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Foreign Policy

Newly Chartered Course for China-U.S. Relationship

Sep 28 , 2015
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The recent state visit to the United States by President Xi Jinping of China is indeed of historical significance in the sense that it has charts a new course for the China-US relationship in the first half of the 21st century. Global attention has been riveted on this important visit because as the two biggest powers in the world today, the visit has made a huge footprint on the shaping of future global order as well as on mapping a new blueprint for two nations to move forward with cooperative partnership.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama meet with the press after their talks in Washington D.C., the United States, Sept. 25, 2015. (Xinhua/Huang Jingwen)

Chinese President Xi Jinping (3rd L) holds talks with U.S. President Barack Obama (3rd R) in Washington D.C., the United States, Sept. 25, 2015. (Xinhua/Huang Jingwen)

From the tie-less informal conversations to official discussions across the table, President Xi and President Obama were seriously engaged in addressing common challenges facing both nations and in charting a new course of action for two nations as well as for the world as a whole. The challenges are obviously unheard-of both in scale and difficulty, as this is the first time a non-Western nation with the longest uninterrupted civilization of 5,000 years and over 1.35 billion people is catching up with the incumbent Western superpower both economically and geopolitically after more than 300 years’ domination of the world by the West since the industrial revolution.

The first half of the new century will be marked by the ascendance of developing nations as represented by China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey, Indonesia and others, thus creating a global governance system more or less equally shared and managed by developed and developing nations. The future world, as all nations know it, will be a totally new one that requires correspondingly new global governance architecture and institutions.

As I see it, the visit has been hailed as a great success from all over the world for at least three accomplishments.

Firstly, a strategic reassurance of and recommitment to peaceful coexistence between two nations has been affirmed as the guiding principle for bilateral relations to move ahead in various fields, which will certainly help two countries avoid the “Thucydides Trap” and the “zero-sum” game of geopolitics that have bedeviled the world since the beginning of human civilization.

President Xi pronounced with an open heart on the South Lawn of the White House welcoming ceremony that “I am coming for peace!” His repeated message that “the Pacific is big enough for both China and the US” has hit home in the minds of American leaders and people. President Obama responded with the same open gesture and commitment. One can almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the world as the bilateral strategic reassurance and recommitment was uttered at such a solemn moment.

The new type of big-power relationship concept as proposed by President Xi has now been widely accepted and made concrete throughout the visit, laying the foundation for further collaboration between China and the US. Action speaks louder than words and right thinking always leads to right course of actions. This has been more than adequately demonstrated in the numerous agreements reached during this visit.

Secondly, as we commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the United Nations as well as of the global governance architecture erected right after the end of WWII, nations across the world are seriously debating the merits and demerits of the current global governance system that has been with us for seven decades. Many academics have expressed concerns about the disorder and rudderlessness the world has been witnessing as the global order transits from unipolar to multipolar and globalization expands at a fast pace.

What offers great comfort is the fact that both China and the United States have recognized the special responsibilities they bear towards a better global governance architecture and the need to provide global public goods together wherever necessary. During the visit, the two governments signed an agreement to coordinate their official assistance to Africa, a typical example of a collaborative effort of “1+1>2”. The recent Ebola epidemic that wreaked havoc in a few African countries again reminds us of the poor health infrastructure on that vast and promising continent. There is plenty that China and the US can do jointly and in concert with other nations and World Health Organization in this respect.

Other global-governance related examples include climate-change and cyberspace cooperation. As we near the United Nations Paris Climate Change Conference in December, China and the US during this visit reiterated their commitments to reducing energy intensity of their GDPs and making sure the Paris conference is a real success. This has been the third time in a year when leaders of China and the US voiced their strong support for the global efforts to combat climate change and their determination to lead such efforts with their respective national action plans.

Cyberspace management has been quite controversial for China and the US, as various allegations have been flying around — each accusing the other of some wrongdoing. When the enormous potential is being unleashed as the world enters the Third Industrial Revolution led by “internet plus”, artificial intelligence and human intelligent manufacturing, cyberspace has become the new frontier of the 21st century. There is an urgent need to formulate new global rules and build a new governance structure for cyberspace management. Naturally when China and the US are of one mind in chartering a roadmap of what to do or not to do, the whole world applauds warmly and awaits with great interest the promised cooperation between the two nations.

Thirdly, we are happy to note that China and the US are frank and open with each other when addressing difficult issues that are bothering both nations. That has become one of the hallmarks in the bilateral relations. It is indeed a good sign for the two nations to discuss possible frictions and conflict in an amicable fashion and try to manage and control any possible conflict that can pop up in the future. The stakes are simply too high to act otherwise.

It will be misleading and even naïve to say that China and the US have no issue between them, be it human rights, security framework in South-East Asia or cyberspace. The key is to have direct and frank discussions and always keep channels of communication open and smooth.

The world has seen too many challenges both global and regional in nature. As a result, the global governance system is fraying at edges as we move into new and uncharted territories. Let us look at the example of the global trade system. After years of dysfunction, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is definitely not working as we desire it. Some people even suggest that the WTO is already moribund while regional free-trade negotiations are flourishing.

Oftentimes they are not compatible with one another, as demonstrated by Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) and other FTA negotiations in the Asia-Pacific Region. China proposed to start negotiation on an APEC-wide FTA during the Informal Leaders Meeting of APEC in Beijing late last year and the proposal won wide support. That is certainly a good idea to align the different national interests with one another in merging separate FTA negotiations into bigger and wider ones.

The proposal by Chinese President Xi to build “the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” between China and other interested countries offers a new vista and mode of cooperation among nations politically, economically and culturally well into the new century. The accompanying idea of setting up the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank has won the support of as many as 57 countries. It once again shows that we do need creative new ideas to explore the uncharted new territories in global governance for improvement. China is ready to do her part and contribute to the shaping of new global order that will benefit all nations.

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