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20 years after 9/11

US and China will both be 'Middle Kingdoms' in future: Bill Emmott

Former Economist editor foresees a bipolar world operating separately

Paramilitary police march in formation at the entrance to Beijing's Forbidden City. Bill Emmott says both the U.S. and China will become "Middle Kingdoms" in a bipolar world.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- After two decades of the war on terror, the world is back to where it was pre-9/11: a superpower competition between the U.S. and China, according to former Economist editor Bill Emmott.

Now we enter an increasingly bipolar world where Washington and Beijing operate separately in international affairs, talking to each other only when they need to, he told Nikkei in an interview.

Emmott called both countries "Middle Kingdoms." The likes of Japan and the U.K. will need to choose one major power as their main friend but will also want to maintain relations with the other, he predicted.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: Please share with us your bird's-eye view of the 20 years since 9/11.

A: If I think back to the 12 months before 9/11, two things stick in my mind. One is that during the U.S. election campaign between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Bush repeatedly criticized the Clinton-Gore administration for attempting what he called foreign policy as social work and criticized nation-building, criticized the desire to intervene in overseas conflicts, criticized the interventions in the Bosnian wars.

The second thing that sticks in my mind is that the big foreign policy event of the Bush administration before 9/11 was the U.S.-China spy plane incident over Hainan Island in April 2001.

The fuselage of the U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance plane sits on the tarmac in June 2001 at the Lingshui airfield on China's Hainan Island. It collided in midair with a Chinese fighter jet on April 1, 2001, sparking a diplomatic crisis.   © Reuters

Now, 20 years after, we have gone full circle. Now the biggest issue is U.S.-China. Relations with China, competition with China, friction with China, communication with China, all of the issues that were exactly there, just in a different era, 20 years ago.

While a lot of attention is placed on the fact that the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan, the bigger picture is that the U.S. has gone through a cycle in foreign affairs and its role in the world that brings it back to where it was 20 years ago -- that U.S.-China relations is the No. 1 issue, and that the U.S. is not capable of and does not feel willing to act as a global policeman.

That's where the U.S. was on Jan. 1, 2001, and it's where it is now, on Sept. 1, 2021. We have now returned to the principal reality of world affairs, which is the superpower competition between the U.S. and China, and the issues of global governance that that conflict raises.

Q: Has the Biden administration's handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal undermined U.S. leadership on the global stage?

A: It was already the case, before the withdrawal from Afghanistan, that America's leadership under Joe Biden has been disappointing, has been quite weak. Every major topic -- the global vaccination program, climate change, relations with China in terms of building real alliances and coherence with allies, the global economic recovery -- everything that he's done has seemed like it was half-hearted and with little follow-up and largely directed at domestic audiences and domestic politics.

While allies obviously are very glad to have the Biden administration rather than [former President Donald] Trump and glad to have a sense of American multilateralism and collaborative spirit, nevertheless American leadership has remained weak during 2021.

Q: Why do you think the Biden administration is half-hearted in these global topics?

A: The reason is because the domestic political situation is so polarized in the United States and because the Biden administration's domestic political position is so fragile. They can hardly command a majority in the Senate. They have a small majority in the House. They are in serious danger of losing their majority in the House in 2022 for many reasons.

Their domestic position is fragile and therefore they have decided that international leadership is not worth spending their political capital on. All their political capital has to be spent domestically, and so then you're left with "gestures" in international affairs, rather than any clear leadership.

Q: What are the next 20 years of the world going to look like?

A: The only thing I can foresee is the division of the world between the West and China. The U.S.-led West and China will simply operate separately in international affairs, communicating and discussing only when they need to. Basically it will be two massive powers operating in parallel rather than in any way together.

A new Cold War is not the right analogy, because the economic connections are too strong. Nevertheless, we are going to see a bipolar world, the U.S. and China both operate as "Middle Kingdoms."

Each of them is its own Middle Kingdom, and all other countries have to choose who is their main friend, what are the most important connections. A world that gradually divides into two, but with every other country, like Japan, like the U.K. somehow needing to be in the middle.

Of course, in the case of Japan and the U.K., we would remain mainly in the U.S. camp. [But] we will be wanting to foster relations with China more closely than the U.S. wants.

Bill Emmott expects a Ronald Reagan type of inspiring leader to emerge in the U.S. in the coming years.

Now, this will depend upon the strength of the U.S. A risk factor is a serious crisis of democracy in the United States. We've seen a foretaste of it on Jan. 6. It's entirely possible for the U.S. to descend back into the world of Jan. 6.

However, my central expectation is that the U.S. will bounce back, that the institutions of the U.S. will remain strong, the economy remains robust, and we see something equivalent to what happened after Vietnam and after Watergate -- 10 to 15 years of rehabilitation, reemerging stronger in the second half of the 1980s.

Q: In such a divided society, neither a Donald Trump type nor a Joe Biden type of president seem to be able to unite the country. Do you expect a prominent leader to emerge and lead the U.S. in that period of rehabilitation that you envision?

A: Yes, I think that it will be under a new, inspiring leader, a sort of Ronald Reagan type of leader. The U.S. is very capable of producing such people. They are semipopulist but with an internationalist and obviously values-based world view. That's what we are really waiting for.

It has to be somebody who appeals in a bipartisan manner, but certainly to the independents. We may go through a period of some disappointing leaders before we get there -- a Jimmy Carter-type or a Gerald Ford-type interregnum. But America needs that kind of inspirational center. It also has to be a change of incentive for the Republican Party, away from this very anti-democratic and almost fascistic sort of tendency that they have got themselves trapped into.

Q: You say that democracy is under threat, especially in the U.S. What is at stake when it comes to the competition between democracies and autocracies?

A: First of all, the balance between peace and war is at stake. The world has been very lucky that there has been no actual superpower conflict since 1945 -- in a world in which we have weapons of mass destruction held by both parties. The most fundamental thing at stake is world peace, world security, and the worst possible outcome for the world would be, clearly, a hot war between the superpowers.

And that is likely to happen when the U.S. and the democracies become weak.

What is it that makes a difference between the strength and the weakness of the U.S., Europe, Japan? It's basically their economic health and their economic prosperity. And since we make up a very large part of the world economy, that also acts as a huge example to other countries as to whether they should be following our kind of liberal values or whether they can conclude that those have failed and that they need to follow their own path.

Going back to 9/11, who won the war? Was it Osama bin Laden? Or was it the U.S.? In a way, both lost. There was no winner. Al-Qaida was defeated. Osama bin Laden was killed, and the jihadi cause did not advance very successfully.

But, he achieved one goal, which was to force America to spend money and blood, fighting massive wars around the world, drew it out of its safe haven of its own territory, and weakened it, and the U.S. role in world affairs ended up weaker in 2021 than it was in 2001.

We have to re-earn some trust. We have to show that we genuinely wish to collaborate and have equal say in global governance, an equal say in setting of the rules of the game, and that we're willing to find shared solutions to shared problems. The sense that we have double standards, that we are hypocritical or that we are not very generous, is what limits our scope in global affairs.

We are out of the era in which the West is the provider of public goods to the world. We now have a different world, with a much wider range of powerful countries that need to contribute to those public goods. China is the biggest one among them.

We have to rebuild the sense that, whether we are democracies or authoritarians, there are some global public goods that we need to collectively provide, and not according to the West's rules, not according to China's rules, but rather according to a collectively determined set of rules. We are a long way from achieving that.

Q: Chinese President Xi Jinping has established authoritarian rule and he looks to extend his term next year. Since this is a matter of peace and war, how do you see the future of China?

A: Whether the U.S. and China are weak or strong, fragile or united, is dependent almost entirely on internal questions. It's not that one gets stronger which makes the other weaker, or vice versa. Rather, we have to ask ourselves questions about the future of each of them.

About the future of China, I think that China clearly has a problem, which is that very centralized control always makes the economy less flexible, it discourages entrepreneurship and it's liable to create internal conflict.

In my view, the Xi Jinping style of government is not sustainable for the long term. His centralizing instinct has been a reaction to divisions and weaknesses and perceived dangers facing the Communist Party in the first part of the 21st century. He has successfully stabilized the situation, but this is not a sustainable solution for the long term.

The big danger for China is the internal conflict over the succession to Xi Jinping and over the future of the distribution of power within China. Such a centralized, personality-based dictatorship is not sustainable in a population of 1.3 billion and the world's largest economy. My biggest worry is about internal conflict in China.

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