The sixth Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue has attracted global attention for reaching hundreds of agreements. But, for strategists in both countries, the significance of the dialogue goes far beyond the specific achievements. Decision-makers from both countries harnessed the opportunity and prevented an abrupt downward spiral of bilateral ties, opening up new opportunities for the establishment of a new-type major-country relationship.
During their historic meeting in June 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama reached an important consensus to build a new-type of major-country relationship. Yet during the past six months, Sino-US relations have become increasingly fierce and fractious. The United States once maintained neutrality over China’s territorial disputes with neighboring countries. But there seems to have been a change in the US stance. Instead, the US is actively intervening in China’s maritime disputes in the east and south China seas. During his visit to Japan in April, Obama stated for the first time that the Diaoyu Islands are covered by the US-Japan defense treaty. The US has persistently developed military ties with the Philippines and Vietnam, and supported the Philippines to sue China at an international maritime tribunal. From the CICA summit in Shanghai to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, there has been an unprecedented exchange of verbal animosity. A number of people have also misinterpreted the Chinese proposal that “Asian security concerns should be taken care of by Asians”, inferring that China wants to elbow the US out of the region. In both the US State Department to the Defense Department, a few officials have openly accused China of being provocative and attempting to change the status quo in maritime disputes. The US has conducted global eavesdropping, which was documented in June a report about secret US surveillance of China. But the US has instead taken arbitrary legal action against Chinese PLA officers on charges of spying.
In history, a rising power usually challenges the existing international order, and may thus directly threaten the hegemony of the incumbent power. In return, the hegemonic power resorts to a strategy of containment, finally resulting in war. Since China has become the second largest economy in the world, the US will proceed from its own hegemonic strategy in order to strengthen containment of China, while simultaneously reinforcing engagement. Yet, China will not be willing to accept suppression and will instead counteract. Given their strong interdependence, China and the US may not easily come into direct confrontation. Yet, US intervention in China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors may seriously disrupt the Sino-US relationship. In the long term, although China is committed to a path of peaceful development, considering the two countries’ structural contradictions, as well as lingering US strategic suspicion of China, the building of strategic mutual trust will prove a challenging task.
During the recent S&ED, high-level decision-makers from both countries reached a consensus on how to regulate the future direction of bilateral relations. On February 14, while meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Xi asked the Kerry to tell Obama: “The Chinese side is resolutely dedicated to working together with the US in building a new-type major-country relationship between China and the United States, and willing to enhance dialogue, increase mutual trust, deepen cooperation, and properly handle differences with the US, promoting continuous, healthy and steady progress of the new-type major-country relationship.” In a written message, Obama said the US side is committed to building a new-type of major-country relationship with China, reinforcing pragmatic cooperation, and constructively dealing with differences. In his keynote speech at the opening ceremony, Xi mentioned the “new-type major-country relationship” nine times.
Xi’s speech featured a more comprehensive and in-depth elaboration of the idea of the new-type of major-country relationship. First, both sides should increase mutual trust and maintain a clear sense of direction. To realize the Chinese Dream, China is determined to follow a path of peaceful development; adhere to its diplomatic philosophy of amity, sincerity, mutual benefits and tolerance in the neighborhood; and develop friendly ties with all countries in the world. This promise shows that China will not challenge or change the status quo. Misjudging China’s strategic intentions will lead to mistakes of enormous proportions. Second, the two parties should respect each other, accumulate common interests, and resolve their differences. China and the US share a number of common interests, which forms the foundation of collaboration. The two should therefore try to manage their differences in a constructive manner. In the meantime, they should show patience, and not be distracted by occasional nasty words or deeds. They should manage their conflicts and frictions. Third, they should stick to equality and mutual benefits, and deepen their cooperation. In the world’s largest economies, common interests far outrun the differences in the face of regional and global challenges.
There is no historical precedent for building a new-type of major-country relationship. And, the establishment of such a relationship entails long-term effort. But, as Xi pointed out, such a relationship benefits both countries and the world at large. Challenging as it is, such an attempt will create a constructive model for future relations between rising powers and incumbent powers.
Fu Mengzi is Vice President of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.