Changing International System and its Implications on Asia’s Regional Politics

However, the larger implication of the changing international system with a decline in US dominance and a rise in China’s capabilities is seen more as inducing suspicions amongst the other powers in Asia due to lack of transparency in China’s policies and hence inducing a security dilemma.

A great power in the sphere of international relations is characterized by power capabilities like territory, size of the population, resources and its efficient utilization, economic capabilities, political stability, military capability, and technological capabilities. This enables great power to establish its military-economic and political influence on the world. Polarity in the international system is visible when the power capabilities determine the emergence of one or a number of great powers characterizing the international system as Unipolar, Bipolar, and Multipolar.

Multipolarity is a system in which the distribution of power is such that more than two states have nearly the equal amount of power capabilities and exert an equal amount of military, cultural, and economic influence. The “Concert of Europe” for a period can be viewed as an example of a multipolar international system.

However, by the end of World War 2 two rivaling great powers were dominating the world order i.e., the United States and the Soviet Union The nearly equal distribution of power capabilities between the two led to a Bipolar world order.

At the end of the Cold war with the disintegration of the USSR and the US emerging as the hegemonic power led to the international system being Unipolar with the US as the dominant superpower. Initially scholars viewed Unipolarity only as a transitional period which will eventually result in Bipolarity with other great powers challenging the US dominance. But in contrast, the Unipolar world order has survived for a significant period.

However currently with the rise of China, the debate around the changing of the international system from Unipolarity to Bipolarity has resurfaced. Michael Beckley in his essay “China’s Century? Why America’s Edge will Endure”, states that the debate has gained much attention because of its direct relation to America’s decline and this decline will lead to the change in the international system shifting it towards Bipolarity or Multipolarity. He puts forth the declinist argument that the US suffers from an ‘’imperial overstretch’’ and “the burden of hegemony” and these two together with globalization have resulted in US’s decline. However, alternatives argue that these two factors enable the US to take advantage and manipulate the international system to suit its benefits. He concludes that the rise of China cannot be looked upon as the end of Unipolarity because though China has grown economically it still lags behind the US in other power capability parameters.

Birthe Hansen in his article “Unipolarity and World Politics: A Theory and Its Implications” describes the “Unipolar world order as the combination of political project pushed by the single superpower and its superior position to promote it”.

In the context of the rise of China and the decline of the US debate the international system today is looked upon as to go through a structural change from a Unipolar to Bipolar system. But as Beckley in his essay mentions that China’s rise is inevitable as well as incremental but it still lacks behind in terms of military, technological, and even economic capabilities as compared to the USA. Similar to Hansen’s view William C Wohlforth and Stephen G Brooks in their essay “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers in the 21st century: China’s Rise and the Fate of America’s Global Position” consider that Unipolarity is used to analyze the change in the international system but is inadequate to analyze the dynamics in today’s international system and too blunt to track the change from one system to another system. Thus, to characterize today’s international system as Unipolar on the basis of the US leading in power capabilities with respect to China or as Bipolar considering China’s emergence is not adequate. The international system is not Unipolar as the emergence of China is inevitable, but it is also not Bipolar because there is still a huge gap between the power capabilities between both the nation-states

To analyse the current international system Barry Buzan has provided proper distinctions which the concepts of Unipolarity failed to present. He distinguishes between great powers and superpowers and the gap in the capabilities between them. Using these distinctions today’s international system is not properly Unipolar or Bipolar but to a certain extent leading towards Multipolarity with the US as a hegemonic superpower and China as regional dominant power seeking to achieve the capabilities required to be considered a superpower. Buzan represents this as a “1+Y+X” system where ‘1’ represents the US with superpower status ‘Y’ representing China as a regional power striving to fulfill the capability gap required to gain superpower status amongst the other ‘X’ number of great powers.

Influence on Asian regional politics:

Adam .P. Liff and G. John Ikenberry in their essay “Racing toward Tragedy? China’s Rise, Military Competition in the Asia Pacific, and the Security Dilemma”, have presented arguments that can be helpful in framing points of view about the influence of the changing international system on Asian regional politics. The changing international system is characterized by first the decline in the US which has been since long ensuring a secure and stable Asia and second by the rise of China due to which there has been a change in the redistribution of material capabilities in the region.

Liff and Ikenberry both stress the fact that due to these two factors there is a possibility of worsening and destabilizing military competition within the region. The mention that even though a full-fledged arms race is still not visible in the region but ‘there is an evidence of security dilemma induced spiral’ gradually unfolding between China and other powers in the region. The states in the region especially the US treaty allies like Australia and Japan view China’s rising military capabilities and economic growth as ‘exacerbating regional tensions and posing a significant threat’, especially with its increased activity in the south China sea and initiatives like the BRI. Whereas on the other hand, China views US policy and engagements in Asia to maintain the status quo as confrontational and revisionist. This is evident from the fact of China calling the recent Quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD) between the US, its allies Japan and Australia, and the other emerging regional power in Asia that is India as an effort to contain China in the region. Thus, Liff and Ikenberry call this a “textbook case of a security dilemma induced destabilizing spiral” and view that China’s rise is likely to increase illicit backlash and counterbalancing from its neighbors. This has been the case not just with states that are US allies but also with states like Vietnam and Singapore reason being disputes over territory and direct conflicts.

However, there has been an argument that helps the Asian states to tackle the aggravating security dilemma. Amitav Acharya in his Essay “Will Asia’s Past Be Its Future?”, argues that ‘non-cultural sources of regional order such as economic interdependence, norms and institutions help Asian states to mitigate intraregional power asymmetries that would otherwise aggravate security dilemma’.

However, the larger implication of the changing international system with a decline in US dominance and a rise in China’s capabilities is seen more as inducing suspicions amongst the other powers in Asia due to lack of transparency in China’s policies and hence inducing a security dilemma.


Brooks, S. and Wohlforth, W., 2016. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-first Century: China’s Rise and the Fate of America’s Global Position. International Security, 40(3), pp.7-53.

Beckley, M., 2012. China’s Century? Why America’s Edge Will Endure. International Security, 36(3), pp.41-78.

Hansen, B., 2011. Unipolarity and World Politics. New York: Routledge.

Acharya, A., 2004. Will Asia’s Past Be Its Future?. International Security, 28(3), pp.149-164.

Liff, A. and Ikenberry, G., 2014. Racing toward Tragedy?: China’s Rise, Military Competition in the Asia Pacific, and the Security Dilemma. International Security, 39(2), pp.52-91.

Preeti Patil is a post graduate student of Politics with specialization in International Relations, at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Born and brought up in Nagpur, Maharashtra Preeti has done BE in Electronics Engineering from Nagpur University. Preeti has a keen interest in International Relations and Diplomacy. Her research interests are Asian Studies, Feminist IR theory, Asian International Relations theory, Peace and Conflict Studies. She also aspires to join the Indian Foreign Services. Preeti has a passion for cooking and also enjoys reading books and writing poetry and short stories.

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