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Foreign Policy

A New Model of Major-Country Relations: The New Driving Force Behind China-US Relations

Dec 24 , 2013

China-US relations developed well and made new progress in 2013. First, President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama met at the Sunnylands, California in early June. Xi proposed to build a new model of major-country relations with the United States based on avoidance of conflict and confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, to which Obama responded warmly. The Sunnylands summit, in particular the agreement to seek a new model of relations, will set the tone for China-US relations in the next decade. 

Ruan Zongze

In September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a speech at the Brookings Institution titled “Toward a New Model of Major-Country Relations Between China and the United States”. Wang stressed that the avoidance of conflict and confrontation is the prerequisite for the new model of relations, mutual respect is the basic principle and win-win cooperation is the only way to turn the vision into a reality. US National Security Adviser Susan Rice stated in a November speech that “When it comes to China, we seek to operationalize a new model of major-power relations. That means managing inevitable competition while forging deeper cooperation on issues where our interests converge – in Asia and beyond”. 

The Sunnylands summit reveals a more proactive China that seeks to shape the future of China-US relations. By proposing a new model of relations, China shows it has realized that it must work to set the agenda and make the rules. A more confident and proactive China will help to make China-US relations more balanced. At Sunnylands, the two sides agreed to have more retreat meetings and in-depth dialogue at the top level. The China-US relationship will no doubt continue to evolve and expand and it will be fraught with challenges and problems. However, the presidential agreement to build a new model of relations has sent a clear message to the world: China and the United States can become partners in cooperation, and no one should expect to gain from a confrontation between the two. 

During the Cold War, China and the United States came together to deal with the Soviet threat. Today, the two countries need not oppose anybody; they just need to build a new world order from which both can benefit. Establishing a new model of major-country relations that is in the long-term interests of both countries and the peace and prosperity of the world – this vision will provide a new driving force for the China-US relationship. 

Second, bilateral economic ties expanded steadily and the two countries launched Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) negotiations. A stabilizer of China-US relations, the bilateral trade ties have been growing rapidly; still there is a lot of untapped potential. This augurs well for the relationship in the post-financial crisis world. Two-way trade has exceeded 500 billion US dollars; mutual investment has topped 80 billion US dollars. According to the latest report from the China-US Exchange Foundation, the two countries will become each other’s top trading partner in 2022, and two-way investment will prove to be an area of strong growth. At the fifth round of the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July, the two sides agreed to launch the BIT – a treaty signed between two countries to protect and promote bilateral investment activities – negotiations on the basis of pre-establishment national treatment and a negative list approach. A high-standard BIT will serve the interests of both China and the United States and help to upgrade their economic ties. 

The Third Plenum of the Communist Party of China unveiled the roadmap for China’s development in the next decade and beyond and sent out clear signals of the Chinese leadership’s commitment to reform and opening-up. The recently concluded annual Economic Work Conference mapped out the economic blueprint in China’s inaugural year of “comprehensively deepening reform”. Both conferences will give a strong boost to the economic relationship between the world’s two largest economies. 

Third, the bilateral military relationship was restored. This year saw much more frequent interactions and exchanges between the two militaries. Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Chang Wanquan visited the United States and met Chuck Hagel, his US counterpart, in August. The visit signaled the importance of the military-to-military relationship and the determination of both sides to build a new model of military relationship that matches – rather than lag behind – the overall relationship. This new model of military relationship is to be built on the basis of mutual respect, win-win cooperation, mutual trust, all-round development and inclusiveness; it must reject dominance by one side, zero-sum confrontation, mutual suspicion, lopsided development and exclusion of other interested parties. 

On 24-25 August, the Chinese Navy and the Fifth Fleet of the US Navy conducted a joint anti-piracy drill in the Gulf of Aden. The drill included firing of light weapons and main artillery, inspection and detention at short notice, joint rescue mission, etc. Chinese and US helicopters landed on each other’s naval vessels – a first in such drills. On 10 September, the two navies involved four of their vessels and three helicopters in a joint search and rescue exercise conducted in a complex environment near Hawaii. This exercise created many “firsts”: the first formation flight of Chinese and US helicopters, the establishment of the first joint damage control team and the first joint aerial search of the same body of waters by Chinese and US naval assets. On 12-14 November, the two militaries conducted their first joint humanitarian relief exercise near Hawaii – the first time China sent its troops to participate in exercises held on American soil. The exercise, which involved search for life and rescue from the air, was based on the scenario that a third country had been shaken by a powerful earthquake and had requested help from China and the United States. It is also widely reported that China will participate in the 2014 RIMPAC exercises. Despite these positive developments, many difficult issues prevent the military-to-military relationship from being put on a more solid footing. US arms sale to Taiwan, frequent close-up surveillance of China’s coastal area and discriminatory US legislation that singles out China are just a few examples of the impediments to the sustained development of the relationship and more in-depth cooperation between the two militaries. 

On the other hand, it is important to note that the best way to address common challenges is to work together to shape the future. Indeed, China and the United States have expanded their cooperation on international and regional hotspots and global challenges, maintained close consultation and coordination on the Iranian and Korean nuclear issues and Syria, and increased dialogue on climate change, cyber-security and other transnational issues. 

This is not to say there are no differences between China and the United States on some issues. If mishandled, they have the potential to worsen the “trust deficit” between the two countries. 

For example, the Japan factor has a considerable impact on the China-US relationship. Some Chinese media see US statements and actions on issues involving Japan as a litmus test of Washington’s sincerity toward China. The United States maintains it needs to protect the interest of its allies, but its reputation will be damaged in Beijing if it gives a free pass to Tokyo’s right-wing inclinations and uses Japan to keep China down. Another example that may erode trust between China and the United States concerns the fledging regional mechanisms. Some Chinese media are concerned that the US-dominated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is designed to exclude China. On issues like these, it is important to have more dialogue in order to clear the misunderstandings. 

The China-US relationship is, by all accounts, the decisive factor that will shape the future of the Asia-Pacific region and the world. It faces both opportunities and challenges in 2014. It is imperative that China and the United States steer clear of any interference and persist in being friends and partners. A stronger sense of shared responsibilities will put the new model of relations that both sides desire on a more solid footing. 

Dr. Ruan Zongze is Vice President, Senior Fellow of China Institute of International Studies; Editor-in-Chief, China International Studies; an expert on UNDP Human Development Report Advisory Panel.

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