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Foreign Policy

Developing a New Type of Major Power Relationship Between China and the U.S.

Jan 04 , 2013
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Director of China Foundation for International Strategic Studies, Senior Adviser at Pangoal Institution

At China’s proposal, the joint development of a new type of relations between major powers was brought up for discussion at the Fourth U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) held in Beijing in May 2012, an achievement that marked a large step toward a brighter future for the development of the bilateral relations between these two big powers. Has China hit upon the idea by chance? Of course not. This new concept has been based on China’s understanding of three key issues: the relationship between major powers, China’s development path and the orientation of Sino-US relations.

Since the end of the Cold War, China’s understanding of the changes in the international situation, the international pattern and the relations between big powers has continued to evolve. At first, China sensed the phase-out of the bipolar structure and the phase-in of multi-polarization and globalization; then, it came to see the development of an international pattern dominated by one superpower and several big powers; now, as new powers continue to grow, it is clear that multi-polarization and globalization will be an irreversible trend in the development of the international system.

Immediately after the conclusion of the Cold War, China undertook a policy of reform and opening-up. With the arrival of the 21st Century, China has eyed a peaceful rise. Moreover, it has broadened its policy of peaceful development into one of peace, development and cooperation; substantiating its stand for a harmonious world. Although Sino-US relations took a sharp turn in 1989, China has always maintained that sooner or later, these two major powers will see an improvement of their relations, an increase in mutual trust, seek cooperation, and avoid confrontation. In 1997, for the first time in history of their bilateral relations, China and the United States came to the joint goal to grow this major power relationship.

Recent developments over the past two years, however, have driven Sino-US relations to another crossroads. Seeing the continuous waning of its strength due to its anti-terrorist wars (especially military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan), the global financial crisis and the constant rise of China (whose GDP has grown to be the world’s second largest and whose political and military influences have continued to grow), the United States has had to adjust its strategy and shift its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region; thus, triggering a noticeable buoyancy of strategic mistrust between China and the United States. To counter this mistrust, China has a clear-cut vision for the road ahead: it would like to join efforts with other major powers, especially the United States, while keeping to its path of peaceful development and fostering a new type of relationship between major powers based upon cooperation. Encouragingly, China’s proposal has won positive response from the US leadership this time.

The new type of relationship being explored by China and the United States will have the following characteristics:

No Hostility or Rivalry

This will be key to the long-term development of Sino-US relations and prevent these major powers from falling into serious military conflicts or even wars due to changes in their respective strength or pursuits of different interests. Accordingly, both sides will exclude containment and counter-containment from their foreign policy options. 

Mutual Respect and Healthy Competition

In the political arena, the two countries will treat each other on an equal footing and without discrimination; in the economic field, they will not engage in any competition that runs against WTO rules; on the military front, they will keep clear of any arms race; in cultural development, they will borrow and absorb whatever is useful and helpful; and in matters concerning value, soft strength, formulation of multi-lateral rules, and choice of development modes, they will compete against each other openly while learning from each other’s strengths to offset their own weaknesses. 

Cooperation, Coordination & Sharing of International Responsibilities

Apart from economic cooperation, China and the United States will join hands to meet global challenges, create a partnership for mutual benefit, and cooperate with each other in a wide range of fields including non-traditional security, global commons, global and regional multilateral mechanisms, and major international issues. Instead of a G-2 relationship, as termed by many, this partnership will be a C-3, incorporating cooperation, coordination and consultation, as proposed by Dai Bingguo during the Fourth S&ED.

Mutual Trust

To say the least, these major powers will respect each other’s core interests, know each other’s bottom line, and never try to challenge it. In areas frequently exposed to disputes and frictions, they will intensify confidence-building measures, maintain strategic contact with each other, strive to minimize misunderstanding, avoid strategic misjudgment, and bring into place a basic framework of strategic stability (or a strategic nuclear relationship).

Overall Stability

Dialogues will be continued between China and the U.S. in all fields and at all levels. There will be no interruption of these dialogues simply due to frictions over a specific issue at a specific time, or long-time suspension of contact and exchanges between the two sides.

The exploration by China and the United States into the development of a new type of relationship between major powers is an unprecedented effort. If successful, it will momentously advance human history, although the road to its achievement may be extremely arduous. After all, Rome was not built by one man. The development of this new type of major powers relationship calls for concerted efforts by the governments, academics, and general public of both China and the United States.

Zhang Tuosheng, Director of Research and Senior Fellow at the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies


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