As China-watchers were quick to point out, President Barack Obama did not even once mention the “New Type of Great Power Relations” on his recent trip to Beijing.
It has been widely noted that President Xi Jinping, however, repeatedly promoted the framework first at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in July, and then at the summit with Obama in mid-November. After the summit, China’s official news agency reported that Xi and Obama “pledged to push forward a new type of major-country relations,” and that “[Obama] is willing to… lift the new type of major-country relationship between China and the U.S. to a higher level.” Xinhua implied that Obama not only accepts, but also actively supports, the “new type” concept. In fact, the Obama administration has been cautiously staying away from it.
Why is China so keen on a “New Type of Great Power Relations” and on creating perceptions of endorsement by Obama? And why is the U.S. reluctant to adopt it? What are the reasons behind such contrasting views –– Chinese enthusiasm and American cynicism –– towards this seemingly benign concept?
When Xi Jinping defined the “New Type of Great Power Relations” in his meeting with Obama at Sunnylands last year, he described it in three points: 1) no conflict or confrontation, through emphasizing dialogue and treating each other’s strategic intentions objectively; 2) mutual respect, including for each other’s core interests and major concerns; and 3) mutually beneficial cooperation, by abandoning the zero-sum game mentality and advancing areas of mutual interest.
Embedded in the “New Type of Great Power Relations” is a nation’s hope for an international environment more conducive to its development. From the rise and fall of its many dynasties to its forced opening up to the West in the wake of the Opium Wars, China has always seen itself as a civilization deeply entangled and affected by history. Recognizing the historically recurring clashes between an existing great power and an emerging power, China looks to the “new type” framework to avoid historical determinism and to seek a less-disruptive rise in an increasingly integrated world.
At the same time, China wants to be viewed as an equal. By using the term “Great Power” to primarily, if not solely, refer to China and the United States, China aims to elevate itself to a level playing field. Obtaining U.S. support of the concept would imply Uncle Sam’s recognition of China’s strength and power. This is what China’s official media sought to show when it suggested Obama’s support of the concept: parity and respect between the two countries.
Furthermore, Chinese leaders believe that the “New Type of Great Power Relations” enables the two powers to establish a new code of conduct in line with China’s interests. By emphasizing the respect of “core interests” as an element of the concept, China pushes its territorial claims to the forefront. This is China’s attempt at more clearly demarking where the United States and other neighboring countries need to toe the line. American adoption of the term would imply that the United States recognizes China’s “core interests.” This mutual respect of each other’s national interests is at the core of China’s aspirations.
The Chinese media avidly reporting on Obama and Xi’s joint endorsement of the concept suggests that there are also domestic reasons driving the “New Type of Great Power Relations.” Although the Chinese concept is an inherently U.S.-geared proposal, the domestic goals of such a concept should not be overlooked. From a Chinese perspective, the United States is the only superpower in today’s world that has the capacity to contain China’s rise. By strengthening China’s view of itself as a recognized and respected power, Xi Jinping is able to foster stronger nationalistic pride under CCP leadership and gain political capital to consolidate his own power at home.
Across the Pacific, Americans view this Chinese concept with suspicion and cynicism. The United States is particularly sensitive to how its adoption of the concept would be portrayed by allies in the region.
Traditionally, American policy makers have no interest in embracing a new geopolitical framework offered by another country. There are unspoken concerns that American recognition of the Chinese concept would not only imply that Obama is taking a backseat role in the bilateral relationship, but also suggest that the United States recognizes itself as the declining established power in a “Thucydides trap” with rising China.
However, the key barrier for the White House is its suspicions towards Chinese intentions. Washington is not fond of Chinese designs to obtain foreign recognition of its “core interests,” which the administration sees as a murky jumble of territorial demands. Cynics see it as China’s “trap” to gain official American recognition of its disputed territorial claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
Moreover, the Pacific power is held back by how neighboring countries in the region would interpret its embracement of the concept. The “Great Powers” framework is inherently flawed, as it ignores key American allies and the important role they play for the United States in the region. From a Japanese perspective, a stronger U.S.-China relationship threatens their security alliance and exacerbates fears of abandonment. Other smaller countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam worry that the stronger partnership would only fuel Chinese expansionism. With such concerns from pivotal allies, the United States is reluctant to risk upsetting the regional security balance.
How can Beijing and Washington reconcile their differing attitudes towards the “New Type of Great Power Relations”? If China seeks American endorsement of the concept, it needs to adopt real changes in its behavior to demonstrate commitment and resolve towards the stability and prosperity of the region. China needs to develop a keener sensitivity to how its actions are perceived. Greater assertiveness in territorial disputes and a hardened stance against its neighbors do no good to improve China’s image. The emerging power needs to take on the responsibility to be a voice for smaller Asian countries and to advance the interests of the Asia-Pacific region. The concept will not succeed if it is not backed by substantive action.
On the other hand, the U.S. should also re-evaluate its position on the “New Type of Great Power Relations.” The concept has helped to break old mindsets, challenge realist thinking and erase a cold war mentality. As Larry Summers once said, he could picture a 21st Century in which the United States and China both prospered, or a 21st Century in which both countries failed to prosper, but not one in which one country prospered and the other did not. The Chinese concept evidently has similarities to the worldview of American leaders and scholars such as Summers, and no country should or can monopolize the ownership of this common worldview. Thus, the Obama administration should not be too cynical about it. A better American strategy could be developed. Instead of being overly concerned with the specifics, the United States should look at the bigger picture: the concept is constructive and helpful so long as it can effectively guide and encourage a non-confrontational foreign policy in China.