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Foreign Policy

Operationalizing A New Model of Sino-US Relations Is Possible

Nov 18 , 2014
  • Da Wei

    Assistant President, University of International Relations

US President Barack Obama’s November 2014 visit to China and the second Xi – Obama meeting at least proved one very important thing: The concept of forming a new type of “U.S.-China major-country relations” could be operationalized.

Since the Chinese and U.S. presidents’ June 2013 informal summit meeting in Sunnylands, California, the Chinese side has been enthusiastically discussing and promoting the idea of a new type of “China-U.S. major-country relations.” American politicians and scholars, on the other hand, have shown a fair dose of skepticism, their core suspicion that the concept sounds too hollow. U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice appealed in a speech on American Asian policies at Georgetown University for the U.S. and China to “operationalize” the concept. In other words, the concept needs to be enriched and carried forward with some concrete achievements.

China and the U.S. came up with 27 agreements and achievements during Obama’s latest China visit, among which at least four have indeed enriched and carried forward the construction of the “new-type major-country relations.”

Both the U.S. government and media highlighted the “U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change” as the most important achievement. State Secretary John Kerry called the document “historic” and a “milestone” in U.S.-China relations. Of course the joint announcement is essential for mitigating climate change. But beyond climate change, this statement may be the first time China and the U.S. truly join hands on a global issue to play a leadership role. Previously, people tended to consider China as representing developing countries, and the U.S. as speaking on behalf of developed countries, and the discourse about climate change as a protracted zero-sum game between China and the U.S. as leaders of two competing camps. This announcement has broken the boundary between the two alleged camps. Giving priority to meeting the challenge facing humanity as a whole, China and the U.S. made a joint commitment. China and the U.S. are not only the world’s two largest carbon emitters, but also its two largest economies and two countries with the most powerful comprehensive national strength. Their agreement in the climate field has set a fine example for the two countries’ ties in other fields. The future of China-U.S. relations has every possibility to avoid the Cold-War style “bipolar” structure. The two countries do have contradictions. But they can also join hands on some issues, and play a leading role together globally or in the region.

Military issues are always at the center of international politics. When Xi talked about a new type of “China-U.S. major-power relations,” the first phrase he used was “no conflict.” China and the U.S. cannot engage in military conflict. That is the bottom line of the “new-type major-power relationship.” However, since militaries are always preparing for war, ties between the two militaries have long been the weakest link in China-U.S. relations. In recent years, given China’s sovereignty disputes over maritime territories with two of the United States allies, and U.S. military surveillance flights on China’s doorsteps, the possibility of incidents or even conflicts does exist. Fortunately, the two countries’ heads of state proposed the establishment of two confidence-building measures (CBMs) last year in California. During that meeting, defense authorities from both countries signed two CBMs: “Memorandum of Understanding on Notification of Major Military Activities Confidence Building Measures Mechanism,” and “Memorandum of Understanding on Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters.”

Economic and trade ties have long been the “ballast” of China-U.S. relations. That China and the U.S. have not and would not come into a cold war like the Soviet Union and the U.S. does have a lot to do with the interdependence of their economies. This year’s Xi-Obama meeting reaffirmed that the two sides will accelerate negotiations and strive to reach agreements on core issues and major clauses of their Bilateral Investment Treaty by the end of year. If the two sides can finalize and approve the treaty during Obama’s presidency, they will further tighten the economic bond between China and the U.S. Besides, during this summit meeting, China and the U.S. reached a consensus on restoring and ending negotiations on enlarging coverage of the Information Technology Agreement as soon as possible. This is not only conducive to China-U.S. trade in IT products, but will also facilitate corresponding negotiations at the World Trade Organization. Therefore, it is another fruit of China-U.S. leadership in global affairs.

For the Chinese public, the biggest surprise from this summit meeting was undoubtedly the mutually beneficial arrangements regarding visa extensions. Both the degree and scope of the mutual benefits have gone beyond most people’s anticipations. The visa issue does not sound as important as military and economic concerns. But close people-to-people exchanges are actually the most durable bond connecting two countries. The sense of identification built through overseas studies, traveling, and marriages are cornerstones of a genuine relationship of trust. At present, people-to-people exchanges, strategic stability, and economic interdependence are three pillars supporting the new-type major-country relationship between China and the U.S. The latest mutually beneficial visa extension will obviously make people-to-people exchanges between China and the U.S. more convenient.

Pessimists may say the afore-mentioned achievements are fairly preliminary or face many variables. Indeed, as we know, Republican leaders in both the U.S. House and Senate have expressed strong opposition to the China-U.S. statement on climate change. Nor will it be easy for China to accomplish what it has committed. We know that negotiations over the Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) “negative list” will be extremely difficult; the relationship between China and the U.S.-initiated “Trans-Pacific Partnership” as well as the U.S. attitude toward the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is sill full of uncertainty. We know that the two CBMs in the military field are quite preliminary, such controversial topics as U.S. surveillance flights in Chinese exclusive economic zones, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and cyber security have not yet been touched upon. We also know that The New York Times journalists still have different opinions about their visa issues, and that China has always been suspicious of the U.S. policy methods of espousing its “American values.” But we should not deny that “Well begun is half done.” In fact, the new type of “China-U.S. major-country relations” is not hollow. It is a stable framework, within which the two countries’ divergences can be controlled and managed so that they won’t overthrow the overall situation. In the mean time, the two countries can engage in benign competition, no side can overwhelm the other. The two countries may also come into active cooperation and truly play a global leadership role together. The latest Xi-Obama meeting has taken a solid step toward establishing such a framework.

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