China and Multipolarity


Contemporary Chinese political scientists derive their doctrine of multipolarity from the Cold War era, and in particular the five principles of peaceful coexistence which formed the basis of the 1954 treaty with India. These five principles are:

1.     Mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty;

2.     Non-aggression;

3.     Non-interference in internal affairs;

4.     Equality and mutual benefit;

5.     Peaceful coexistence.

China began actively participating in the development of the multipolar strategy under discussion today more than 30 years ago, for which there exists a specific Chinese term, duojihua - 多极化, meaning multipolarity or “multipolarism.”[1]

         In an article from early 1986 entitled “Prospects for the international situation”[2], Deng Xiaoping’s national security advisor, Huan Xiang, who also boasted experience in diplomatic service abroad and cooperation with Shanghai academic circles, indicated that insofar as the Cold War conflict had become relatively stable, the world’s superpowers were effectively losing the ability to control their own camps, hence the beginning of political multipolarity. The first step in this direction was the emergence of the strategic USSR-USA-China triangle following which, in the author’s opinion, a quintipolar world would appear including Japan and Europe.

         Two years before this article’s publication, Huan Xiang noted in 1984 that: “The old world order has already disintegrated and the new world order is now taking shape, but up to now it still has not yet completely formed.. U.S. domination of the Asia-Pacific will end ... Japan knows what role it should take, but it still hesitates... China must go through a long period of hard work . . . 30 to 50 years time will make it truly powerful.”[3] Huan also pointed to what the confrontation between the USSR and USA was leading to: “The two largest military powers are weakening and declining . . . militarily they are developing in the direction of multipolarization . . . if the Star Wars plan develops, multipolarization could develop toward bipolarization, and could again return to bipolarization. If secondary ranked countries want to carry out a Star Wars plan, it will be very difficult. The position of those countries will immediately decline.[4]

         In January 1986, however, any uncertainty regarding the future structure of the world evaporated[5] and its transformation and transition acquired clear traits and stages. In Huan Xiang’s words: “Future international politics and economics are facing a new period.”[6] By 1986, Huan Xiang was no longer alone in his forecasts. Another author published an article in China’s National Defense University’s journal entitled “The development of global strategic multipolarity.”[7] After some time, multipolarity was already regarded as the trend of the 21st century.[8]

         It bears noting, however, that this concept of multipolarity eventually came to be met with opponents, albeit not immediately. In 1997, senior analyst for the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Yang Dazhou, published an article entitled “My opinion on the global structure after the Cold War” which subjected the traditional Chinese view on multipolarity to thorough, detailed criticism.[9] The article’s main arguments consisted of the following theses:

-     The United States will maintain its superpower status for at least three decades.

-     The United States will maintain its alliances with Japan and Germany.

-     In the next two to three decades, there will be no period of “uncertainty.”

-     There will be no extended transition period from this trend towards multipolarity.

-     There already exists a “pluralist” global structure of “one superpower and four powers.”

-     Only the United States is a genuine “pole” capable of resolving key issues in any region, as exemplified in the case of the Dayton Accords. “The United States plays a leading role which no other nation can replace…it is the only country which is a ‘pole.’”

-     China “does not possess sufficient qualification to be a ‘pole.’”

-     For more than 20 years, no other nations, including Third World countries, will become major powers capable of challenging the five strongest. Thus, the phrase which many analysts adhere two of “one super, the rest strong” is actually inappropriate.

-     It is unlikely that large local wars will break out between nations.

Of course, these theses drew criticism first and foremost from conservative Chinese circles, such as the military. The editor of the National Defense University’s journal, International Strategic Studies, subsequently decided that an article by General Huang Zhenji would be suitable as a response despite the fact that it was rather sharp in tone and “unusual” in style.[10] General Huang mentioned excerpts of Yang’s article without directly quoting it and confirmed the original point of view on each of these points:

-     The US’ decline is inevitable and underway.

-     The US’ global influence is already severely restricted.

-     Quintipolar multipolarity is inevitable, especially in terms of the growing tensions between the United States, Japan, and Germany (as was evidenced by fresh meetings of the highest level between the European Union and Asia which excluded the declining United States).

-     The emergence of the “Third World” has changed global politics and will contain the United States.

-     Local wars are certain even though “peace and development” will be the main trend in the “uncertain” transitional period of coming decades.

Here it is also necessary to note how the Chinese have understood the global political order of the past two centuries while taking into account the fact that the country was effectively a colony and under occupation until only the second half of the 20th century. China’s authorities believe that global politics is a system or “strategic pattern”, among which they distinguish five different pattern periods:

1.     The Vienna System: 1815-1870;

2.     The Transitional System marked by Germany and Italy’s unification and the Meiji reforms;

3.     The Versailles System: 1920-1945;

4.     The Yalta System: 1945-1989;

5.     Transition period…

As can be seen, such an approach shares common elements with Braudel and other authors’ concepts. However, there are some differences, namely, minor differentiations which allow us to draw conclusions on the different criteria for evaluating the global system that are peculiar to the Asian (non-Western) type of thinking.

By the end of the 1990’s, three approaches to future multipolarity had been developed in China. Xi Runchang from China’s Academy of Social Sciences who, like Yang Dazhou, said that there will be “one superpower and four strong powers”, suggested that this pattern represents the new global structure: “Currently there has already basically formed a new embryonic structure supported by the five powers . . . in the 21st century, this new structure will further form and be perfected.[11]

         Yan Xuetong from the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Studies presented a second scenario known as the “theory of the completion of the main project of multipolarity.” Yan argues that the “The basic establishment of the great nations' strategic relations in 1996 caused the post-Cold War transition from a bipolar structure to a one super many strong structure to be completed.[12]

          Song Baoxian and Yu Xiaoqiu’s works from the same institute suppose a third scenario closer to that envisioned by Huang Zhenji and the conservative camp in which “multipolarity is formed” and other countries besides the five strongest only become stronger. They argue that “the development of trends of multipolarity is accelerating” and “a new group of powers is arising” which will play “the role of restricting the five main powers” thus making the trend of multipolarity as the global structure more attractive and diverse.[13]

         In 1997, another senior analyst at the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Studies, Li Zhongcheng, summated these three differing views on the future global structure put forth by the institute and Academy of Social Science’s analysts. Li does not criticize any of the authors, whose ideas he merely presents, but his own expressed views are evidently closer to the third purported scenario.[14]

         Yan Xuetong from the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Studies became the one who genuinely attempted to develop an alternative approach to questions of multipolarity, as when he wrote: “The new international structure has some special characteristics, the most important of which is the replacement of 'poles'(ji) by 'units' (yuan). The nature of 'poles' is long-term stable confrontation, but the nature of 'units' is that the dominant position of key countries is determined by the nature of specific affairs.”[15]

         These distinctions deviated from the conservative line. For example, a large part of Yang Dazhou’s article centered on challenging this point of view by means of the tactic of establishing and clarifying definitions for such key words and phrases as “pole”, “transition era”, “pluralization” (duoyuanhua), “multipolarization” (duojihua), “large nation” (daguo), and “power” (qiangguo). Dazhou defined a “pole” as something founded on the standards of the Cold War era when the only poles were the United States and Soviet Union. Accordingly, the “four strong powers” are not poles because “when compared to the Soviet Union, there still is a great distance.”[16]

         In a similar vein, in his argument against those who claimed that the world is in a transition era set to continue for an indefinite period of time, Yang argues that any transition is by definition not uncertain: “Some people believe that the post-Cold War transition period could continue for 20, even 30 years. This type of argument is not appropriate; a 'transition period' always has an ending time. Suppose the 'transition period' goes on for 20 or 30 years, then this itself already constitutes a new structure different from that of the Cold War period.”[17]

         Overall, Chinese analysts have argued that China should not be purely passive, but can and even should aid the inauguration of the multipolar trend and accelerate its tempo.

For example, China is purported to be in a position to help Europe become a pole. One Chinese author has claimed that the EU wants to play a more important international role as a “powerful, independent pole” in the unfolding multipolar world, and thus is “seeking to at the same time strengthen its ties with the world’s major powers”, hence the release of the important political document, “Building a Comprehensive Partnership with China” in March 1997. The Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Studies’ Feng Zhongping calls this “strategic partnership.” In Feng’s opinion, these new relations with China will “help the EU in its long quest to establish itself on the world stage and become and independent ‘pole’ in global affairs.” The basis for the EU possibly becoming such a “pole” is explained by “China’s status in the unfolding global balance of power.”[18]

         A similar argument was advanced by Shen Yihui, who claimed that the “EU should count on China’s support” because “the establishment of closer ties with China will allow Western Europe to play a greater role in international affairs.” Shen adds that China can not only help the EU gain authority in world affairs, but also that improved relations between China and the EU could help the latter in other problems.” In economic terms, he argues, “the Chinese market is needed to catalyze economic growth in Europe.” Even in the sphere of security, “China can be used to create a fortnight security zone around the EU.”[19]

         Subsequent years have shown that Beijing has been met with certain resistance despite the fact that China has partially penetrated Europe’s market. It should also be noted that current Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, highlighted the concept of multipolarity, economic globalization, and the development of science and technology as the fundamental global trends of the era.

[1] John Lee, “An Exceptional Obsession”, The American Interest,  May/June 2010,

[2] Huan Xiang, "Zhanwang 1986 nian guoji xingshi" (Prospects for the 1986 international situation), in Huan Xiang wenji (Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 1994): 1291. Originally published in Liaowang, no. 1 (1986).

[3] Huan Xiang, "Yatai diqu xingshi he Mei-Su de zhengduo zhanlue" (The situation in the Asia-Pacific region and U.S.-Soviet rivalry strategy), in Huan Xiang wenji, 1115. This article originally appeared in Guoji zhanwang (International Outlook), no. 14 (1984).

[4] Huan Xiang, "Xin jishu geming dui junshi de yingxiang" (The influence of the new technological revolution on military affairs), in Huan Xiang wenji (The collected works of Huan Xiang)(Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 1994), 2: 1263. This article was originally published in Liberation Army Daily, June 7 and June 14, 1985.

[5] It cannot be ruled out that this Chinese author’s opinion was influenced by the shift in the USSR’s political course. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the post of General Secretary of CPSU and subsequently launched Perestroika.

[6] Huan Xiang, "Wo guo 'qiwu' qijian mianlin guoji zhengzhi jingji huanjing de fenxi" (An analysis of the international political and economic environment that China is facing during its seventh five-year plan), in Huan Xiang wenji (Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 1994): 1300.

[7] Gao Heng, "Shijie zhanlue geju zhengxiang duojihua fazhan" (Development of global strategic multipolarity), Guofang daxue xuebao (National Defense University Journal), no. 2 (1986): 32-33.

[8] Luo Renshi, "Strategic Structure, Contradictions and the New World Order," International Strategic Studies 19, no.1 (March 1991): 1-6.

[9] Yang Dazhou, "Dui lengzhan hou shijie geju zhi wo jian", Heping yu Fazhan (Peace and Development) 60, no. 2 (June 1997): 41-45.

[10] Huang Zhengji, "Shijie duojihua qushi buke kangju" (The inevitable trend toward multipolarity), Guoji zhanlue yanjiu (International Strategic Studies) 46, no. 4 (October 1997): 1-3.

[11] Xi Runchang, "Shijie zhengzhi xin geju de chuxing ji qi qianjing" (The embryonic form of the world's new political structure and its prospects), Heping yu fazhan (Peace and Development), no. 1 (1997), cited in Li Zhongcheng, Kua shiji de shijie zhengzhi (Trans century world politics) (Beijing: Shishi chubanshe, 1997): 29.

[12] Yan Xuetong, "1996-1997 nian guoji xingshi yu Zhonguo duiwai guanxi baogao" (A report on the 1996-1997 international situation and China's foreign relations), Zhanlue yu guanli (Strategy and Management), supplementary issue (1996-1997), cited in Li Zhongcheng, Kua shiji de shijie zhengzhi, 31.

[13] Song Baoxian and Yu Xiaoqiu, "Shijie duojihua qushi jishu fazhan" (The world's multipolarity trend continues to develop), Renmin ribao (People's Daily), December 28, 1994, cited in Li Zhongcheng, Kua shiji de shijie zhengzhi , 32.

[14] Wu Hua, Shen Weili, and Zhen Hongtao, Nan Ya zhi shi--Indu (The lion of South Asia--India) (Beijing: Shishi chubanshe, 1997): 2.

[15] Yan Xuetong, Zhongguo guojia liyi fenxi (Analysis of China's national interests) (Tianjin: Tianjin renmin chubanshe, 1996): 55.

[16] Yang Dazhoug, "Dui lengzhan hou shijie geju zhi wo jian," 43.

[17] Ibid, 42.

[18] Feng Zhongping, "An Analysis of the China Policy of the European Union," Contemporary International Relations 8, no. 4 (April 1988): 1-6. Feng was Deputy Director of the Division for Western European Studies at CICIR.

[19] Shen Yihui, "Cross-Century European-Chinese Relations," Liaowang, no. 14 (April 6, 1998): 40-41, in FBIS-CHI-98-114, April 24, 1998. For an additional article discussing improving Sino-EU relations see Wang Xingqiao, "A Positive Step Taken by the European Union to Promote Relations with China," Beijing Xinhua Domestic Service, July 1, 1998, in FBIS-CHI-98-191, July 10, 1998.


Translated from Russian by Jafe Arnold.