A key factor that contributed to a generally stable bipolarity during the Cold War was a tacit recognition between the two superpowers of each other’s right to lead in their respective spheres of influence, even if that recognition was grudging. They kept out of each other’s “neighborhoods” – the United States in Western Europe, East Asia and Latin America; the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe – with each taking steps not to intervene in the other’s turf. Such tacit acceptance on both sides prevented wars from breaking out in the areas which were most critical to their respective interests.
Today, a tacit understanding of each other’s legitimate right to lead is absent between the US and China. This dynamic is particularly worrisome in East Asia, where each has overlapping spheres of influence in the Indo-Pacific and both are contending for dominance.
Bipolarity in the current context is also highly unstable because of the domestic politics of both countries. Covid-19 has undermined faith in governments, exacerbated social issues and exposed fractures in society, such as inequality and uneven access to healthcare. The fault lines in American society were made worse by polarized views on masks and vaccines.
Domestic troubles are also brewing in China as it struggles to maintain a zero-Covid-19 policy. China’s economic slowdown, power shortages, pursuit of “common prosperity”, and property market debt have led to a spike in the Chinese leadership’s worries about domestic stability. These challenges come at a time when the Chinese Communist Party is celebrating several important milestones including its 20th National Congress in 2022.
Governments facing unhappy and discontented populations are thus increasingly under pressure and sensitive to public opinion and nationalist sentiments. This increased sensitivity is playing out in the foreign-policy arena. Governments have in the past constructed an external enemy as a form of distraction or to unite their people. Indeed, the images that the Americans and Chinese have of each other have hardened, with each blaming the other as the source of the virus and the one responsible for destabilizing the international order.
The rise of middle powers
If the current bipolarity is unstable, what does this mean for the world order? The pandemic has unequivocally demonstrated that middle powers can lead, not just in regional matters but also globally, when they cooperate. When uncertainties arise in the international system, middle powers play a much bigger role in stabilizing the international order as the resources and attention of the great powers are stretched. In light of the pandemic and the intensification of US-China rivalry, middle powers have continued to uphold free trade and globalization, safeguard the rules-based order, shore up international regimes, and sought to improve global governance.
With the exception of Australia, which has chosen to side with the United States, middle powers have thus far stood their ground and refused to cave in to pressure from the two superpowers to take sides. Free-trade agreements, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), were brokered by middle powers.
Middle powers have also worked together to ensure that the global supply chain remained intact in the midst of the pandemic and the trade war. To manage the risks of technological bifurcation resulting from US-China competition, they are also working together to ensure that there are more interoperable systems and standards to promote cross-border data flows and digital trade. In the World Trade Organization (WTO), middle powers such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan and South Korea are working on reforming the multilateral trading system. Australia, Japan and Singapore are pushing forward consensus on e-commerce regulations. Singapore has also pursued digital economy agreements – treaties that establish digital trade rules and digital economy collaborations between two or more economies – with Chile, New Zealand and South Korea, and are in negotiations with several others.
With middle powers playing a larger role in maintaining international order, could this signal a transition to a multipolar world order?
This would depend on how the current bipolarity plays out. If the United States and China could manage their rivalry and cooperate in areas of common interest such as climate change and preparing the world for future pandemics, we may transit to a more stable bipolarity. Not all competition is bad if both superpowers could be productive and cooperative at the same time as had happened in the past, when the United States and the Soviet Union worked together to eradicate smallpox.
The US and China made an unexpected deal during COP26, releasing a joint statement that asserted their intention to collaborate on climate challenges during this crucial decade when significant action on the issue is needed. This is a step in the right direction. However, if the two superpowers continue to engage in virulent and counter-productive competition without learning to cooperate, middle powers will continue to step in, offering leadership and balance. In this case, the geopolitical future will necessarily be multipolar with uncertain implications for the stability of the international system.