Since President Xi Jinping put forward the idea of a “new-type of major-country relationship”, he and the Chinese leadership have creatively elaborated on the concept, and put it into the practice of major state affairs. This has not only attracted considerable attention from governments of major countries, including the White House, but also ignited discussions at home and abroad.
The “new-type of major-country relationship” is a strategic concept that contains two key phrases: “new type” and “major country”, which are both inseparable and mutually independent. As big countries, both countries should respect each other’s interests and dignity, not only as a nation-state in the traditional sense, but also as a rare and special major country. Both nations should reasonably approach the inevitable differences and even regional contradictions and peacefully co-exist in a truly non-confrontational manner. This will greatly expand common interests, and conduct more selective collaboration at bilateral, multilateral, and even global levels, so as to avoid harm to the world as well as to each other. Future relations between the two countries should be newly constructed, considerably different from the “Peloponnesus trap” that has repeatedly emerged in political history. The two nations need to avoid vicious competition, confrontation, large-scale conflicts and even all-round rivalry, and move on from the “iron law of power transition” of conflicts between major powers that has been enshrined in the United States and the West.
At present, at least to Chinese non-governmental observers and scholars, the focus should be on “major country.” In terms of Sino-US relations, a “major-country relationship” first means the United States truly treats China as a “major country” and shows corresponding respect. Meanwhile, the concept of “major country” is not abstract or static, but concrete and variable. As a major country, the present-day China is not the China of five or 10 years ago, but a China that has seen a dramatic increase in both economic strength and military capabilities, and has witnessed stronger public self-esteem, national ambitions, international impact and a bigger role on the world stage. Correspondingly, the gap between China and the United States in national strength and international influence has been conspicuously narrowed. The “space of rights” that China deserves does not yet need to be expanded, regardless of whether this means some of the United States’ existing “space of rights” needs to be correspondingly reduced. For the future of Sino-US relations, as long as there is no change in today’s basic trend, the above-mentioned increase and strengthening will inevitably continue, sooner or later approaching or even reaching a “power transition” between the two countries in several crucial realms. Therefore, acknowledging and accepting such changes between China and the United States, and truly treating China as an equal in the sense of “power-sharing” will become a severe test for the United States as a superpower.
No matter what progress has been made in Sino-US relations, the relationship is neither a new one, nor a real “major-country” one. In terms of strategic considerations in the strictest sense, United States presidents and their administrations have never truly perceived China as a major, strong country in the “strategic world.” Neither in practice nor in rhetoric has the United States given China the “strategic space” it deserves.
About the Sino-US “new-type of major-country relationship”, we can make a strategic hypothesis about the possible outcomes and approach.
Under the premise that the peaceful ascent of China will continue into the future, the United States must seriously consider China’s first-rate status not only in the economic and financial fields, but also in the diplomatic and strategic realms. This may result in a peaceful “ultimate solution,” which will entail a balanced understanding of the comparative strength of each nation, as well as the impact of different functional and geographical areas. Both countries will also have to adopt the notion of “selective advantages”, instead of all-round advantages, and “advantage distribution”, instead of advantage monopoly.
This means that the United States must not only accept China’s future leading position in such areas as gross domestic product, volume of foreign trade, and diplomatic/economic impact in Asia, but also means that it accepts the mutual strategic deterrence – not only nuclear deterrence but also normal deterrence – along with the peaceful co-existence as two neighboring powers. Such deterrence and co-existence must be formally regulated by arms control, as well as mutual recognition and respect of geopolitical strategic interests. This will include China’s relative marginal military advantage against the United States in near-shore waters along its coastal line (taking the off-shore waters along Taiwan’s eastern coast as the approximate “line of demarcation”), and means the basically peaceful reunification of the two sides of the Taiwan Straits. This will also include a sizeable maritime “strategic space” for China in the west Pacific, and correspondingly regulate the United States’ allies system in northeast Asia (especially the US-Japan alliance), making it less militarized, and less targeted at containing and confronting China.
In the meantime, the US will retain its overall military superiority in the world, along with its military advantages in the eastern part of west Pacific, east of Okinawa and Guam, as well as in the central Pacific. The US must also firmly believe that China will exclude war as a tool in resolving major conflicts with neighboring countries, as long as its neighbors do the same. Thus, the two essential US interests – a peaceful Asia-Pacific and safety of its Asia-Pacific allies – will be guaranteed. In world finance and security, the formal influences and distribution of powers between China and the United States will generally conform with the two major countries’ respective strengths in relative functional areas, as well as their respective contributions. All of the above will make power–sharing, close consultation and selective collaboration between the two countries both necessary and inevitable, and will also require that the US accepts a peaceful and constructive China as a world power. China, in turn, will respect the essential interests and rightful international concerns of the US as a world power (or maybe still the no.1 world power).
A strategic approach is about how to achieve a “new-type of major-country relationship” between the US and China, so as to arrive at the afore-mentioned strategic destination or the “ultimate solution” that may cover a time span of decades. Generally speaking, for that purpose, the political leaders or top decision-makers in both China and the United States should change the way they deal with each other, which has in recent years featured very few demands and giving nothing. They should instead strive to root out domestic obstruction, and try to introduce the strategic practice of demanding much and giving much. That is a lesson from history, when major powers wanted to reach basically stable “ultimate solutions” over a considerably long period of time.
It is of essential significance to consistently enhance diplomatic relations with neighboring countries and improve good-neighborliness. Periphery strategy and diplomacy will always be important to China. In the final analysis, even if the United States does not exist, it will still be the most important factor in China’s foreign affairs. The present-day China is a country of essential needs and multiple dimensions. Therefore, our foreign relations should not be focused solely on relations with the United States. Instead, it must place equal emphasis on relations with both neighboring countries and the United States.
In recent years, the particularly undesirable aspects and stages of Sino-US relations have mostly derived from troubles in the neighborhood, from the structural and situational frictions, confrontations, and competition over such troubles, and from US instigation, intervention or interference. Strategically, trying to win over friendly countries, strategically neutral countries or even strategic partners in the strict sense, and reduce or overcome immediately neighboring strategic rivals or US strategic vassals will greatly facilitate China’s lasting effort in persuading and pressing the US into conceding.
For this purpose, the Chinese government must persistently implement President Xi Jinping’s important ideas on periphery diplomacy. It must be aware of the extremely important strategic significance of neighboring countries. It must incorporate strategic thinking and foresight into its work, and carefully and persistently implement the cardinal principles of periphery diplomacy that Xi has laid out: Stick to the principle of having good intentions for your neighbors and treating neighbors as partners; stick to the principle of befriending, appeasing, and enriching neighbors; highlight the concepts of affinity, sincerity, benefit, and tolerance; travel more, do more things that warm and win hearts; increase affinity, charisma, and influence; treat neighboring countries with honesty and sincerity, make more friends and strive for more partners. This is an essential project for China’s long-term benefit, and also a fundamental need for building a Sino-US “new-type of major-country relationship”.
Shi Yinhong is Professor, Institute of International Relations, Renmin University of China.