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Foreign Policy

A “New Type of Great Power Relationship” between China and US

Jul 02 , 2013

The “new type of great power relationship” is often understood as a future mode of China-US relationship that China has proposed to the US. 

In my view, rather than a proposal for future China-US relations, it is more an accurate summary of what the relationship is like after changes since the late 1970s. In other words, the current relationship between China and the US is one that has never existed in the history of international relations. As such a type of relationship has never existed, it is legitimate to label it “new.” 

Now we have to face and answer this question: what is indeed new about this relationship? 

My answer: these two vastly different nations are still able to complement each other a lot. 

This mutual complementarity can also be understood as “interdependence,” a term invented by American political scientists. The level of interdependence between China and the US is unprecedented in history. Before the 1970s, no one could possibly imagine or predict that these two countries would be interdependent to the extent of today. At that time, interdependence existed only between the US and Europe, or among the G7 at the most. The level of interdependence today did not exist between the US and China. 

Because of this mutual complementarity or interdependence, major contradictions have been digested, diluted or miraculously overcome. Such is the myth of the new type of major power relationship between China and the US. 

Admittedly even in this mutually complementary or interdependent relationship, there are problems that must be dealt with. The biggest, most sensitive and most central problem is the asymmetry of the interdependence between the two countries. In terms of the bilateral relationship, the US is the dominant party whereas China is more passive and reactive to pressures from the US. For example, there are over 70 official channels (as opposed to the limited few before the 1970s) between Beijing and Washington, including the S&ED. However, at most of these dialogues Americans talk to China about their “China problems”, exert pressure on the latter and demand change, such as with the RMB exchange rates, IPR protection, Chinese state-owned enterprises, human rights problems, North Korea, etc. China’s problems with the US are seldom discussed or given insufficient attention. In terms of international relations, the US is the dominant player in a series of international regimes, and China is often regarded by the US as a “free rider” that does not faithfully observe international rules or make adequate contribution. The US therefore demands China to do two things: “to act in accordance with international rules” and “to undertake greater and more international responsibilities.” The US takes China as a reformer/improver rather than a challenger or revisionist of the US-dominated international system. In other words, China is expected to complement American primacy/leadership in the world by helping reform existing international institutions. Such complementarity in the international system and global governance is an important part of the overall mutual complementarity of China-US relations. 

In this regard, I must point out here that the “new type of great power relationship” label does not mean we are satisfied with the current state of the China-US relationship. With domestic problems such as being the world’s factory at a high environmental and ecological cost; and with a rising global influence and international status, China is no longer satisfied with this asymmetrical relationship and hopes to make some changes. 

In this sense, the new type of great power relationship proposed by China is intended to define and position the China-US relationship, not only for now but also for the future. 

American politicians seem to pretend that they do not understand the Chinese proposition. They should have known that China, since the 1970s, has not been a challenger to the US such as Germany was in the pre-1945 European system, or the Soviet Union before 1989. And they are acutely aware of the indispensable complementarity provided by China for the US. Since the 1970s, the US increasingly has increasingly needed China to be part of its efforts to solve any global problem. If the US is indeed the “indispensable nation” in this world, as claimed by many Americans, China is America’s indispensable partner to solve the problems America is facing. 

At the heart of this new type of big power relationship, China demands that its relationship with the US move towards greater symmetry, rather than sustaining the asymmetry. Only a roughly symmetrical relationship can be stable. As such, the Chinese request is rather reasonable, but will only be viewed as a challenge by the US. If the US still hopes to maintain dominance in its relationship with China, then the new type of big power relationship between these two nations will stay as it is today or even go backward rather than moving forward. 

Pang Zhongying is Professor of International Relations, School of International Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

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