Tsinghua foreign policy expert Yan Xuetong and Harvard Professor Stephen Walt discussed how competition will shape a U.S.-China bipolar world

U.S.-China Competition Will Intensify, but War Can Be Avoided

A conversation between Tsinghua foreign policy expert Yan Xuetong and Harvard Professor Stephen Walt

As tensions between the United States and China continue to escalate, the world watches closely to discern the implications for the future global order. Recently, as part of the Critical Issues Confronting China series, the Fairbank Center hosted a discussion featuring Yan Xuetong, Dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University, and Stephen Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard University. Below are key points providing valuable insights into the dynamics of this critical relationship:

Cyber-political competition will shape a new U.S.-China-led, bipolar world

The shift to a new bipolarity, with the United States and China as key competitors, grows increasingly apparent. Yan suggested that the nature of this competition might not necessarily result in a Cold War, as proxy wars are no longer reliable indicators of the global order. Walt concurred, adding that the new Cold War will differ in character from its predecessor, particularly in terms of ideological competition. The current global situation cannot accurately be described as a new Cold War, as its fundamental feature is not geopolitical competition, but rather cyber-political competition and resulting turn away from globalization. Yan argued that unlike the first Cold War, western democracies are not threatened by ideological competition, but rather by populism. What’s more, China lacks the power, resources, and influence to export its ideology or Communist Party power outside of China. Neither the United States nor China desire a new Cold War. However, Walt noted that there are conflicting interests: while the United States seeks to defend a liberal rule-based order, China supports a Westphalian global order, where each nation determines its own concept of human rights.

Both speakers stressed the crucial role of cyberspace, a new man-made competition arena, in the escalating US-China competition. Traditional Cold War-era policies created to compete in natural space (e.g., “Star Wars”) are insufficient for the current competition, which takes place in both natural space (e.g., Ukraine) and cyberspace. Contemporary competition is situated in both the natural and cyberspace domains, with cyberspace superiority becoming increasingly important. 

Both China and the United States grasp the significance of this dynamic. Yan claimed that digital technology has become increasingly important to national power and stressed that China must engage with digital tech countries to close the power gap. As long as China fails to sustain international collaboration with technologically superior countries, the United States can retain its power disparity. Because of this, Yan noted that the Chinese government acknowledges that the primary arena for competition lies in cyberspace rather than in the acquisition of natural resources. This understanding underpins the dual circulation strategy, aimed at achieving self-reliance, in spaces such as digital technology, through international cooperation. As a result, the Politburo has emphasized the importance of opening up digital technology programs to the international community. This understanding highlights the need to manage competition in cyberspace to prevent conflicts from spiraling out of control.

Yan argues that China must collaborate with technologically superior countries in order to effectively compete.

Populism and anti-globalization challenge the current global order as leaders implement anti-globalization policies legitimized by the concept of economic security.

The increasing prevalence of populism and anti-globalization sentiment pose significant challenges to the current global order. Yan attributed this trend to growing discontent over wealth inequality and social polarization. He argued that globalization has created a wealth gap that leaves middle-class citizens dissatisfied with their governments, fueling resentment towards liberalism and spurring the rise of populism.

Yan also emphasized how the drive for economic security lends legitimacy to anti-globalization forces, justifying the establishment of domestic supply chains and exacerbating xenophobia and populism.

China prefers peaceful reunification with Taiwan without committing to a specific timetable, making military conflict unlikely.

Yan disagreed with speculation that China plans a takeover of Taiwan by 2027, arguing that China still prefers peaceful reunification. He acknowledged the increasing tension resulting from perceived U.S. wavering on the “one-China” policy and China’s claim to the island but emphasized that the situation is far more complex. However, Yan posited that the 20th Party Congress report underscored the objective of promoting peaceful reunification without necessarily committing to a specific timetable for achieving this goal.

Yan also questioned the chances of a swift military triumph, pointing to the ongoing Ukrainian war. Uncertainty surrounding Russia’s ability to win in Ukraine, he argued, makes it difficult for China’s leaders to justify initiating a conflict around Taiwan. Citing former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s warning against entering wars without a clear exit strategy, Yan underscored the rationale for pursuing peaceful means to address the Taiwan issue, rather than resorting to military action.

The need for peaceful coexistence strikes a delicate balance between national interests and international cooperation.

Competition between the United States and China is bound to intensify due to differing visions for the global order, according to both Yan and Walt. Both speakers also agreed that peace is the desired state for the global order, and that nuclear powers will deter armed conflict. Yan anticipated a more intense rivalry, while Walt expressed concern about nationalist outbidding on both sides and the gradual erosion of communication between the two countries. Diplomatic engagement and communication between the United States and China, as well as global leadership that prioritizes collaboration and diplomacy, will be crucial to achieving peaceful coexistence. In light of the U.S.-China competition in the coming decade, leaders will have to strike a delicate balance between pursuing national interests and promoting international cooperation. Yan underscored the importance of China’s participation in digital technology plans alongside the international community to remain competitive. Walt added that while both sides will act independently in pursuit of their own interests, they must refrain from engaging in unilateral advantage-seeking behavior. This equilibrium will require strategic diplomacy and cooperative initiatives that foster mutual benefit and global stability, even as competition increases.

In conclusion, as the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies in the coming decade, the global order will be defined by the intricate interplay of ideology, technology, and economic security concerns. Successfully navigating this multifaceted landscape will demand that leaders be adaptable to the shifting geopolitical environment and commit to collaborations in areas of mutual interest. Yan posited that public opinion might not exert a substantial influence on the world order, as the ultimate decision-making power rests with world leaders. This assertion underscores the significance of well-informed leadership and the indispensable role of diplomacy in steering through the complexities of the emerging global order. Specifically, when determining what “humane authority” leadership would look like in the context of cyberspace competition, Yan noted that neither the United States nor China can unilaterally or jointly provide global leadership in the next decade. Instead, he argues that regional powers will vie for leadership, resulting in a more chaotic global order. Counter-globalization trends will further contribute to decreased international cooperation. 

Yan and Walt agreed that the United States, China, and other regional powers must collaborate, communicate, and seek to understand each other in order to create a stable and cooperative global order.