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Foreign Policy

New Phase of China-US Relationship

Dec 23 , 2014
  • Wu Jianmin

    Former President, China Foreign Affairs University

The Second China-U.S. Policy Forum was held on December 13th-15th in Beijing. It was co-sponsored by the Party School of the CPC Central Committee and ASPEN Strategy Group. The theme of this Forum was “Peace and Development in the Asia-Pacific Region and Building New Model of Major-Country Relationship between China and the United States.” The Aspen Group sent a high-level team to the Forum, led by General Brent Scowcroft and Professor Joseph Nye. I had the pleasure to attend the Forum and to review the China-U.S. relationship together with the American friends.

We had two days of wonderful discussions. The quality of discussion matched fully the high level of the participants. At the closing session, Ambassador John Negroponte and I made concluding remarks respectively on behalf of the American and Chinese delegations.

Following is the gist of my concluding remarks:

Forty-three years ago, in July 1971, Dr. Henry Kissinger made his first visit to China. It marks the beginning of rapprochement between China and the United States. Though forty-three years are but a short span in the human history, it witnessed sea change in the China-U.S. relationship. It can be divided into three phases.

The first phase is from 1971 to the end of the Cold War. During that period, what brought China and the U.S. together was the common strategic goal to counter Soviet hegemony. This phase registered vigorous progress in China-U.S. ties, especially in the political and strategic fields. Trade and economic ties also grew rapidly. However, restrained by the size of Chinese economy then, the growth of China-U.S. trade and economic relations was negligible. In 1989, the year when Berlin Wall fell, China-U.S. trade volume amounted only to 12.273 billion U.S. dollars.

The second phase is from the end of the Cold War to 2010. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it the end of the Cold War. The China-U.S. relationship was looking for a new foundation, which proved to be more economic. This second phase witnessed incredible development of our trade and economic ties. In 1971, when I went to the U.S. for the first time as a junior diplomat of the Chinese delegation to attend the UN General Assembly, the trade volume between China and the U.S. was merely 5 million US dollars. In 2013, it jumped to $520 billion USD, far beyond the most optimistic forecast.

The third phase began with the informal summit that took place in June, 2013 between President Xi Jinping and President Obama in Sunnyland, California. The two leaders achieved a very important consensus: to build a new model of major-country relationship.

This important consensus was reached following the dramatic changes on the world scene. In 2010, China’s GDP overtook that of Japan to become the second largest economy in the world. China was catching up at an incredible pace. In 1978, when China started a new policy of “reform and opening up to the outside world,” its GDP was $148.1 billion USD while that of US was $2.36 trillion USD, 15.9 times that of China. In 2013, China’s GDP was $9.24 trillion USD and that of the U.S. was $16.8 trillion USD, 1.8 times that of China. Some economists predict that in 2030, China’s GDP would overtake that of the U.S. This dramatic change of balance of power has given rise to a lot of misconceptions.

Quite a few analysts believe that China and the U.S. are bound to engage in confrontation, conflict and even war, just as what happened between an established power and a rising power in the past centuries. War was the means to settle their disputes. China-U.S. relationship would be no exception, they said.

However, President Xi Jinping and President Obama don’t believe in this pessimistic scenario. The new model of major-country relationship between China and the United States is characterized by no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.

What does no conflict and no confrontation mean? It means that President Xi Jinping and President Obama are determined to avoid Thucydides trap. China and the United States will never follow the old confrontational path taken by a rising power and an established power before. This is their common political will.

What does mutual respect mean? Mutual respect is the premise to developing cooperation between China and the United States. Relations between different countries are like the relations between individual human beings. Mutual respect is the precondition for good cooperation. The same thing applies to the relations between major countries.

What does win-win cooperation mean? It indicates the right path to building a new model of major country relationship. The past 36 years’ strong growth of the China-U.S. economic cooperation has been achieved thanks to our commitment to win-win cooperation. Win-win is a cardinal principle that will make Sino-American cooperation sustainable and everlasting.

With China coming to the center stage of international relations, the China-U.S. relationship needs a large foundation comprised of three pillars: mutual cooperation to meet global challenges, increasing bilateral ties, covering economic, political, educational areas and people-to-people exchanges, and cooperation in the security area. A table with three legs is more stable than a table with one or two legs.

The recent successful China-U.S. Summit is indicative of the new phase in which the China-U.S. relationship is entering. On November 10th to 12th, President Obama made his second state visit to China since 2008. President Xi Jinping and President Obama spent more than ten hours together. This was really unusual. Ten hours means three times of normal state visit. The two presidents reached 27 agreements in many areas. Their discussion covered global issues, bilateral cooperation and security ties. The three pillars are interrelated and mutually reinforcing.

On the global issues, the two presidents issued China-U.S. Joint Statement on Climate Change and announced the consensus on negotiations to expand product coverage of Information Technology Agreement. These two announcements have been very well received by the international community.

On bilateral cooperation, the two presidents reached a wide range of agreements. In particular, they agreed to speed up BIT negotiations as the most important issue for bilateral economic relationship. They believed that the early conclusion of BIT negotiations would take China-U.S. economic cooperation to a higher level.

In the security area, China and the U.S. signed the Memorandums of Understanding on establishing a mutual reporting mechanism on major military operations and on a code of safe conduct on naval and air military encounter between the two sides. The international community welcomes these two documents, for they may help reduce tension and enhance mutual understanding.

Some scholars think that there is a fatal weakness for the China-U.S. relationship, which is the lack of mutual strategic trust. They use their observations to support this argument.

My answer to them is as follows: There is no denying that in the China-U.S. relationship, lack of strategic trust exists. But this is not the whole picture. If you look at those 27 agreements reached recently by our two presidents, you will be amazed to see that they covered so many areas. There must be some degree of mutual strategic trust. Otherwise, these 27 agreements would be inconceivable. It doesn’t serve any useful purpose by stressing time and again the lack of mutual strategic trust. To my mind, a more constructive way is to push forward mutual cooperation, through which mutual strategic trust can be built and increased.

It’s true that there are lots of differences between China and the United States. But let me quote President Xi Jinping: “The common interests between China and the United States outweigh by far the differences.” He’s right. There are huge convergent interests between China and the United States, with regard to global issues, bilateral cooperation and security areas. We have to first identify the convergent interests, and build a great variety of communities of interests on the basis of existing convergent interests. By doing so, we can make the foundation of the China-U.S. relationship stronger and stronger. This is the most important guarantee for a sound, robust and sustainable Sino-US relationship. Good cooperation between China and the United States is the ballast for international peace and common prosperity. I hope in 2015, China and the United States will join hands to strengthen our cooperation in various areas. That will be good news not only for our two countries but also for the rest of the world.

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