Multipolar Hegemony
No. 4 2008 October/December
Alexander V. Lomanov

Doctor of History
Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences,
Moscow, Russia
Deputy Director for Scientific Work


SPIN RSCI: 2960-1628
ORCID: 0000-0003-2676-4271
ResearcherID: B-5068-2018
SCOPUS AuthorID: 56153472700


Tel.: +7 499 128-8974
E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]
23 Profsoyuznaya Str., Moscow 117997, Russia

Speculations by U.S. experts about the prospects for “a
partnership of equals” and methods for integrating China into the
liberal world order created by the U.S. show a new approach to
changes in the global balance of forces. The U.S. is becoming aware
that the era of its unsurpassed dominance in the world will come to
an end in the next ten to fifteen years and China will move into
the prime economic position on the planet. According to Albert
Keidel of the Carnegie Endowment, China will be equal with America
by 2020 in terms of GDP by purchasing power parity and in terms of
national currency exchange rates by 2030. Chinese GDP will exceed
U.S. GDP twofold by 2050.

This forecast cannot be called sensational, if anything, as the
steady and rapid growth of the Chinese economy already provided
grounds for such calculations back in the previous decade. And yet
China’s unrelenting advance to the position of global leader took
the West by surprise. It was only a mere nine years ago that Gerald
Segal said in his article “Does China Matter?” published in Foreign
Affairs (September/October, 1999, Vol. 78, p. 5) that China’s might
was illusionary and by far a mental plot of the West itself. “At
best, China is a second-rank middle power that has mastered the art
of diplomatic theater: it has us willingly suspending our disbelief
in its strength,” Segal wrote soothingly. Today Chinese analysts
recall this article with a due sense of malevolence as an example
of the general misunderstanding of what is happening in their


Chinese experts admit that the country has received huge
benefits from its engagement in the global liberal economic system
created by the West. It opened the doors to the ever-increasing
flows of Chinese commodities to international markets. A common
explanation one comes across in China suggests that the West
contemplated the plight of the Soviet Union for China at first, but
a sober analysis of the aftermath if there were a crash of such a
densely populated country convinced Western powers to revise that
approach and help Beijing continue a normal development. It looks
like the West created favorable conditions for Beijing’s embedding
in the global economic order on the assumption that growing
prosperity and the obligation to observe the universally accepted
rules of the game would create conditions for speedy political
reforms and democratization in China.

But this liberal calculus has turned sour as the rate of
political reforms lags far behind market economic reforms. This
means that China may acquire the status of global economic leader
while retaining a one-party system and a formal commitment to a
“special Chinese socialism.” Whatever Western politicians may think
about this, there is nothing they can do about it, since no one
will ever be able to push China to the bottom of the economic
ratings in conditions of globalization, or take away its economic
benefits. The growing economic interdependence opens the doors for
influences directed both ways, and now China itself can exert
influence on the West.

The George W. Bush administration factored China’s growing
status into practical policies. Rapprochement with Beijing became
one of its successes, especially against the backdrop of serious
economic failures at home and political/military problems abroad.
On the intellectual plane, however, the neo-Cons reacted to the
rise of new countries – China and Russia – by issuing a call for a
tighter consolidation in the ranks of the old Western democracies.
This scenario looks ideologically immaculate, yet it might mean
that an “alliance of the tardy” will be formed that would lack any
long-term prospects.

A political standoff between the “democratic bloc” and the new
centers of growth would hurt both sides. The hope for replaying the
20th-century experience when the West managed to wear out and
dilute the Soviet bloc’s economy in the course of contention is but
a highly dangerous illusion these days. Given China’s annual
economic growth of 7 to 8 percent compared to the 2 to 3 percent
posted by the West (the U.S. and Europe), attempts to isolate the
new leader and to impose an economic boycott against China will
make the “democratic bloc” pay a price, and this price will
increase each year and make the losses inflicted on the opposite
side diminish progressively. Eventually – some time in the middle
of this century – the U.S. might find itself in the shoes of the
former Soviet Union, whose huge military power broke away from the
modest economic influence in the world.

A proposal to set up a U.S.-Chinese duopoly for governing the
world economy looks like a classical instance of realism in foreign
policy. It rests on the concept of the balance of forces and rules
out any hints at the problem of value orientation. By getting a
pragmatic, flexible and strong partner in the person of China, the
U.S. could set up a union of the world’s two largest economies. The
problem is that the emergence of the Big Two may impact existing

Japan will most likely join the duopoly in a bid to extract the
maximum possible benefit from economic cooperation with China and
from defense/political cooperation with Washington. As for the EU,
it may find itself in the position of being the “third man out,”
although the U.S. will continue to assure the Europeans of
“trans-Atlantic solidarity” and the Chinese of commitment to
mutually beneficial cooperation. If the hypothetical Sino-American
alliance expands beyond the economic framework and takes on a
political dimension, this may motivate Europe to expand the
geopolitical base by forging a union with Russia. Considering the
EU’s ambitions, it is unlikely that it will agree to reduce its own
status (to the third weightiest in the Sino-American alliance from
the second-in-importance in the current partnership with the U.S.).
In the meantime, it will feel like an equal in a partnership with

Following the events of August 2008, this option seems rather
unrealistic against the background of a steep heightening of
polemics between the West and Russia, since the former has gotten a
pretext for a lineup within the old alliance. At the same time, the
conflict around Georgia has shown that the U.S. needs new strong
allies to uphold its global influence. This in turn increases the
chances of a rapprochement between Washington and Beijing.

On the other hand, a cooling-off in relations with the U.S. may
stimulate Russia to continue the search for a rapprochement with
Europe and for setting up new mechanisms of cooperation with its
neighbors on the European continent. One can recall, in particular,
Russia’s recent proposal to sign a new agreement on security. In
the future this may open the road to forming a dual alliance
between the EU and Russia as a response to the alliance formed by
China and the U.S. The Russia-EU duopoly will be a junior twin of
the Sino-American one. It will also operate on Realpolitik
principles and will sacrifice Western values for common interests.
Let us note that both alliances will resemble each other in terms
of internal asymmetry, with one partner leading in the military
sphere (the U.S. and Russia) and the other dominating economically
(China and the EU).

The prospect of China turning into the most powerful world
player has emerged so unambiguously that everyone is trying to be
China’s friend now. The European Union, too, would not miss an
opportunity to set up a lucrative strategic bloc with China.
Charles Grant and Katinka Barysch of the Center for European Reform
believe that Europe has a chance to win Beijing over to its side.
The U.S., which is heavily bent on unilateral actions, will not
likely predispose the Chinese toward cooperation, while the EU,
whose hallmarks are diversity and multilateralism, would suit China
much better as a partner. In addition, Beijing is not only a source
of problems in trade and finance for Washington; it is also a
strategic contender in East Asia and this breeds military and
political mistrust between the two sides. The latter factor tallies
badly with the plans for joint administration of a global

Yet Europe has no internal cohesion, and Eastern European
countries could easily heed a U.S. request and bury plans for
rapprochement with the authoritarian Beijing. This influence over
the New Europeans and a deepening division inside the EU provides
Washington with a good chance to show itself as the only Western
partner worthy of forming an alliance with the Chinese. Add to this
the presence of separate interest groups in the EU which, unlike in
the U.S., are sorting out relations at the national level. Leading
EU industrialized nations are fighting each other on the Chinese
market and are seeking bilateral agreements with Beijing in order
to gain the maximum benefits. However large the EU’s willingness
might be, it is not yet ready for a uniform and constructive policy
of cooperation with China – as well as with Russia.


Still, a crucial unanswered question is whether Beijing needs an
alliance of this type and whether it is ready to give up its
traditional foreign policy course that denies the possibility of
allied relations with other countries. The acute need for foreign
assistance to speed up modernization in the 1950s urged Mao Zedong
to “lean against a single side” by forming an alliance with the
Soviet Union, which would help China build up its strength, then
move on independently later. Now the external situation is
favorable for China’s development and it does not have an apparent
need for allies. Beijing has already joined the World Trade
Organization – at the expense of great concessions; a reform of the
United Nations is off the agenda for the time being; and Beijing’s
chances for implementing plans for a radical realignment of
existing international institutions and for the setting up of new
structures are questionable now.

Add to this the arguments concerning “parity of the partners”
that may arise inside China if an alliance with the U.S. is forged
hastily. China’s former ambassador to Moscow Li Fenglin has
recently described the Sino-Soviet friendship treaty of 1950 as an
“unequal” one, as China found itself in the position of being the
guarded and protected side and the imbalance of the two countries’
forces was immeasurable. These statements hurt many Russian
veterans who took part in providing friendly assistance and support
to the Chinese people. Still, the Chinese system of foreign policy
benchmarks suggests that equitable agreements are possible only
between players with equal potential. If this logic is projected at
the prospects for an alliance between China and the U.S., it may
also turn out to be “inequitable” if American leadership persists,
as the difference in weight between the two countries will not be
in Beijing’s favor.

Experts say that after an incident in 2001, in which a U.S. and
a Chinese warplane collided over sea, relations between Beijing and
Washington have remained steady. This is the longest period of
stability since the end of the Cold War. Experts inside China link
it to the September 11, 2001 events and provide two different
explanations for it. Some of them believe this lull is temporary
and is mostly due to external factors. They maintain that the
China-U.S. confrontation will resume after Washington relinquishes
its struggle with terrorism and scales back its activity in the
Middle East. Another explanation suggests that external factors do
not play a leading role anymore and a stable Sino-American
relationship comes from the growing need that both countries have
for each other.

Chinese analysts tend to deny the thesis that China’s rapid
economic growth was a result of Bush’s antiterrorist campaign.
Washington kept most of its attention focused on China and
continued to build up its military presence in East Asia. At the
same time, the Chinese admit that the role of external stimuli for
cooperation with the U.S. (like the “Soviet threat” during the Cold
War or the current fight against terror) is decreasing. After
solutions are found to the North Korean and Iranian nuclear
problems, their importance will drop to a minimum and internal
stimuli for partnership will move into the spotlight.

Dr Yuan Peng, the director of the Institute of American Studies
that reports to China’s Institute of International Studies,
believes that Chinese diplomacy faces the task of fostering
strategic trust in relations between Beijing and Washington and
expanding the field for cooperation. The main issue that Chinese
analysts ask is whether economic interdependence will be enough to
form trust in politics and security. As they assess the Strategic
Economic Dialogue that the U.S. and Chinese leaders launched in
2006 and in which Henry Paulson, the U.S. co-chairman and U.S.
Treasury Secretary, takes so much pride, Chinese analysts indicate
that the U.S. uses its mechanism to put unilateral pressure on
China in a bid to force it into concessions on the yuan exchange
rate and to make Chinese financial markets accessible.

The Chinese deemed Paulson’s calls for opening the financial
market and changing the growth model “in the interest of healthy
development of the Chinese economy” as a strategic entrapment aimed
at arresting the speed of the country’s global rise. Experts point
out that a deepening of internal changes will set the scene for a
rapprochement with the U.S., such as the opening of the Chinese
financial market. The latter is an objective of economic reform,
however, and “it will be effectuated without pressure on China on
the part of the U.S.” It is another thing that Chinese reformers
will not yield to U.S. impatience and will not take the risks of
poorly prepared changes.

However, the Chinese will draw increasingly more benefits in the
future from the conditions of bargaining with the economically
limping West, which will continue to lose its advantages. Dr Song
Yuhua of Zhejiang University’s Economy Research Institute says that
if one looks at the situation right now and in the short term,
China depends on the U.S. to a larger extent than the U.S. depends
on China; that is why the Economic Dialogue evidences
ever-increasing U.S. demands, while Beijing has to agree with it
and make concessions. He also writes that it is the Americans who
define the issues for this dialogue and its results bring far more
benefits to Washington. However, in the mid and long term, China
will benefit from the changes. As China’s economy continues to grow
and the country’s standing in the world economy and politics rises,
America’s dependence on China will grow and the balance of their
interdependence will level out.

Disputes are not limited to the economy. The U.S. exasperates
China with its support for Taiwan and its criticism of “a lack of
transparency” in the programs to modernize the Chinese Armed Forces
or China’s cooperation with countries like Sudan or Myanmar. China
regards the “color revolutions” in the territory of the former
Soviet Union and U.S. rapprochement with India, Mongolia and
Vietnam as a challenge to itself in the field of security.
Moreover, Beijing’s willingness to rid foreign policy of an
ideological ballast does not find much response on the American
side of the Pacific, as the White House continues expounding on the
importance of democratization in China and holding meetings with
the official Beijing opponents – Xinjiang and Tibetan separatists,
members of unofficial Christian sects, and Hong Kong democrats.

Yuan Peng argues that China and the U.S. act as two powerful
states whose relations rule out any benefits from one-sided
pressure on the other partner. He believes that both sides must
keep in check and dampen the elements of confrontation, as well as
reduce the impact of ideology and domestic policy. In the future, a
new type of strategic stability is expected to emerge between the
two countries. It will be different from the one that existed
between the U.S. and the Soviet Union or between the U.S. and their
incumbent allies.

Stability in relations between the U.S and the Soviet Union
rested on the balance of military force and the balance of nuclear
deterrence. Post-Cold War stable relations between the U.S., on the
one hand, and the EU and Japan, on the other, are based on the
communality of the social system and ideology. They can be called
“an alliance of common values.” Yet China, which is reluctant to
pursue a Soviet-style buildup of military power or to renounce
socialism and Communist Party rule, does not fit into either model.
Dr Yuan called on China and the U.S. to build a model of strategic
stability taking account of the conditions of globalization,
differences in the social order and patterns of civilized
development, asymmetry of military strength, and the deepening of
economic interdependence.

Partnership proposals from both sides contain voluminous lists
of reproaches and wishes that may prove to be unfeasible in
reality. The absence of shared liberal values makes the
hypothetical alliance uncomfortable for Washington, while the
absence of defense parity and the presence of a chain of military
bases along the perimeter of China’s borders are unlikely to
inspire Beijing with trust toward its partner. At the same time,
mainstream political scientists in China, who reflect Beijing’s
official viewpoint, are ready to support John Ikenberry’s main
thesis that China will not take any actions aimed at destroying the
existing global system, which satisfies it on the whole and which
produces good dividends for it.

Song Guoyou from the Center for American Studies at Fudan
University warns that a threat to partnership may come from the
U.S. At this point the U.S. continues to watch China’s efforts
silently, but people in Washington are gradually losing patience –
they may apparently decide that Beijing is getting too many
benefits and that it is developing away from a direction desirable
for the U.S. The researcher believes the Chinese authorities should
not soothe themselves with optimistic hopes that the U.S. will
continue to support the tendency toward the growing economic
cohesion of the two countries.

Interdependence has a price and the Americans will inevitably
try to draw benefits from it, forcing China to make concessions.
However, this does not lay the groundwork for China to break up
with the U.S. unless the situation involves Taiwan or the country’s
territorial integrity. However, Beijing must prepare for a possible
clash of the two countries’ interests in the future. “If China’s
strengthening in all spheres presents a peaceful challenge to the
U.S. domineering position, will the U.S. look at it peacefully then
and fulfill China’s justified demands?”

Today’s debates inside China regarding future partnership with
the U.S. proceed – to one degree or another – from the U.S. thesis
about the advisability of turning Beijing into a “responsible
stakeholder,” which was put forth in September 2005 by Robert
Zoellick, then an Assistant Secretary of State. Chinese experts
evaluate his statements in different ways. They believe that in
addition to recognition of China’s international weight, which is a
balm to national pride, his statements conceal a dangerous
invitation to give up national interests in favor of supporting
Western policies in the spheres where this may damage their country
– from the revaluation of the yuan to the import of liberal

The experts interpret the new foreign “theory of China’s
responsibility” as the aftermath of the evolution of former
attempts to influence Beijing, using the bankrupt theories of
“China’s crash” and “China’s threat.” The “crash theory” of the
1990s was based on overstatements of the problems that China was to
face with its internal development. The “threat theory” that
replaced it is also losing its relevance as Beijing’s international
prestige and rapport with the outside world grow. Now the West is
trying to impose its own rules of the game on China and to
influence its policies with the aid of the “responsibility

Niu Haibin of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies
describes the latter theory as a challenge to Chinese diplomacy.
Unlike the former two theories, this one is more neutral and
unbiased and it focuses on dialogue and consultations instead of on
the mechanisms of deterrence. However, it is painted in liberal
colors and is devoid of realism. China cannot reject its
responsibility, but Dr Niu believes one should draw a clear
distinction between obligations to the U.S. and to the world
community in general.

The U.S. would like China to “shoulder the excess costs of
protecting American hegemony.” The EU is pressing for progress in
the energy sector, in the openness of markets and in human rights.
Developing countries expect China to hold back the reciprocal
competition in trade, as well as to provide aid and privileged
loans. This means that China will bear international
responsibility, indeed, but not in the way that a small group of
countries would define for it. Beijing will act proceeding from its
national interests and the political priority of the authorities’
responsibilities for the country’s development.

The weakness of the U.S. position is seen in Zoellick’s proposal
that China should provide “retroactive pay” for advantages
previously gained in trading with the West. Beijing now stresses
the burden of the obligations it undersigned while joining
international organizations and their scrupulous observance, saying
that this makes any extra demands groundless both in the juridical
and moral sense. Fred Bergsten makes this point clear in an article
where he says China will not be satisfied with being treated just
as “a party concerned” and not getting the status of a full-fledged
and genuine partner in global administration. At the same time,
Zoellick’s postulation produced a profound impact on Chinese
political discourse, stimulating the discussion of prospects for
partnership and rapprochement between Beijing and Washington.


Professor Chu Shulong from the School of Public Policy and
Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing said in a recent
publication that China acts as a defender of the existing
international system and this facilitates approximation of its
positions with the West. He indicated that China’s growing
confidence in its own strength plays a certain role in this
process. Remembering pressures through the use of force on the part
of the West and Japan has fostered a specific “psychology of the
victim” among the Chinese. It fuelled the acute reaction to the
West’s operations in Kosovo in 1999, which sparked apprehensions
that the formula suggesting the supremacy of human rights over
sovereignty could be applied in other parts of the world, as well,
including Tibet and Xinjiang. Yet in 2003, after the start of the
war in Iraq, some Chinese experts came up with public condemnations
of U.S. hegemony, but did not link the events to any possible
threats to China’s national security.

Value conceptions have been changing, too. In the past, Beijing
would do its best to disassociate itself from the U.S. and would
speak out against any war conducted by the Americans, but it
neither supported nor condemned the war in Iraq. Chu Shulong says
the government made a decision to choose this position with due
account of the international situation and relations with the U.S.
and Iraq. But value conceptions also played a certain role in it.
The U.S.-British war launched to impose democratic values on the
Iraqi people was a hegemonic action, but the Chinese government
also considered the horrible things that Saddam had done to the
interests of the Iraqi people, the security of neighboring
countries and stability in the region in the past 20 years. In
addition, Beijing took account of the factors of international
justice and morals.

Dr Chu indicates that the tradition of standing against
something – imperialism, colonialism, revisionism – is vanishing
from Chinese politics, and the lingering postulation about
countermeasures to hegemony has lost its previous key status. “A
gradual change of the culture of ‘standing against something’ is a
gratifying fact. It shows that China is turning more and more into
a normal country, and an active and encouraging member of the world
community,” he writes.

Another indication that China is moving toward new values can be
found in an article with the eloquent title “On the Possibility of
China-U.S. Joint Dominance” published in the Xiandai Guoji Guanxi
(Contemporary International Relations) magazine (No. 2, 2008, pp.
28-32). Its authors come from a new generation of China’s
intellectual elite. Huang He is a postdoctoral student at Nanjing
University and a research fellow at the university’s
Hopkins-Nanjing Center Institute for International Research. His
co-author, Zhu Shi, is a doctoral student at Nanjing. Huang and Zhu
suggest that Chinese-U.S. ‘joint dominance’ (gong zhu in Chinese)
is quite possible and desirable.

Their discourse takes root in the Western ‘hegemonic stability
theory,’ which claims that a hegemonic state is needed to maintain
the stability of the world system; a state that has the ability and
the willingness to provide public benefits to society. The U.S.
performed this mission in the format of ‘unipolar stability’ after
the end of the Cold War, but keeping international public benefits
in a period of decaying hegemony requires the involvement of other
countries, too. The U.S. needs an associate in this field and China
can play precisely this role.

In referring to the ideas of U.S. economists Charles
Kindleberger and Robert Gilpin, Huang and Zhu describe the hegemon
as managing the process of distributing international public
benefits. The hegemon has a powerful economy enabling it to
shoulder huge costs. However, the present U.S. hegemony is selfish;
it has largely violated the principles of mutual cooperation and
joint development of the world community, which was seen by the
events in Iraq. In a reflection of these tendencies, Gilpin put
forth a hypothesis of ‘shared responsibility,’ suggesting the need
for support of international partners, which captivated Huang and

The latter maintain that China’s need to lend assistance to the
U.S. in order to scale down the burden of control over the world
order is becoming more and more obvious. Huang and Zhu believe that
China’s stronger role as a leader in world affairs is not
necessarily as incompatible with U.S. dominance in world governance
as water and fire are. If the new arrangement is flexible enough to
help promote settlement at a global level in line with the changes
in the alignment of forces, then the two countries will be able to
establish fruitful cooperation.

According to Huang and Zhu, future global stability will require
Sino-American joint dominance. All strong countries capable of
maintaining cooperation keep a balance of power and that is why the
probability of a simultaneous decay in the strength of two states
that are jointly keeping the world order is very small. As long as
order is maintained by many states rather than just one state and
not a single state has any preponderant advantages, all issues will
be settled through consultations. Big countries will jointly
allocate money and human resources in order to maintain the
international public good.

Huang and Zhu believe that cooperation with Washington in world
governance is a reflection of Beijing’s internal demand for
economic development amid international peace and stability. They
point out Deng Xiaoping’s suggestion that “relations between China
and the U.S. will improve eventually, and we should only continue
contacts and develop ties” and conclude that the scope of factors
encouraging cooperation is growing steadily in the 21st century.
There have already been mutual losses and gains in the economy and
investment, and there are elements conducive to active cooperation
in both countries’ strategic culture, as well.

The Chinese experts note the paradoxical situation that the U.S.
has found itself in. China has learned the ideals and mode of
thinking inherent in the international system after becoming
included in it. Also, the country has moved toward openness and
transparency and assumed an extra amount of international
obligations – the way the U.S. wanted it to do. On the other hand,
being a part of the international system, Beijing not only assumed
the obligations, but also started using rights, thus infusing
increasingly more Chinese elements in international mechanisms.
This unavoidably makes the U.S. feel certain limitations.

Huang and Zhu say the first thing one will have to consider in
the process of developing the model of Sino-American cooperation is
a coordination mechanism that will help solve the “free rider”
problem during the production and distribution of international
public benefits. The accumulation of financial resources will be
the key problem of the project. The authors mention the Tobin tax
on transactions involving foreign currency that was designed to
slash speculative transactions and the instability of currencies;
to make government economic policies less vulnerable to external
blows; to improve the gains of international organizations; and to
raise financing to provide for international public benefits.
Another feasible idea – put forth by George Soros – is the creation
of a specialized fund that would use donations from rich countries
for international aid. This line of logic suggests that China and
the U.S. should set up a fund of no less than $30 billion with a
provision that other rich countries may also join in. The third
area of activity is to draw official and private funds and to
mobilize diverse resources.

This interpretation of the alliance between the two countries
reduces its practical side to the emergence of channels for the
accumulation of funds and a source for additional investment in
global public benefits, as well as creating a floor for joint
international actions. But the conclusion is worthy of attention.
Huang and Zhu say that “joint dominance should rest on the
willingness to respect the principle of subordination to the
leading role of a state that has profounder knowledge and more
developed economic mechanisms.” Since Beijing’s economic leadership
looks predestined now, this passage seems to be a claim to the
title part in the Big Duo.

The range of published articles this year – both in the U.S. and
China – discussing the “partnership of equals” and “joint
dominance” highlights the possible rise of new alliances capable of
changing the global alignment of forces. It is still a wild guess
as to how much these ideas may captivate the new U.S.
administration, but partnership with China has been a priority
during the two terms of the outgoing Republican administration,
which provides grounds to believe that the new man in the White
House will maintain the course of rapprochement with Beijing.

As for China, the situation is even more predictable there. A
change of power has been scheduled for 2012 and the Communist Party
elite has endorsed the successors – Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. The
two men will run the country until 2022, the most decisive ten
years in terms of reaching economic parity with the U.S. If current
theories are put into practical actions on both sides, Xi and Li
will face the task of negotiating the creation of a Big Duo with
the U.S.