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Foreign Policy

On Building a New Model of Major-Country Relations Between China and the United States

Mar 28 , 2016

——A Dialogue Between Dai Bingguo and Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on How to Avoid the “Thucydides Trap”

On 19 March, when attending the China Development Forum 2016 at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, former State Councilor Dai Bingguo had a dialogue with former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on the issue of avoiding the “Thucydides Trap”. The following is an excerpt of Dai Bingguo’s remarks:

Dear friends,

It gives me great pleasure to join Dr. Kissinger in this dialogue. Over many years, we have had candid and in-depth discussions on a number of occasions, which have been truly inspirational for me. What Dr. Kissinger said just now is also quite thought-provoking. The theme of the forum is development, while our discussion is all about peace and conflict. Yet I think the organizer of the conference has made a good arrangement by linking the subject of development with the issue of peace and conflict.

I would like to share with you some of my thoughts about this topic today. My key message is, for two major countries like China and the US, jointly building a new model of major-country relations, which means no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, is the only and right way to avoid falling into the “Thucydides Trap”. There is no other option.

Why should China and the US build a new model of major-country relations together?

As you all know, with the evolution of human society, countries have never been so interdependent and their interests so closely integrated as they are today. In fact, they have become a community of shared interests and common future. We all live in the same global village, and together, we face various kinds of new and complex problems, threats and challenges that no country can deal with on its own. The families in this global village, especially the two big families, China and the US, must respect and work with each other to meet these challenges together. China and the US should not quarrel day and night, nor fight with each other or even fight to death.

In our world today, the sophistication of weapons has reached an alarming level,and they pile up like mountains. China and the US are both nuclear-armed states, with no shortage of state-of-the-art conventional weapons as well. If there is a war between China and the US, there will be no winner. The only result will be mutual destruction and the world will suffer. Humanity has suffered enough from disastrous wars and simply cannot afford another even more destructive and devastating world war. A war between China and the US is bound to wreak havoc on humanity. The one that provokes such a war shall be condemned by history. China and the US are both great countries. I believe none of them would like to carry the burden of guilt for committing such a heinous crime.

In my view, we can be certain about two things in the 21st century. First, no one is able to supplant the US as the only superpower, and the US won’t decline. Second, no one can stop the rise of China, Russia, India and other major developing countries. China’s development will benefit the Chinese people, and it is also a contribution to the world and the entire humanity. The US stands to gain most from China’s development. If China stops its development and gets trapped in poverty, turbulence and chaos, it will be a horror for the US. President Obama has also expressed similar views lately.

China is a country nourished by 5,000 years of civilization, and a country committed to peace and development. We do not seek hegemony. The only thing we want is to make life better for the Chinese people and the world a peaceful place. So there is no need for the US to be wary of China. Rather, it should embrace China’s peaceful development with an open mind. I see no reason why the US shouldn’t exert its utmost to cooperate with China and maximize the benefits from China’s development. A policy that aims to contain and hold back China’s development or even get into a fight with China would be the most foolish mistake. It’s like making the worst money-losing deal. If that happens, the American century will be over, as Professor Joseph Nye said. Therefore, there is only one path before us, that is, building a new model of major-country relations together.

Then the question is, is this path going to work?

My answer is yes.

If you look at the world history, the “Thucydides Trap” is not an iron law. We can find many precedents where conflicts were avoided. For example, there has been no world war for 70 years since the end of the Second World War. This is something worth studying. Today, China and the US have both the ability and wisdom to leap over this so-called “trap” as they should and make history together by setting off on a new path.

In the development of China-US relations, when Dr. Kissinger and President Nixon opened the door to China 45 years ago, the old-generation political leaders of the two countries actually laid the foundation for the building of the new model of major-country relations today. Let me read a few lines of their remarks at that time.

President Nixon said,”I will undertake what I deeply hope will become a journey for peace, peace not just for our generation but for future generations on this earth we share together.” “(China and the US) can find common ground, despite our differences, to build a world structure in which both can be safe to develop in our own way on our own roads.” “What we must do is to find a way to see that we can have differences without being enemies in war.” Premier Zhou Enlai said, “these differences (between China and the US) should not hinder China and the United States from establishing normal state relations on the basis of the Five Principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence; still less should they lead to war.” From these words, we can tell that the statesmen and leaders of the two countries already set the goals, direction and framework for the development of China-US relations at that time, which is truly remarkable.

For the past decades, China and the US have basically sticked to the path of major-country relations designed by the leaders of the older generation. Although there have been wind and rain, even thunder storm at times, China-US relations have kept moving forward, and reached a level unimaginable decades ago. The breadth and depth of China-US relations today are both unprecedented. The fact that China and the US, two countries with different social systems and development levels,have taken their relations to such a height is indeed a miracle in human history. It has well proven that this path works.

During their historic meeting in 2013, President Xi and President Obama reached strategic consensus on jointly building a new model of major-country relations, and laid out the fundamental goals and direction as well as the underlying framework for growing China-US relations in keeping with the new realities of the 21st century. This is the first time in human history that an emerging power and an established power have reached strategic consensus on avoiding the “Thucydides Trap”. It is a continuation of the strategic thinking of the old-generation political leaders of the two countries and a result of thorough consideration as well as patient, candid communication and dialogue involving the leadership and strategic communities of the two countries over many years. It is an incisive summary of the experience and lessons of human history, and a major decision welcomed by the people of the two countries and the world at large. China and the US are both countries that value credibility. I trust the two countries will honor their words with actions and deliver their promises.

Then, how to build the new model of major-country relations between China and the US in the years to come? Here are some of my thoughts:

First, generations of political leaders of both countries must focus firmly on the goal of building the new model of major-country relations and press ahead unswervingly no matter what difficulties may stand in the way. It is also important to have the understanding and support of the two peoples and involve them in the building of that relationship. In simple language, I think there should be no “ceiling” for the growth of China-US relations, but there must be a “bottom line”. There is no “ceiling” for we may cooperate as well as we can, although we won’t form an alliance. There must be a “bottom line”, that is to say, the two countries shall not enter into confrontation or conflict. There must be no cold war, let alone a hot war.

Second, leaders and diplomats of both countries should maintain and even increase timely, candid and in-depth strategic dialogue and communication. This will help increase mutual trust and avoid misreading or misjudgment. The US needs to take an accurate view of China’s development and strategic intention, well develop cooperation with China in different fields, and not to see whatever China does as a challenge to the US. China must be clear-headed about the fact that it is still a developing country and will remain so. We must focus on our own development and not attempt to challenge the superpower status of the US. The two sides should see each other as friends and partners, not a rivalry and enemy. This is very important.

Third, there is no precedent for us to follow in building the new model of major-country relationship. It is fine if some people have different ideas. They can keep thinking until they think it through and the two sides can always continue the discussion. But our people will not agree if a small number of people want to deny or undo the consensus reached between the two presidents. They should know that building the new model of major-country relationship has great strategic value for the US. I once said to American friends that they mustn’t miss something good. Is there another emerging country in the history, who, like China, has said voluntarily to the established country that it wants no confrontation and no conflict but mutual respect and win-win cooperation? Did the rising US say this to the UK? Those trying to reverse our presidents’ consensus should correct their position and support the US government along the path of building the new model of major-country relationship with China. Otherwise, they will only regret when they “lose China”.

In a word, there will be difficulties on the way for China and the US to build the new model of major-country relationship. The path will be bumpy, but it leads to a bright future.

In response to the question whether China has given up its “low-profile” principle in diplomacy, Dai Bingguo replied that: the overall principle and policies of China’s diplomacy have not changed since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Chinese diplomacy has maintained continuity and made new innovation and progress. A man will not progress if he lives off on the gains of predecessors. The same is true for a nation and a country. In recent years, China’s diplomacy has focused on one fundamental strategic goal, and that is to foster a sound external environment for the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects, thus a favorable overall environment and a good basis for the great renewal of the Chinese nation.

As to whether China has given up its “low-profile” principle, one needs to trace back to the days when the idea was first raised. As I remember, after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, some people from other countries came to China, asking us to carry the banner as the leader of socialist countries. Mr. Deng Xiaoping did not take the idea and said that China should not be the leader, seek hegemony or show off, but focus on its own affairs. That meant we should develop our economy and build our country. This was the origin of our “low-profile” principle, which is by no means a conspiracy.

Today’s China remains committed to peaceful development and non-alignment. It does not pursue expansion or hegemony and believes in mutual respect and win-win cooperation. Development is its top priority. These are what we mean by “low-profile”. People have noticed that wherever he goes in his many overseas travels these years, President Xi has made these points repeatedly. These are China’s positions not only in words but also in deeds.

Speaking of aggressiveness, I think China is certainly not the aggressive one. China has done no more than what a sovereign state has to do to safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests. As a responsible big country, China has done a great deal of good for Asia and beyond. Examples include the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road initiative. These are based on goodwill and for shared interests, aren’t they? China is devoted to stability and prosperity of the world. We often think about how to help our third-world brothers get rid of poverty and develop. We want a better life not only for ourselves but for all.

China is committed to upholding peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. The region has high expectation from the world and is developing well. The last thing we want to see is chaos here. For the Asia-Pacific, China-US cooperation is of great importance. We respect the traditional influence and practical interests of the US in the Asia-Pacific, and the US should also respect China’s legitimate and growing interests in this region. Our two countries must strengthen cooperation and work with other Asia-Pacific countries to uphold peace in the region.

China is committed to working with the US to strengthen and improve the international order and system. China doesn’t want to be a “rebel”, and doesn’t try to seek its own way. I remember that when President George W. Bush raised the idea of G20 summit after the 2008 financial crisis, China expressed support very quickly. Thus the G20 summit mechanism came into being. In the spirit of sharing difficulties and pursuing win-win cooperation and harmonious co-existence, we increased cooperation with the US in various areas. At the tough times of the financial crisis, we worked with the US in tiding over difficulties and never took advantage of the situation. We also had effective cooperation with the US on international issues like the Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, climate change and cyber security. China is a very constructive cooperation partner, not an aggressive and irresponsible country.

With no doubt, China hopes to have achievements, but that is not to pursue hegemony in its diplomacy, even if someday China is truly strong. Nor will China allow itself to be humiliated like what it suffered after the Opium War. Long gone are the days when China was on its knees in its diplomacy. We have goodwill towards all other countries regardless of their size. What we also want is to be treated with goodwill and all countries co-existing in harmony.

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