2013 has been an unusual year for China-U.S. relations. Since President Obama started his second term and China completed a smooth leadership transition, leaders of the two countries have made a firm commitment to building a new model of major-country relationship, which has charted a clear course for the two countries to develop better bilateral relations. The “Annenberg Estate meeting” between President Xi Jinping and President Obama in June was unprecedented in the history of China-U.S. relations in terms of the length of the meeting, the range of topics covered and the depth of the discussions. In September, the two leaders met again at the G20 Summit. The fifth round of the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in July produced fruitful results, including breakthroughs in some substantive areas. For instance, China agreed to have substantive negotiations with the United States on the China-U.S. Bilateral Investment Treaty on the basis of the “pre-establishment” national treatment and a “negative list”.
The two sides also decided to actively explore a notification mechanism for major military activities. In August, the Chinese and U.S. soldiers were engaged in a joint counter-piracy naval exercise in the Gulf of Aden. Between 8 and 14 September, Adm. Wu Shengli, Commander-in-Chief of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Navy), visited the United States and exchanged views with U.S. counterparts on building a new type of China-U.S. naval relationship. In September, three Chinese navy ships visited Hawaii for a joint search-and-rescue exercise with the U.S. Navy. Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on 19 September and delivered a speech Toward a New Model of Major-Country Relations between China and the United Statesat the Brookings Institution on 20 September 2013.
As is clearly seen, a brief review of the events that have taken place since the beginning of this year has told us that the two countries have put into practice the consensus that leaders of the two countries have reached and started the process of building a new model of major-country relations.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s speech is content-rich and inspirational. Following are some of the highlights from the speech:
Strategic Reassurance between China and the United States
He claims there is a lack of mutual trust between China and the United States, one being a rapidly rising country and the other the existing big power. In view of this, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg proposed “strategic reassurance” in his speech in September 2009. In fact, the two countries have repeatedly reassured each other. The China-U.S. Joint Statement (November 17, 2009) stated the following: “China welcomes the United States as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to the peace, stability and prosperity in the region.” The regional integration that China has pursued is an open and inclusive process. “The US side reiterated that it welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs.” However, due to the complex and intertwined relations between the two countries, the “rebalancing” to Asia-Pacific strategy by the Obama administration in particular, both countries have entertained some misgivings toward each other and have lacked mutual trust.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi has once again explicitly explained China’s intention in his speech. He said that “we have never had the strategic intention to challenge or even replace the United States for its position in the world” and that “we have never thought about pushing the US out of the region.” These statements are no diplomatic parlance. They are plain and straightforward, showing true sincerity. The statements are also factual. China has an edge economically, but security-wise it is still weak. With no allies or military bases overseas, China lags far behind the United States in terms of military power. China and the US are not on par with each other in terms of military strength. China does not have the capacity or intention to challenge the U.S. position. The U.S Secretary of State John Kerry reassured Foreign Minister Wang Yi that it was in U.S. interests to see continued prosperity in China and maintain a partnership with China. He explained that the “rebalancing” strategy was not directed against China. On the contrary, a strong partnership with China was in itself an important part of the “rebalancing” strategy. Statements are important, but actions are more important. It is hoped that Mr. Kerry’s statements and similar statements made by other high-ranking U.S. officials will be translated into their actions.
The Asia Pacific Region — “A Testing Ground” for A New Model of Major-Country Relationship
Both situated in the Asia Pacific region, China and the United States have more converging interests and frequent interactions in the Asia-Pacific than anywhere else. At the same time, the two countries have come into conflict with one other more often in the Asia-Pacific than in any other region. China-U.S. Relations are extremely important to peace and stability in the region, while regional developments may also impact China-U.S. relations. In fact, the US “rebalancing” strategy has further complicated the security situation in the region. Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed in his speech that “the two countries” “shoulder increasingly greater common responsibilities” toward the international community, but first and foremost toward the Asia-Pacific region. He went further to suggest that the Asia-Pacific should be turned into a “testing ground” for the new model of major-country relationship. For a long time, we have said that the Taiwan issue was the most important and most sensitive issue in China-U.S. Relations, as it encroached on China’s core interests. Now the Taiwan issue, still important in the bilateral relations, has nevertheless not gathered as much steam as before. Today, the more pressing issue affecting China-U.S. relations is the way in which the United States handles territorial disputes between China and some of its neighboring countries, including disputes over territorial sea and maritime rights and interests. China has not asked the United States for support. It has only asked the United States not to interfere or meddle in these issues, or send out confusing or even erroneous signals. These issues are for China and relevant countries to settle through peaceful bilateral negotiations without external interference. This could be a test for the new model of major-country relationship.
To Enrich the New Model of Major-Country Relationship through Cooperation
To enhance cooperation between the two countries is a fundamental way to build the new model of major-country relationship. Through efforts of thirty-odd years, a good foundation for cooperation between China and the United States has already been laid. Economically, China and the United States have become increasingly interdependent and neither can thrive in isolation of the other. In many bilateral, regional and global issues, the two countries have also expanded their cooperation and increased their common interests. Foreign Minister Wang Yi touched upon several international issues in his speech, including the Korean nuclear issue, cyber security, climate change, the peace talks between Palestine and Israel, among others. He also mentioned possible China-U.S. cooperation on other regional hotspot issues such as Afghanistan. How will the regional situation develop following the US troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 is an issue that concerns countries in the region. To stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, fight terrorism, crack down on drug trafficking and help Afghanistan to develop its economy and improve its people’s life are some of the areas in which China and the United States may cooperate. Wang Yi optimistically envisaged China-U.S. cooperation in Afghanistan to be a new highlight in the bilateral cooperation. If our two countries expand our cooperation to more and more areas and achieve mutually beneficial results through such cooperation, we are making effective efforts in the building of the new model of major-country relationship.
Tao Wenzhao is a Researcher for the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.