The idea of China and the United States making joint efforts to develop a “new type of major power relationship” was put forward by Beijing in the hope of having the bilateral relationship progress in a steady way. Chinese President Xi Jinping expounded the proposal during his Sunnylands meeting with US President Barack Obama in June 2013. He said the new type of relationship should follow three principles: no conflict and confrontation, mutual respect and win-win through cooperation. The US side responded to the proposal positively. The constructive attitudes demonstrated by both countries assured the world that the two global powers would cautiously handle their differences and strive to develop cooperation.
From the second half of 2014, however, there appeared a subtle change in Washington’s attitude towards the concept. The US no longer officially used the term of “building a new type of major-power relationship between China and the US.” Some officials and policy advisers said privately that the US prefers action to slogan. Observers have also noticed the absence of the expression of “new type of bilateral military relations” in a joint statement issued after the 2014 Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, mostly probably because of the opposition from the US side.
Contrary to the American tepidness, the Chinese side firmly believes that the constructive thought behind the “new type of major-power relationship” will not only usher the bilateral relations towards the right direction but will also bring about a brighter future for international relations.
When meeting with visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry in May 2015, President Xi told his guest: “President Obama and I agreed that a joint effort by both China and the US to develop a new type of major-power relationship conforms to our common interests.” He noted that many “early stage results” had been achieved in developing the new relationship. Statistics indicate that bilateral trade, investment and personnel exchanges all reached record highs last year. Progress had been made in energy, military and cultural cooperation and both countries had kept close contact and coordination on major international issues and issues of global concern.
On August 25, both countries announced simultaneously that US National Security Adviser Susan Rice would visit China. NSA spokesman Ned Price said that in her visit Rice “would reaffirm the United States’ commitment to an all-round strengthening of a constructive US-China relationship as well as discuss a wide range of issues before Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States.”
President Xi met with Rice on August 29. He once again called for mutual trust between the two countries for a stable relationship. He reiterated that China would unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development and work with the US to develop the new type of relations so that both sides can avoid conflicts and confrontation, respect each other and cooperate for common benefits.
Obviously, the different approaches China and the US have adopted on diplomatic occasions to interpret the “new type of major-power relationship” did not stem from the difference in their idiomatic expression but rather from their different understandings of the subtle changes that are happening to the Sino-US relationship in the context of current global transformation. China’s insistence on the phrase stems from Chinese leaders’ basic assessment of the current changes in the world and the trend of international relations as well as its firm belief in and full confidence of peaceful development. It also reflects Beijing’s serious and insightful thinking about its foreign relations, including that with the US, in the new era.
However, the US has never broken free of its tradition of “realistic” diplomacy when considering its relations with China. With regard to the above-mentioned three principles suggested by China, the US is only interested in the first one, namely “no conflict, no confrontation.” This, however, is merely based on a common sense that, given the two countries’ real strength and their bonded interests, the loss caused by confrontation may well outweigh the possible gains for both sides and even be unbearable for them. That’s why they chimed in easily when the “no confrontation” concept was raised.
China regards “no confrontation” as the minimally required among the “three principles” for the new-type Sino-US relationship. If resting on that standard only, the relationship won’t see a fundamental improvement, for the two countries only need to manage and control risks and crises. To materialize the “new type of relationship”, the two countries need to aim at higher goals to make their relationship one of really friendly co-existence and cooperation. The unique importance of the Sino-US relationship requires both governments to be far-sighted. Both countries’ decision-makers should reach such a common understanding: while both sides need to strive to attain the lowest goal of “no confrontation”, they should know that that is only for the creation of conditions for the attainment of the higher goals. Meanwhile, the far-sighted thinking and high goals advocated by the Chinese side should be converted to concrete policies for settling practical problems. Only when the strategic thinking is conducted with broad vision and far-sightedness can the relationship between big countries live up to high expectations; and only when policies are carried out in a flexible way can there be way out from diplomatic deadlocks.
Undoubtedly, cooperation and co-existence is where the Sino-US relationship should lead to and is the only choice in the two great nations’ pursuit of peace and development. The largest challenge we are now facing is how to cope with the complexity and uncertainty of the current changes in the international situation and big-power relations. The most important is to handle the relations in a far-sighted way with correct concepts and attitudes. Any move to treat the current strategic and sensitive issues has to be taken from a long-term perspective about the Sino-US relationship. More urgently than ever before, this relationship needs a development framework that is oriented towards the future. This framework should be based on the pursuit of the higher goal of cooperation and co-existence.
All positive changes in historical development were closely related with statesmen’s far-sighted political commitment at critical moments, as was repeatedly evidenced in the Sino-US relations since the ice-breaking contact in early 1970s. Now the relationship is once again coming to a moment of historical transition and calls for far-sighted thinking and historical commitment on the part of both countries. The idea of “building a new type of major-power relationship” is an answer to that historical call. What are needed next are both sides’ active interaction in politics and innovation in policy. The Sunnylands meeting and Zhongnanhai chat between Xi and Obama yielded positive results. We have reason to believe that the forthcoming visit by Xi to the US and his new round of conversation with Obama will bring about a more hopeful future to the Sino-US relationship.