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Two Superpower Politics

  • KIPS CSS Admin
  • Apr, 2019
  • 1295
  • Opinion


It is highly unlikely, due to the overwhelming advantage that America has in the military power relations, that the international system as a whole will become non-polar. Thus, a just question remains to be answered - where are we going from here?

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into American Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Øystein Tunsjø − Professor and Head of the Asia programme at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies and author of The Return of Bipolarity in World Politics: China, the United States and Geo-structural Realism - is the 176th in ‘The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series’.


Structurally, the bipolar system in the 21st and the 20th Century is similar. Two states are much more powerful compared to any other state and no third power is able to challenge the top two. However, as the world enters a new era of American-Chinese superpower rivalry, it differs from the American-Soviet rivalry of the second half of the 20th Century. Its core difference can be summarised in the phrase, ‘It’s geopolitics, stupid.’ The new superpower rivalry is largely at sea, rather than on land. As a result, in some respect there will likely be more instability at the new power centre in East Asia than there was in Europe during the previous bipolar period. Water barriers are likely to prevent a major war, but it increases the risk of a limited war directly involving America and China in maritime East Asia.


The most important feature of the new superpower rivalry, increasing the risk of a limited war, is that it will be concentrated in the maritime domain of East Asia and not on the landmass of Europe. During the previous superpower rivalry concentrated on Europe, America was inferior to the Soviet Union’s land power. America had to rely on nuclear weapons in order to deter and prevent a Soviet attack on Western Europe. There was a high risk that any crisis or conflict could escalate into a major, plausibly nuclear, war. A galloping arms race, severe tension, and profound hostility followed, but Europe remained stable and peaceful.

In contrast to Europe [and the former Soviet Union], none of America’s most important allies in East Asia (Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia) borders China. Instead, water and American naval preponderance protect these allies from Chinese formidable land power. Consequently, America needs not rely on nuclear weapons as heavily as it did in Europe in order to deter China. One might think that this is good for peace and stability, but the temptation of brinkmanship and the risk of war increases when the contenders rely on conventional rather than nuclear deterrence.

A future conflict might erupt in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, or the Taiwan Strait. In any case, the most likely scenario is a limited war constrained to the sea, that would not result in an invasion of China, America, or its allies, but would likely result in devastating attacks on the military infrastructure of both sides. If core interests are at stake, decision makers might be willing to risk a limited war or a constrained battle at sea in maritime East Asia, calculating that escalation to a major war is avoidable.

Evaluate current media characterisation of American-Chinese relations in a new ‘Cold War’:

The ‘Cold War’ analogy neglects the important geopolitical differences between the previous bipolar system concentrated on continental Europe and the current bipolar system concentrated on maritime East Asia. Two additional aspects are also important. First, some observers think that Russia and America are in a ‘new’ Cold War. This view is misguided. China’s nominal gross domestic product is about ten times larger than Russia’s and its defence spending roughly four times Russia’s. The only power posing a major challenge to America today is China, not Russia.

Second, while the new superpower rivalry contains political, military, strategic, economic, and technological competition, the current era of globalisation and economic interdependence is vastly different from the independence and East-West divide of the Cold War era. Together with the geopolitical differences, this will give the new bipolar system different characteristics compared with the Cold War.

Briefly explain how policymakers should understand ‘geo-structural realism’:

Geo-structural realism contends that although it is important whether the international system is bipolar or ...

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