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Foreign Policy

China’s New Vision of Relations with the US

Mar 05 , 2013
  • Sun Ru

    Research Professor & Deputy Director, CICIR

Formally written in the 18th Communist Party Congress Report, the “New Type of Power Relationship” approach has stirred a wave of heated discussion and gained much attention from Chinese policy experts as it provides a key concept to understanding the directions of China’s foreign policy.

The New Type of Power Relationship aims to elevate China’s relationship with other major countries, the China-US relationship being just one among many relations.

However, the discussions found in the report focus mainly on a new type of power relationship between China and the US. And as long as the party report is perceived as China’s grand strategy, the significance of the concept to the China-US relationship should not be undervalued. Most importantly, it indicates that the new Chinese leadership has good intentions in mind and deserves full consideration from the US.

The proposed concept is a typical Chinese discourse used to define the nature of its relationship with the US and the direction that it should evolve. A number of coined words and expressions used to describe China and its bilateral relationship with the US have already been introduced. Former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s “responsible stakeholder”, Economist Fred Bergsten’s “G2”, Harvard scholar Niall Ferguson’s “Chimerica” and the Obama Administration’s “positive, cooperative and constructive relationship” are terms that have provoked profound debates.

With the incoming Chinese leadership, China is attempting to summarize its aims into a single, highly concise concept. Said concept demonstrates that China’s new leadership is determined to keep its bilateral relationship with the US on the right track.

China’s asymmetric power caused the country to be a passive actor when dealing with the US in the past. However, now that the power gap has narrowed, Chinese leadership has increased its confidence and found the courage to take on an active role in the relationship, making it a more balanced cooperation.

The good intentions embodied in the concept mirror the spirit of the country’s overall foreign policy. The report’s passage entitled “Continuing to Promote the Noble Cause of Peace and Development of Mankind” introduces statements that are very impressive when compared to previous party reports. Particularly, it attaches much importance to the common interests of mankind. Some expressions have been included for the first time in the Party’s document, such as aiming to “raise awareness about human beings sharing a community of common destiny” and urging the leadership to “play its due role of a major responsible country, and work jointly with other countries to meet global challenges”.

Although the Chinese report does not use the same flowery language as the Obama Administration does with terms such as “we are in the same boat ”or a “multi-partner world,” it still conveys the same message of aiming to induce greater international cooperation to address common challenges.

The formal adoption of the concept reflects China’s solemn effort to reduce U.S. anxiety about its rise. While Zoellick asks the essential question of “how China would use its influence,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pursues the ancient question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet. Former Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinberg, initiated a framework of “Strategic Reassurance,” which explains how the US reassures China that it will not limit the country’s activities while China reassures the US about its strategic intentions.

This new type of power relationship could be considered China’s direct answer to the questions posed by the US. It illustrates China’s urgency to provide a grand framework that “transcends the traditional ways for great powers to emerge.” In order to maintain the long-term stability of their bilateral relationship, China prefers to restrain itself and avoid the old paradigm of power struggle in a sacrifice for hegemony.

By adopting the new concept, China rejects the example of the U.S.-Soviet relationship from its grand design. Since World War II, the only “peer competitor” that challenged the US hegemony was the Soviet Union who believed the goodness of socialism and wanted to “bury” the decayed capitalism, while on the other hand, the U.S. wanted to dump the “evil empire” into the nearest trash bin. They led separate camps and fought a life-and-death struggle.

Unfortunately, during the post-Cold War period, China temporarily took the place of the Soviet Union and was forced to face the growing mistrust and pressure from the world’s only superpower. After the heavy blow from the financial crisis and suffering from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the US has become more skeptical of China.

Now, China has to make a choice and it chooses to avoid the Cold-War scenario. To reassure the US, China has changed its tone on the question of international order. The party report does not refer to building a new international political and economic order but has rather pledged to make the existing international system more just and equitable. The report hints that China would not seek to overthrow the current US-dominated international system.

However, given the US’ rebalance strategy and its increasing military presence surrounding China, building a new type of power relationship looks gloomy. As some experts have pointed out, there is no existing road map to copy. Some experts warn that another US arms sale to Taiwan would be a test to the new Chinese concept. Domestic pressure would force the new leadership into a corner and give them no leeway to take a flexible and bold foreign policy stance. Nonetheless, due to the extreme importance of the China-US relationship, it is worthy for the U.S. to grasp the opportunity and shape its shared future with China.

So far, over the past years, both sides have accumulated mutual understandings and consensus on some principles and those common grounds could drive opportunities for further cooperation. For instance, both sides recognize that in an interconnected world, win-win solutions rather than zero-sum games are the more advantageous approach. Both China and the US have agreed that all countries have common interests when confronting transnational issues or global threats and have agreed on the overwhelming importance of international cooperation. Additionally, they have decided to step away from 19th and 20th century power politics while agreeing that international institutions must allow emerging powers greater responsibilities and the ability to voice their policies.

China wants to enhance relations with “major countries”, while the US uses the term to build “deeper and more effective partnerships with other key centers of influence”. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that the new power relationship formula does not mean both sides must see eye to eye on every issue. In Syria, Iran, North Korea and other international issues, differences and discords will continue, but both sides can now explore better solutions and compromise under the spirit of a new type of power relationship.

Sun Ru is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of Institute of World Political Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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