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Foreign Policy

A New Type of Major-Country Relationship: Challenges and Opportunities

Sep 09 , 2015
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Then China’s Vice President, Xi Jinping in February 2012 called for a new type of major country relationship between China and the U.S.. In March the same year, Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, responded positively response by saying that the two countries should create a framework for building trust over time and there was no intrinsic contradiction between supporting a rising China and advancing America’s interests. The common understanding paved the way for the fourth round of China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and the third round of the China-U.S. High level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange (CPE) that year, focusing on building a new type of major country relationship.

Three years after that, however, it seems that the U.S. no longer takes a positive attitude towards the concept of a new type of major country relationship. Several changing factors affect the U.S. attitude. One fundamental factor is the weakening of U.S. willingness to engage China in the international system. After China’s reform and opening up, the dominating thinking in the U.S. was to shape China’s development path by engaging it in the international system. But China has embarked on its own way to achieve successful development and actively initiate some regional mechanisms in recent years. Some U.S. scholars and officials began to doubt China’s role in the international system, arguing that China was a “free-rider” and harbored the intention to push U.S. out of Asia or even upend the existing international system.

The U.S. may feel confused about the prospect of the domestic politics in China. Some U.S. scholars and media outlets have no clue about the direction of China’s new round of reform and feel pessimistic about China’s prospects, believing the country has not changed its policies on some domestic issues, such as internet and media regulation. Recently, China’s proposed new legislation on overseas NGOs raised more doubts and misunderstandings in the United States.

Another changing factor is the foreign policy of the two countries as China gradually takes a more active foreign policy rather than a reactive one in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the neighboring maritime area. In November 2013, China’s Ministry of National Defense issued an announcement of the aircraft identification rules for the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. China has also taken actions to safeguard its own national interest in the South China Sea despite U.S. pressure. The U.S. has carried out its Asia-Pacific Rebalance Strategy, a clear shift of its strategic priority to the region. One of the many signs is to further consolidate its alliance system, which is perceived by some Chinese as a Cold War relic and a potential threat to the regional peace and stability.


The U.S. alliance system in the Asia-Pacific, to some extent, is at odds with “no conflict or confrontation”, one principle of the new type of major-country relationship, because the strengthening of the alliance system will increase the strategic mistrust and might intensify the strategic competition between the two sides. It is not realistic for the U.S. to abandon its alliance system in the short term and it might lead to a problem that cannot be easily bypassed when the two countries build the new type of major-country relationship.

Under such circumstances, the first state visit paid by Chinese president Xi Jinping to the U.S. this September is extremely important. The two sides should grasp the opportunity to push forward the new type of major-country relationship in practical ways. The first thing is to elaborate or add more concrete contents to the idea. For instance, the U.S. might question the definition of “mutual trust” and “win-win cooperation”. What is “respect” and does it necessarily mean that the two countries should respect each other’s different ideologies or values besides the tangible national interest? In what areas should both countries seek win-win cooperation?

Although China and U.S. may have different understandings over the principles of a new type of major-country relationship, the idea in general is a useful guideline for the future development of the bilateral relations. To narrow the gap and fill the cracks, the two countries should facilitate cooperation step by step. Some issues on which the two have already reached common understanding should be further pushed forward during Xi’s visit. On climate change, the two countries should carry on the momentum and might release another joint announcement to create favorable atmosphere for the upcoming Paris Climate Conference. On military-to-military relations, a code of conduct on air military encounters might be expected. On BIT negotiations, the two countries should speed up the process and take great political courage to make progress.

Breakthroughs should better be made on thorny issues. As for cyber security, both countries should respect each other’s interests and reach some fundamental consensus like promising not to attack each other’s key infrastructures, regulating their own actions and forming basic norms. The two might explore the possibilities of cooperating on fighting against cyber crime. On the South China Sea issue, the two should avoid the negative consequences of alliance politics. China and the U.S. must lessen their strategic mistrust via more communications and actions. China should speed up consultations with ASEAN over a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, while the U.S. should help its allies Japan and the Philippines to mitigate their tensions with China.

The China-U.S. relationship is not only the most important bilateral relationship in the world, but also the most complex one. No conflict and confrontation is the bottom line for the two countries, which is relatively easy to maintain. There are still numerous challenges ahead for both to realize mutual trust and win-win cooperation. Yet the new type of major country relationship will accumulate more positive energy if both countries can grasp the opportunities and achieve functional cooperation in deferent spheres by practical and systematic means.

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