US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said at the Graduate Ceremony of the US Naval War College on June 15, 2018 that “China has a long-range plan to change the existing international order” and it wants to lead it. He cited the following as China’s motives: To replicate its authoritarian politico-economic model (Marxism-Leninism with Chinese characteristics) in other parts of the world, to control the South China Sea, and to impose its predatory economics of piling massive debt on others.
The above indicates that the US believes China has already begun to replace the existing US-dominated unipolar world system created by the US by the Chinese model of the international order. China publicly advocates a non-hierarchical world order but actually seeks a bipolar world order. It has been making all-out efforts to establish itself as a superpower by strengthening its role in international organizations and promoting new types of international organizations.
The Cold War bipolar system lasted for more than 40 years (1948-1989) until the US became the single superpower. Some scholars argue that great power wars are less likely to occur under a bipolar system than under a unipolar system. Now we can find out whether this view is correct.
The present bipolar system is different from the one during the Cold War period (1945-1990) not only in terms of membership (the US and the Soviet Union vs. the US and China) but also in terms of the economic powers of the participating countries. During the Cold War (1945-1990) the economic power of the Soviet Union was 50 percent of that of the US.
On the other hand, China’s gross national product was 61 percent of America’s GNP last year. If China maintains its 6 percent growth rate and the US 2 percent, the reverse of the sizes of the two economies will occur by 2030. But economic size is less important than degree of technological advancement of weaponry in international power politics. Therefore, as long as the US continues to maintain its scientific and technological superiority over China, it will be able to maintain its military superiority over China for a long time.
Under the circumstances, whether China can become a superior power over the US will be determined not only by its military and economic power but also by stability of its political system. At the moment the US’s hard power is superior to China’s although its soft power is becoming eroded. In the future China will make all-out efforts to catch up with the US in military power as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War period.
The Soviet Union became completely exhausted in this armament race which in turn ruined its economy, and its economic downturn disintegrated the communist political system. In the economic competition China may win the US, but whether it will win the US in the political and other fields is yet to be tested.
Politically, the existing Chinese political system called the Marxist-Leninist system with Chinese characteristics is yet to be tested. As the Chinese economy develops from an agricultural to a highly technical modern economy, all kinds of political, social and cultural conflicts will emerge.
These conflicts cannot be properly and completely solved by the existing political-economic system because the richer people become and the more educated and westernized they become, the more likely they are to question the one-party dictatorship and the more difficult the communist party dictatorship will become to deal with this.
The ruling Communist Party is using all kinds of means to deal with this problem. The freedoms of speech and assembly, which are the keys to democracy, are not guaranteed. All the mass media and entertainment businesses are controlled or supervised by the state.
Having witnessed the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, China has been making all-out efforts to avoid “the Gorbachev trap” The Soviet experience tells us that the reform of the communist system does not guarantee the safety of the communist system.
The Chinese communist leaders who have witnessed this historical failure have been making all-out efforts to transform the Chinese politico-economic system into something new through the so-called Marxist-Leninist model with Chinese characteristics.
In terms of the strength of internal political systems, the US is still superior to China. In other words, the US has a safer and far more appealing political system.
In terms of the strength of civilization, American culture founded on Western civilization is predominant in America, although other cultures of the minority groups exist. But one advantage of Chinese civilization is that it not only prevails over China, but also still holds strong influence on a vast area of East and Southeast Asia including Korea and Japan.
According to Joseph Nye, an American political scientist, the power of a state is not only determined by economic and military power but also by what he calls soft power. According to Nye, soft power consists of the values, cultures and polices of the state. In this regard, he thinks that the US is much stronger than China, because American values, cultures and polices are much more popular all over the world. His view is largely true. China, which is perfectly aware of this fact, has started various kinds of Chinese cultural and educational programs in the non-Western parts of the world, reminding us of Kennedy’s Peace Corps programs.
If we review the Chinese aid and educational and cultural programs in the Non-West, we can find that China is making special efforts to differentiate its international aid and cooperation programs in the Non-West from America’s. It tries very hard to show that it has no intention of interfering with the internal affairs of its aid recipient countries.
Reviewing all the policies and activities of the US and China in the international arena, we can find that a new cold war between the US and China is being fought in every part of the world and international organizations.
One big difference between the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union on the one hand and the Cold War between the US and China on the other is that China does not intend to destroy the existing international system and organizations as the Soviet Union did but tries to expand its influence and reduce America’s influence. In other words, China wants to exert hegemony or weaken American hegemony in the existing international organizations.
Now, the world is being divided into two: the Chinese sphere of influence and the US sphere of influence. In view of this, the Korean Peninsula is likely to be divided into a Chinese “tributary” state and a US “tributary” state. This may be what the US and China want but is not what the two Koreas want. If the leaders of the two Koreas are aware of this fact, they should seek new approaches to the inter-Korean relations.
Park Sang-seek is former Chancellor of the National Diplomatic Academy, Foreign Ministry and the author of Globalized Korea and Localized World. -- Ed.