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The Age of Uneasy Peace

Chinese Power in a Divided World

Xi and Trump in Buenos Aires, Argentina, November 2018.  Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

In early October 2018, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered a searing speech at a Washington think tank, enumerating a long list of reproaches against China. From territorial disputes in the South China Sea to alleged Chinese meddling in U.S. elections, Pence accused Beijing of breaking international norms and acting against American interests. The tone was unusually blunt—blunt enough for some to interpret it as a harbinger of a new Cold War between China and the United States.

Such historical analogies are as popular as they are misleading, but the comparison contains a kernel of truth: the post–Cold War interregnum of U.S. hegemony is over, and bipolarity is set to return, with China playing the role of the junior superpower. The transition will be a tumultuous, perhaps even violent, affair, as China’s rise sets the country on a collision course with the United States over a number of clashing interests. But as Washington slowly retreats from some of its diplomatic and military engagements abroad, Beijing has no clear plan for filling this leadership vacuum and shaping new international norms from the ground up.

The post–Cold War interregnum of U.S. hegemony is over, and bipolarity is set to return.

What kind of world order will this bring? Contrary to what more alarmist voices have suggested, a bipolar U.S.-Chinese world will not be a world on the brink of apocalyptic war. This is in large part because China’s ambitions for the coming years are much narrower than many in the Western foreign policy establishment tend to assume. Rather than unseating the United States as the world’s premier superpower, Chinese foreign policy in the coming decade will largely focus on maintaining the conditions necessary for the country’s continued economic growth—a focus that will likely push leaders in Beijing to steer clear of open confrontation with the United States or its primary allies. Instead, the coming bipolarity will be an era of

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