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

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  • YAN XUETONG is Distinguished Professor and Dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University.
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