscow was on the march, its economic system was already creaking. The Soviet
collapse in the late 1980s ended this particular challenge short of war.
In the 1980s, Japan was viewed as the next superpower. It is often forgotten that one of the most
prominent scholarly books of the period, Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, was at
least partly a cautionary tale about US power. Japan's growth over the previous three decades was
unprecedented, and its unique state-directed but private sector-based industrial development with an
export orientation was quickly adopted by South Korea, Southeast Asian states and eventually by
China. Yet Japan's rise also ended in the late 1980s as its economy stumbled. While Japan remains a
rich and powerful state, and will likely remain as such for some time, no one today would consider
Japan as a candidate for polar power.
The third challenge to US power, much less serious than the two above-mentioned, came from
the European Union. The EU has neither developed nor is it likely to develop the essential elements of
a state, such as a common foreign policy or military force. Nevertheless, the Euro was, at least briefly,
considered a possible replacement for the US dollar as the primary international currency. Even
without significant diplomatic or military power, the replacement of the US dollar with the Euro would
have significantly eroded American power in world politics. However, this challenge was even more
short-lived than the two other challenges to American power.
It is also worth recalling that although balance of power systems have been dominating the
international order over the last few hundred years, hegemony has been the norm over the longer
term. Whether in Europe, East Asia or South Asia, great powers have emerged that managed to
achieve and maintain hegemony over hundreds of years (though this hegemony was mostly regional
rather than global, as John Mearsheimer points out in Tragedy of Great Power Politics). The global
expansion of the international community possibly increases the difficulty of achieving global
hegemony both by increasing the number of states that need to be dominated and by requiring any
aspiring hegemon to achieve dominance across regions, rather than within a region. The
democratization of violence also reduces the likelihood of any power acquiring global hegemony.
However, balance of power systems are not inevitable, and US dominance (if not hegemony, as
Mearsheimer defines it) could continue for a considerable period. Such dominance cannot be
predicted because it depends partly on the internal dynamics of the US and potential challengers such
as China but it cannot be dismissed either. Hence, while there is a good likelihood that US dominance
of the global system would end soon, it is still not inevitable.
What are the consequences of continuing US dominance? At the global level, the dominant
status of the US should trigger attempts at counterbalancing it, though many states will also seek to
join the bandwagon to benefit from US power. But any effort to counterbalance the US will suffer from
the serious disadvantage that no other power is as yet strong enough to counter it. Indeed, no power is
even strong enough to lead any efforts to create an alliance against the US. Ever since the end of the
bipolar order, American Realists such as John Mearsheimer, Kenneth Waltz, Christopher Layne and
others have argued that other great powers will chafe under American hegemony and respond by
building a counterbalance to Washington. More than two decades have passed since these
predictions but no such counter-coalition has arisen mainly because no other power is strong enough
to act as the anchor. However this situation could undergo change as China grows ever stronger and
gains the potential to become such an anchor. Already a nascent China-Russia axis is developing,
although these two powers are also wary about each other. If the balance of wealth and power
continues to shift towards China, such counter-coalitions could potentially end American hegemony,
although this scenario will only develop gradually.
Picturing a unipolar global structure helps pinpoint some of the consequences for great power
politics but the analysis would be incomplete without understanding how this global system interacts
with regional systems. Much of international politics is regional, a fact that is obscured by the
(American) Realist's exclusive focus on the global order. For most states, the regional order probably
impacts with greater immediacy than the global system. The logic of politics in regional orders is not
very different from the global order (except that the shadow of the global order impacts the regional
system and complicates matters, while the global systemic order stands alone). States worry about
other states with the potential to cause harm, usually neighbours or great powers within the region (and
occasionally, from outside). States are also anxious to counter such threats because there are usually
far greater power inequalities within regions than between great powers at the global level. The
consequence is that weaker regional powers look to great powers outside the region to help them
counter local threats. This is an important regional dynamic that has helped to maintain US hegemony:
regional imbalances and insecurities constrained regional powers because their weaker adversaries
looked to the US to balance the regional power.
This regional dynamic and its global effect can be seen clearly in the Asian regional system. As
China grows stronger, the Asian regional order becomes increasingly unipolar, creating insecurities for
its weaker states. Japan, Vietnam, India, Australia are all cognizant of the consequences of China's
rise, and being neighbours, have much more reason to worry than states outside the Asian system.
Consequently, they look towards each other, as well as to Washington for assistance. However, these
states also face an uncomfortable truth that stems from their relative weakness: even if they aligned
together, they are no match for China. Regional geography and China's massive size adds to their
troubles because they are not conveniently positioned to come to each other's assistance. Depending
on the US to do the balancing is also problematic as Washington has its own interests. The weaker
states of the Asia Pacific have little choice but to tolerate the vagaries of US strategy, leadership and
The Asian system is itself not homogenous, being made up of several regional sub-systems,
making for a three-tiered structure (global, Asian regional and Asian sub-regional). The sub-regional
tier – comprising South Asia, Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia – has its own local power imbalances
that provide opportunities for China. Southeast Asia is relatively more even in power distribution but
South Asia and Northeast Asia include one powerful state (India and Japan respectively), with weaker
powers that look to China to help balance the equation. In short, though unipolarity has one effect at the
global level, this might not be the same at the regional and sub-regional levels due to the complexities
of local power balances and politics. Any structural study of international politics must consider all
these different levels rather than just the global level. The next section examines how a bipolar system
might affect these three different levels.
A bipolar world
A bipolar order remains quite distant because China needs to develop military capabilities at
least equivalent to that of the Soviet Union (which was itself much weaker than the US). At a minimum,
China would have to develop the capabilities to project power outside the Asian continent, which would
take at least another decade, if not more.
Nevertheless, a bipolar system with China and the US as the two poles is one possibility for the
evolution of the international order. Hence, the structural consequences of such a world should be
considered. American structural realists, who consider only the global consequences, would suggest
that a new bipolarity would broadly reflect the 1945-1990 bipolar order. This might indeed be a valid
proposition at the global level, but the consequences for sub-systems, such as the Asian regional
system or the South Asian and other Asian sub-regions is likely to be very different.
At the global systemic level, China will be successful in building up alliances and strategic
partnerships away from its own neighbourhood, in Europe, Middle East, Africa, and even Latin
America. However, the Asian region will witness some changes. If China truly becomes one of the
poles in a bipolar order, it will likely lead to alliances between other weaker regional powers and the US
for obvious reasons. The difference with other regions should be clear: states in other regions will have
the opportunity to play off the US and China against each other to get the best benefits, much as Third
World countries did during the Cold War. However, in Asia, as in Europe during the Cold War, local
powers will be much more constrained. For them, the US will be a much more attractive partner
because China will be the much more immediate threat.
Again, some weaker powers in Asian sub-regions would still find China a much more attractive
partner because they will be concerned more with local balance. So Pakistan, North Korea (and
potentially, even South Korea) will continue to look to China to balance their regional adversaries. For
them too, the choice of playing China against the US is unlikely to arise. Thus, for most Asian countries,
the rise of China as a bipolar power will have very different consequences from that experienced by
regions removed from the Asian continent.
A multipolar order
Amultipolar order is often misunderstood as a non-polar order, as if it indicates the end of power
politics. Indeed, a multipolar order will lead to much more intense power competition and engender
much greater insecurity than either a unipolar or bipolar order. Amultipolar order is the fervent wish of
many second- and third-rank powers, including the BRICS nations because they aspire to become
poles themselves, with a greater say in global affairs. However, a multipolar order is even more unlikely
than a bipolar order. When the likelihood of China growing to rough parity with the US is difficult
enough, it will be that much more difficult for much lesser powers to join the high table. Even if it is
assumed that not all powers need to be as rich and powerful as the US (there have always been great
variations in the relative power of great powers), the barriers to great power status are still formidable.
Still, since this is one of the putative future orders, it is relevant to consider its consequences.
Even though a multipolar order will be much more unstable, the presence of nuclear weapons is
likely to avoid the worst consequence of great power competition: a great power war, just as it did in the
bipolar order. (Though Realists have followed Kenneth Waltz to assert that bipolarity is more stable,
nuclear weapons were probably more responsible than bipolarity for preventing war during the USSoviet
Cold War). However, intense competition, short of an actual great power war, is quite likely in
such an order. Moreover, this competition is likely to be much sharper in regions with more than one
power. For several centuries prior to World War 2, the great powers were concentrated in Europe,
which saw much more intense power competition than other regions. If other regions witnessed
similar competition, it was usually a by-product of the European powers carrying out their European
fights elsewhere: in the Western Hemisphere, in Asia and finally in Africa. The current expectations
suggest that new poles in a multipolar world will be concentrated in Asia, with China, Japan and India
as the possible key powers.
In such a multipolar order, power competition and insecurity will be aggravated in Asia because
of the concentration of polar powers. The US, as a non-Asian power, will have the luxury of standingaloof
as an 'off-shore balancer'. Moreover, although the US will be the chosen strategic partner and ally
of many Asian powers in a bipolar or unipolar order, it will no longer command that position in a
multipolar order. The geography of the Asian continent, with China at the centre and Japan and India at
two corners, might reduce the likelihood of the latter two becoming a threat to each other, making for
greater strategic concurrence between them rather than between either of them and China. On the
other hand, it also depends on how relative power develops. Japan, in the first half of the 20th century,
became strong enough to become a threat to both China and India. Though such an imbalance is
somewhat unlikely to develop in the future, it cannot be ruled out. If Japan or India were to become far
stronger, China would possibly become an alliance choice for the weaker power in the triangle.
However, if all three were roughly equal, or if China were the strongest of the three (as current trends
suggest), then it would be natural for Japan and India to come together. Notwithstanding the relative
power balances between the three, competition between them is likely to be intense, making for
insecurity all around.
Other structural possibilities have not been considered here for lack of space. A more likely
outcome than unipolarity, bipolarity or multipolarity, is a non-polar order in which US power declines
without any other power taking its place. Such a scenario has unfortunately not received sufficient
attention. In such an order, no power will be strong enough to reach beyond their regions to affect
politics elsewhere, which could potentially see the decline of global institutions as well as economic
and security regimes. Similarly, a fifth possibility is not discussed here, that of China becoming a
unipolar power, which is a much more unlikely (though not impossible) scenario.
It may be concluded that a structural approach to international politics cannot remain confined to
just the global structure or to politics between the great powers of that order. Though such analysis
provides some benefits, it offers no understanding of the structural consequences at the regional and
sub-regional level, or indeed between different regions. A bipolar or multipolar order will have very
different consequences in Asia than elsewhere – just as bipolarity had different effects in Europe than
in other regions of the world. A much more nuanced structural analysis is necessary to understand