Brave New Bipolar World
Jarema Piekutowski: Speaking of the recent US-China escalation, in the article “Another Long Peace”, you say that there is a smaller risk of an all-out world nuclear war due to geostrategical causes. The probability of long-time peace is also low, but there is a high probability of limited maritime war in the maritime East Asia. Why only a limited war?
Øystein Tunsjø: I think that the water-barrier prevents an escalation to a major war. In any war scenario, whether in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, where US and Chinese forces are coming into a crisis e.g. over Taiwan, it is possible that you can have a limited war or battle at sea. It will, of course, include attacks on the Chinese mainland and on the US bases in the region. But there is a fundamental difference: nobody is invading the Chinese mainland. So, if you’re Xi Jinping in five, ten years and you decide to launch an invasion over Taiwan, you’re risking that the Americans do intervene, and that you will possibly lose this battle or this amphibious operation.
The Chinese will not help Russia with a war with NATO in Europe; Russia will not help China in South China Sea against the Americans
In such a situation, maybe a major war would be an opportunity for China?
China could decide to move into a major nuclear war, but there is no reason, if nobody is invading China. Of course, there would be a domestic unrest, but the Chinese communist party have put such unrests down in the past, they could do it again. If it was Japan invading China like they did in 1940s and you were Xi Jinping, having nuclear weapons, you would consider using them. But if you’ll have some ships destroyed at sea, why should you want a nuclear holocaust with the United States? You would destroy your country completely. Why? Because you failed your mission to re-take Taiwan or to conquer some artificial island in the South China Sea?
However, in the 1950s it was very close to an all-out nuclear war.
I think it is a very different situation than it was in Europe. In Europe it was hard to imagine that Soviet forces were shooting American forces in West Berlin and it did not escalate to major war. Because the Americans have already said: “If you considered this, then you consider a nuclear war”. It was a mutually assured destruction, it was a massive retaliation. That was the doctrine.
Russia will be actually very happy if there is, for instance, a war between China and United States over Taiwan, because US will be preoccupied with that conflict and this opens an opportunity for Russia in Europe
But the problem today is that we don’t know what the Americans are going to do if the Chinese invade Taiwan. Geography provides an opportunity that both sides can risk a limited war and it does not escalate to a major invasion on China or an attack on the US mainland. And I think that both sides know that it’s not necessary. So, maybe not next year, but in ten or twenty years this contributes to geopolitical situation which heightens the risk of limited war.
Can the US wait so long?
The Chinese need more time, and the US are still confident about its preponderance at sea. However, things might erupt earlier if, for example, the Taiwan presidential election in 2020 goes wrong (independence becomes a strong issue), some accidents occur at sea and so on. The Chinese or the US might be forced to initiate a conflict earlier, but I think the most likely scenario is that a conflict might erupt in another decade or so.
What does the escalation of the US-China conflict depend on? What are the benchmarks and points of no return?
There are specific issues similar to the EP 3, Cowpens etc., brinkmanship that fails or other accidents. Taiwan is key, as I have explained. But the general point of no return we’ll be probably arriving at in a decade or two, is that the regional balance of power will increasingly favour China. The US will need to decide whether to stop China before it is too late. The fact that the rivalry is at sea, rather than at land, makes it possible for the US to destroy the Chinese navy and maintain preponderance at sea.
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How can the spiral of escalation be stopped?
It stops when the Chinese longer has the capability to suppress US control of maritime East Asia or if the Chinese can break out of the first island chain and push the US out of the region, forcing it to abandon its commitments to regional allies.
Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario, that Putin’s Russia joins China and tries this way to retrieve Russia’s power from the times of the Soviet Union; Putin is considered a potential ally for China. How do you asses the risk of such a potential scenario?
That scenario is very dangerous. It is very important to understand that the Russians will never help the Chinese in a war with the United States. So, all this talk about Wostok, the military exercises 2018… this is nothing. These countries are not exercising together to launch a war together. The Chinese will not help Russia with a war with NATO in Europe; Russia will not help China in South China Sea against the Americans.
Russia is in no position to challenge China along its borders. Russia cannot play the same role as China did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is an impossible strategy. There is no infrastructure or no people living in the Russian Far East
So why is it dangerous?
Russia will be actually very happy if there is, for instance, a war between China and United States over Taiwan, because US will be preoccupied with that conflict and this opens an opportunity for Russia in Europe. If the US move heavily into the Taiwan Strait and end up in limited war with China in East Asia, then, of course it will be very difficult for US to reinforce Europe at the same time. So that creates a window of opportunity. But the Chinese at that moment will not support the Russians militarily and their ambitions whether it is in Baltics, Black Sea, Eastern Europe or elsewhere. So if in ten years there’s a conflict in East Asia, then that would be a very dangerous situation for European countries, but not because there is an alliance between China and Russia; just because this provides opportunity for Russia. Similarly, if there is a conflict in five to ten years in Eastern Europe or Baltics, between NATO and Russia, I’m sure that China will use this opportunity to attack Taiwan.
What about an opposite scenario? Is it possible for Russia to attack China (or to assist the US in any other form) in a similar situation, or is this not what the US are out for in the long term (especially if the escalation is to be as slow as you say, i.e. that it will happen when the advantages of China will be even greater, and the US’s – smaller)?
Russia is in no position to challenge China along its borders. Russia cannot play the same role as China did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is an impossible strategy. There is no infrastructure or no people living in the Russian Far East. When the US played its China card in the previous bipolar system, then China had the manpower and industrial capacity to pressure USSR along the border. Russia will be in no such position in the new bipolar system. This is not only about a military balance. What would Moscow do if the Chinese send, let say, 800.000 “migrants” across the border? Moreover, Russia has no interest in such a conflict with China. What do they have to gain from this? Will the US “give” Eastern Europe to Russia in order to bring Russia on board in balancing China? No. And the US is in no position to give away Eastern Europe if the European states take more responsibility for their own defense and security.
The escalation stops when the Chinese longer has the capability to suppress US control of maritime East Asia or if the Chinese can break out of the first island chain and push the US out of the region, forcing it to abandon its commitments to regional allies
You say, that now, our world is bipolar. How would you describe this bipolar order in a bigger picture of the world, the consequences of the recent US-China escalation?
I think the kind of escalation we’re seeing is a part of a structural shift. The Americans are now waking up and starting to say and think about China challenging them as a peer competitor, whether it is in the technology, AI, military technology, or just in building a better navy; all these things are starting to preoccupy Americans. They’ve been looking at the China growing for a long time but they were not very alarmed. But what they’re seeing now is that we’re coming to the point – not that China will become more powerful than US, but that China is in the position to challenge US on the number of core issues, especially in East Asia. This is problematic for the Americans because they have global responsibilities and they can’t concentrate all the forces on East Asia while the Chinese are doing exactly that.
The economic and technological side of this is also becoming a challenge, so you reach the point where the Americans start to become concerned. We didn’t reach the point of power parity. And what we’re seeing now is just a start of it, I think we’ll see much more in the years to come. The Huawei case last week, many of these issues, vice-president Mike Pence’s speech, John Bolton’s speech. It is very much this kind of recognition that engagement policy is gone – we just have to start competing; there will be rivalry. This is what we have to prepare to.
Is it a new Cold War?
The most important fact is the rivalry being out at the sea and not on land as it was in Europe. Also, the rivalry is very different globally, because geopolitically you don’t have the same power vacuums as you had after II WW and after colonial powers like France and UK were losing all the colonies in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and this created power vacuums for new superpowers to fill.
In this new bipolar order, who is in the American bloc, and who is in the Chinese?
A bipolar system is simply that two superpowers are much more powerful than the rest. Nothing more. Such an international system is different from a multipolar system with three or more great powers. Balancing differs (internal vs. internal and external) and stability differs. Blocs have nothing to do with bipolarity – again this was a characteristic of the previous bipolar system but not so much of the new. The fact that China was in the USSR bloc and then in the US camp did not change the bipolar system.
Where are we after the meeting of Trump and Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires on the 1st December? Did anything change from your point of view, is it a truce?
Yes, this is a truce, but these issues will not go away whether they can find some agreement in a year or two, or not. And I don’t think it is just Trump. Whether Trump was elected or not, it’s trade, investments, technology, all these issues, intellectual property rights, all the things they were talking about – any new US president, be it Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, would be concerned about those issues. Trump has his own ways of negotiation, but the fundamental issues that China and USA are peer competitors – that will not go away. It will not be solved with any kind of diplomatic agreement.
You were speaking of economic interdependence. From the point of view of this enormous economic interdependence of the US and China, is such tightening of measures against China by Washington rational?
I don’t consider interdependence to be the key issue here. I think relative gains is sort of what is crucial here. When US was so far ahead of China it really didn’t matter whether China were becoming members of WTO. But now, as the Chinese economy has been growing for such a long time, and they gradually are catching up, these issues become very important, so when you consider: “Yes, we are both benefiting from the trade, but who is benefiting more, who is relatively better off?”, these are considerations that are becoming more prominent.
Not only are the Americans paying for European security, they also must accept that Germany and China are doing trade and helping each other, and this is helping China in the rivalry with the United States
I think the trade factor will matter, but when core national security concerns are at stake, it will matter less in the years to come. I don’t believe, that economic interdependence will prevent, for instance, a limited war at sea. If the President wakes up in ten years in US and he’s been told by his national security council that last night Chinese invaded Taiwan, what is he going to do? I don’t think the first thing he’s going to think about is: “Excuse me, what is our trade surplus, or trade balance with China?” or “How many US companies invested in China?”. The only thing he will be concerned about is the geopolitical situation, the Chinese controlling Taiwan and pushing the US out of the region. So, he’ll have to make the decision – are you willing to make that happen – let China dominate the region – or are the US still to balance China in East Asia? And if they’re going balance to them, they must prevent them from controlling these sea-lines and all this water surrounding East Asia.
It is a new bipolar order for the whole world, so it seems to be time to choose sides. What do you think the other countries will do regarding choosing sides? In particular, what will Europe do?
To begin with, the Europeans (as they have done in the past) try to hedge their bets. They’re trying not to choose sides, they’re saying: “No, we don’t want to be forced to choose sides”. Especially the countries of East Asia are facing this. They have China as the most important trading partner and US as an ally, or the most important security guarantee. Canada is facing it as we speak, with the Huawei issue, and I think that the Americans will start calling more and more countries in Europe, telling them not to sell certain technologies or not to let the Chinese invest in some companies or areas.
Will the Americans be expecting a military support from Europe?
What they are looking for is political support. The Americans understand that countries like Norway cannot send their frigate to the South China Sea to militarily try to balance the Chinese. But they want a political statement saying that the Norwegian government is concerned about the law of the sea, that the Chinese undermine the law of the sea, that Norway has its maritime and trade interests. That we’re standing shoulder to shoulder with the Americans. The Americans have not been willing to push enough yet. But I think in years to come you must be prepared to face such a situation. Basically USA will create an A team and a B team saying: “These European countries who listen to us and spend 2% on defence and who are willing to stand up to Russia and to China – they are with us and they’re closest allies, and the others are in a slightly different team, and they might be easily confronted by us”.
What will the Chinese answer be?
The Chinese are of course aware of this. They already started with the South European countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal, heavily investing, lobbing, making sure that the EU cannot make a joint statement on the Hague decisions on the South China Sea disputes or human rights issues.
And what about Poland and the Eastern Europe?
The Chinese are trying to get closer to the Eastern Europe, whether it is Hungary or Czech Republic. And of course, they have strong ties with countries like France or UK and Germany, of course. The Northern countries are not that important, maybe. But this is very difficult for Europeans to have a united stand on this and of course it is very difficult for them to deal with the US administration, especially now that they’re frustrated with Trump. But a new president will ask for the same thing. He will ask differently than Trump does, but basically the message will be the same: either you’re with us or you’re against us.
My editor-in-chief, Bartłomiej Radziejewski, says in his article that is a war of civilizations and that Americans will demand from Europe to stand firmly with US. Should Europe do so, or is there a multi-vector policy still possible – or even justified for European countries?
I think that – still – there is room for manoeuvre. We have not yet come to the point where we you’re really forced to choose sides, but if you think two-three decades ahead, and this rivalry will not go away, this will be a position that most countries in Europe will face. For Norway, there is no question. We must side with the Americans. Anything else would be stupid. But for other European countries it might be different.
I don’t think it is just Trump. Whether Trump was elected or not, it’s trade, investments, technology, all these issues, intellectual property rights, all the things they were talking about – any new US president, be it Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden, would be concerned about those issues
This will create a division within Europe.
Yes, for countries like Italy or countries like France it is not so obvious, what they are going to choose, which will create difficulty for the EU, but also for the NATO.
Do you think that the trans-atlantic community, community of values and security between US and EU is falling apart in the times of Trump’s presidency?
Yes, but again: I don’t think it is about values. Of course, we share some values in Europe and US, which are different than in Russia or China. But at the same time there are some fundamental interests at stake. So, I can fully understand American colleagues who may say: “Why should America pay for European security?”, “Why should US bear such a heavy burden?”. And all these traditional arguments are reinforced because Germany has China as a most important trading partner. Not only are the Americans paying for European security, they also must accept that Germany and China are doing trade and helping each other, and this is helping China in the rivalry with the United States.
Europeans have to take more responsibility for the defence and their security, of course still with the United States as an important ally, and at the same time they have to consider the ties to China, how close can they have relationship with China. It does not mean they have to abandon those ties, but they must be very cautious, much more selective, and much more attentive to the rivalry and the concerns of the United States.
Is the confrontation between US and China inevitable? Is there any way to avoid falling into the Thucydides trap?
I agree with the conclusions of Graham Allison, John Mearsheimer and others, who warn about this conflict, but I arrive at this conclusion differently. Graham Allison looks at several cases of a great power war. But every empirical argument he uses is from multipolar systems. That’s why I wrote the “Another Long Peace?” article. I think our starting point should be looking from a bipolar perspective.
If China continues to build a larger navy, nothing is inevitable, but there is a high risk that there might be a military clash between the US and China. Basically, because the Americans can sit down, make an assessment and say: “If we destroy the Chinese fleet now, that will help us a lot in the region. So, we should destroy this fleet now before becomes too strong”. Then, in that assessment, they will ask: what will the escalation be? Whether that be an invasion of Japan, invasion of South Korea? No. Because of the water-barrier. Will it be a nuclear response, will they be attacking United States, because they destroyed their aircraft carrier? Probably not. Why they will do that? They would commit suicide. Nobody survives a nuclear war in the XXI century. In that sense, they can conclude: “Yes, we can launch a pre-emptive strike”. And they’ll create a pretext, whether is because of Taiwan or South China Sea. For example, they can say: “One of our ships was rammed into” and that is enough to escalate the conflict, and in the end, we end up with Chinese navy being destroyed. This scenario, however, isn’t unavoidable.
What is the alternative?
The alternative is basically to agree that the China is the most powerful state in East Asia, and to pull back like the British did with the Americans in the Western Hemisphere, not when they launched the Monroe doctrine, but more around 1902-04 when The Panama Canal was opened, and the Americans took the control over the Caribbean Sea. The British pulled out because they were concerned about the Germans. The Americans have no one else to be concerned about. Of course, they have Russia and Europe – but it doesn’t pull the same trap along, because European countries can deal with that: Germany, France, Poland, (not Italy), UK. These are big enough countries to deal with Russia if they are supported – of course – by the US. So, the US can concentrate on containing China and potentially waging war with China. But this is a different situation than the one that British were facing with the Americans – a little bit more than a hundred years ago. Now we have a bipolar system and not a multipolar system, so US will not have to focus on another peer competitor, so all these factors contribute to the argument that we may see a limited war. It is not inevitable, but the risk is quite high. Because I think that Americans will not pull back.
Is it possible for the China to become a unipole in the future?
If China becomes a unipole in, let’s say, 2050, this new unipolar system will be less stable than the previous unipolar system with the United States.
Because China is bordering Russia, India, is close to Japan etc., while the US is in the western hemisphere, bordering Canada, Mexico and two big oceans. So, when it was the unipole, it was not so threatening. And when the China becomes the unipole, it has all the potential superpowers nearby and you will see the balancing against the unipole earlier.
Can you explain for our readers in a concise way what are the main ideas of your geostructural realism theory and why this theory explains the world better than the previous theories?
Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism is based on two things: anarchy of the international systems, and distribution of capabilities, that means: who are the most powerful states in the world. Once you have figured that out, once you measured it, you find out that the multinational system is bipolar or multipolar. He basically makes the argument that the bipolar system is more stable than the multipolar system and that the bipolar system – the way you balance the other superpower – is different to how you balance other superpowers in a multipolar system. In a multipolar system you can have alliances and external balancing, while in the bipolar system you don’t have that. Waltz argues that the bipolar system is more stable than the multipolar system. Basically, I agree with this. The problem is that his theory has never compared two bipolar systems, so we cannot take the structural realism and answer a simple question: whether the new bipolar system in XXI century will be more or less stable than the bipolar system in XX century.
You can do the same thing, theoretically, with the multipolar system. Let’s say I was wrong about bipolarity and you’ll get multipolar system in Asia, concentrating on Asia. Then, if you add one variable – geopolitics, as in geostructural realism, you can ask whether where multipolar system concentrated in Asia is more or less stable than a multipolar system concentrated in Europe. The structural realism as Waltz designed it can’t make such kind of prediction and explain it. In my book, I am looking at the bipolarity and I conclude that the balancing looks different, the stability is different, and issues of proxy wars are different. These three are the core factors that Kenneth Waltz could not explain, but they are possible to explain by adding one variable – geopolitics. That’s why I called this geostructural realism.
At the time of the Cold War there was four hundred thousand troops in Europe. In East Asia there is nowhere for America to put 400 000 troops. So, this is a lot more difficult to contain China than it was with Soviet Union in Europe
What does this additional variable change?
It changes very much. Geography is very important, and we even don’t think about it. China is as large as the entire European continent, but in Europe you have different states. When the balancing policy was developed, it was supported by the experience of wars between France and Germany and Russia etc. But Asia, I argue, is a much bigger continent and geographical factors such as Himalayas between India and China are a stabilizing factor as well as deserts – for instance the Gobi Desert. The permafrost and tundra make it difficult for Russia to project power, the jungle in South East Asia and of course the water barrier between China and Japan make it very difficult to launch a war. I am just focusing on all these geographic factors: Pacific is much bigger than the Atlantic; that the United States cannot have a bridge like in Europe as they had. At the time of the Cold War there was four hundred thousand troops in Europe. In East Asia there is nowhere for America to put 400 000 troops. So, this is a lot more difficult to contain China than it was with Soviet Union in Europe. And all these things, I argue, can be explained by geopolitics. I try to make the theory as parsimonious as possible, so by adding just this one variable it can be enough to broaden the structural realism.
My last question is about geopolitics. I am relating here to the thought of Mackinder, Spykman and their followers. There was a huge wave of criticism against geopolitics in Poland, basically saying, that geopolitics overestimates geography, there were even voices that this is a Russian, Putinist idea promoted by Russian agents of Influence and its role is to justify the expansive actions of individual aggressive states. Is this kind of criticism also popular in your country? What would you tell the critics?
I think there is this kind of criticism. But this expansionist link is often closely tied to other traditions – e.g. of Rudolf Kjellén and Karl Haushofer: a kind of German Lebensraum geopolitical tradition. I do see that Spykman and Mahan too have this kind of affinities. Geopolitics can be used in many ways but I’m trying to use it simply. I talk to my students at the Defence College: “Just look at the map, at what is really important about map of the East Asia”. We see that none of the US allies are bordering China and this is a very important aspect if you want to understand rivalry between US and China and why it differs between rivalry between US and Soviet Union who were on the ground, in Germany, facing the Red Army. Of course, there is cyber-defence, and all the new technologies, but the most important factor is the water between the mainland and Taiwan. It’s still geopolitics. If the Chinese do successfully conquer Taiwan, you’ll have geopolitical argument again – they’ll control Taiwan, they will break the first island chain, and this will be very complicated to make a strong military presence in the region. Similarly, in Europe: my argument is not about whether Russia is entitled to an old sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. It is that the Baltic is very difficult to defend because of geographical conditions as it is so close to the main area of Russia. It is, however, many times misunderstood. I’m just trying to use the geopolitics in a more analytical way and not in a way of justifying any kind of expansion or any conquering of other territory.
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