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Foreign Policy

Prospects for a “New Type of Major Power Relationship”

Mar 07 , 2013

Outgoing Chinese President Hu Jintao and incoming President Xi Jinping have both used the phrase “a new type of major power relationship” (新兴大国关系) to describe their hopes for the future of US-China relations. Some American officials have also used this terminology. While some scholars in China have speculated about what such a relationship would entail, neither government has provided official endorsement nor provided any specific content to the concept.  This is the immediate task of the second Obama administration and new Xi Jinping administration.

What does this phrase refer to and what might such a relationship between Beijing and Washington look like?

First of all, the term refers to the historical pattern of rising powers challenging established powers—which, with two exceptions, has always resulted in an adversarial relationship resulting in war. Such wars in the modern era have not been limited to bilateral conflicts—rather they have resulted in regional and world wars during the 20th century. It is true that the US-Soviet Cold War never became a hot war, and the rise of the United States at the turn of the 20th century did not challenge Britain’s global preeminence (largely because London relinquished its interests in the western hemisphere to Washington’s growing “manifest destiny”).  But, in virtually all other cases of rising powers, adversarial relations and war have been the result.  Thus, history instructs that the prospect of Sino-American war, arising from the rising power dilemma, is a possibility. Moreover, political science “power transition theory” posits that the most dangerous point is when the rising power nears parity with the established power (the “power transition” threshold).

This history is not good news for the United States and China today. There is ample evidence of increasing strategic competition and growing discord between the two powers today, and the economic “power transition point” looms between 2020 and 2025 when the aggregate Chinese economy is due to surpass that of the United States. Of course, there are many other measures of power—and in no other category does China come close to surpassing or challenging the United States globally (as I argue in my new book China Goes Global: The Partial Power). Thus, I find the power transition theorists to be mistaken in applying this theory to US-China relations. The power gap between China and the US will remain very wide for a very long time.

This forecast does not, however, obviate the fact that the United States and China are increasingly competitive and that the relationship is fraught with pervasive distrust at the governmental and societal levels. The November 2012 Pew Global Attitudes poll reported that 66 percent of Americans said China was a competitor and 68 percent said China could not be trusted—while only 43 percent of Chinese view the US favorably.  Chinese suspicions of the US are further fueled by the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” policy to Asia—which Chinese uniformly view as an effort to “contain” or restrain China.  To try and alleviate such concerns, the Obama administration must work extra hard to be inclusive of China as it implements this new strategic reorientation and policy. There are also countless other frictions between the two sides in the realm of trade and investment, diplomacy, security, and ideology. Contentious and dangerous issues such as cyber hacking have recently come to the fore.

For all these reasons, President Xi Jinping and the new Chinese leadership is wise to put forward the desire for a “new type of major power relationship.” It is definitely needed—because the “old type” of competitive and suspicious relations is now predominant in the bilateral relationship.  Competitive relations can easily drift towards fully adversarial relations if not carefully managed. Even if both sides attempt to restrain the competition and enlarge the sphere of cooperation, the potential for further drift towards an adversarial relationship remains a possibility.  Huge military and intelligence budgets are already allocated by both Beijing and Washington towards monitoring and countering the other side.

While establishing such a “new type of major power relations” is a desirable aspiration, this observer believes that “managing competition” is the more feasible reality. To establish a relationship of “competitive coexistence” is more realistic. Yet, neither side has any experience in managing a predominantly competitive relationship with a major power with which it is simultaneously deeply interdependent. The mutual interdependence is good news—as it serves as a “buffer” against the competition spiraling out of control.

Yet, the two governments need to adjust to the “new normal” of a predominantly competitive relationship, work to establish mechanisms to manage and control it, while not indulging themselves in flowery slogans (口号) or concepts that are unachievable.   The history of the US-China relationship over the past quarter century suggests that hard work by both sides to manage the relationship is better than endorsing empty slogans.

David Shambaugh, is Professor of Political Science & International Affairs at George Washington University, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at The Brookings Institution. His new book, China Goes Global: The Partial Power, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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