Yan Xuetong and Xi Jinping on China’s place in the world


If you want to read one thing about China today, this is it: Yan Xuetong on the bipolar state of our world .

It’s a translation by the David Bandurski of an interview with Yan Xuetong 阎学通, director of the Institute for International Relations at Tsinghua University and perhaps China’s most respected thinker on foreign policy. You should read the whole thing, but if you only have a minute, here’s the ADHD version:

  • The international system of the post world war period remains “hegemonic” and has not yet fundamentally changed.
  • However, Western liberalism (西方自由主义 xīfāng zìyóu zhǔyì) is no longer leading international norms, and we are moving to a state where international norms are no longer respected. Power will be redistributed around the world instead of focused in the West.
  • Protectionism and economic sanctions will be the primary means of competition among major powers, as nuclear weapons will continue to successfully deter conflict.
  • U.S. supremacy is ending, and the unipolar state of the post cold war period will be replaced by a bipolar system (两极格局 liǎngjí géjú), possibly within five years. Yan believes a multipolar world is not possible: China and the U.S. are the only players, and the world is destined to be bipolar (pun intended by me, but not Yan).
  • Western countries are ceasing to influence international politics in a unified manner, and at some point, “the political concept of ‘the West’ will no longer objectively suit the study of international relations.”
  • On Trump: “From the standpoint of international relations, within the next two years, one of the biggest problems we will face is how to deal with Trump’s unpredictability. Because he essentially makes decisions according to his own, there is little continuity between these decisions, and it is very difficult to predict.”
  • Taiwan independence and the concomitant “risk of a full-fledged standoff between China and the United States” is Yan’s biggest worry for the next ten years.

Xi Jinping is doing his best to ensure that China does become one of our world’s bipolar powers, and very soon. On Sunday, Xinhua News Agency published notes from Xi’s address at the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs ( English , Chinese ).

  • Xi said the years 2017 to 2022 — the period between the 19th  and 20th Party congresses — are “a historical juncture for realizing the two centenary goals of China, and of great significance in the historical progress of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
  • The use of “historical juncture” (历史交汇期 lìshǐ jiāohuì qī) rather than a previous Party favorite, “period of strategic opportunity” (战略机遇期 zhànlüè jīyù qī), is seen by noted China watcher Bill Bishop  (paywall) as “a big deal” that “shows a recognition that the security environment is no longer benign and signals a belief that while China’s external challenges are more complicated the opportunities for China are even greater than they were just a year ago.” Bishop sees more Chinese assertiveness ahead.