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Foreign Policy

Time to Update the Major Power Relations Between China and the US

Jun 13 , 2013
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Researcher, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barak Obama held “ranch talks” on Saturday in California. The meeting lasted more than eight hours, in which the two heads of state thoroughly exchanged views and reached common understanding on a wide range of big issues of strategic importance in a candid and straightforward manner. What is most important is that the two heads of state made a firm pledge to build a new type of major power relations between the two countries and discussed pragmatic ways to realize the new positioning of the bilateral ties, pointing the direction in which the two nations should develop their relations. 

Tao Wenzhao

President Xi reiterated that China would follow the path of peaceful development no matter what. President Obama welcomed China’s commitment to peaceful development as a major power. Xi emphasized that China and the US should be able to forge a new type of major power ties that is not all about confrontation and rivalry and cited five reasons, which are all convincing and also explain sufficiently why it is not a passing thought to bring up the new major power relations issue now. Obama agreed with Xi’s summary of their talks. He said the two countries are looking at a unique opportunity to take their bilateral relations to another level and he would try his best not to miss it. The pledge is of historical significance to China-US relations. It marks a new chapter in the history of Sino-American relations and will inspire future generations. 

The two leaders also discussed the connotation of the new type of major power relations. Xi summed it up in three incisive phrases: no confrontation or rivalry, mutual respect and cooperation for win-win results. 

The new type of major power relations is meant to blaze a new trail away from the tragic path the world has seen repeated time and again in major power politics where an established major power competes against and later clashes with an emerging power but ends up fighting each other in war. No confrontation or rivalry naturally is the essence of the new major power relationship. To achieve it the two sides must first understand each other as best they can, regarding each other’s strategic objectives rationally so as to avoid misunderstanding or misinterpreting them. Currently, the two countries have more than 90 platforms for exchanges and communication that should be able to facilitate deeper mutual understanding well. However, there is the need to manage and control differences. Confrontations are invariably caused by differences, but differences do not necessarily trigger clashes. Differences should be resolved through dialogue to prevent confrontation. When an unexpected incident occurs the two sides should do their best to keep it from damaging the integrity of their bilateral ties and keep its impact as brief as possible. Also, it is always the best to turn differences into cooperation. The two nations have already seen success in joint efforts to respond to climate change. On the issue of cyber security President Xi told his US counterpart that the two countries have formed working groups and should put aside their differences and focus on cooperation in making Internet security a new highlight of Sino-US cooperation. The two countries should be able to achieve no confrontation or rivalry by handling differences properly. 

Mutual respect is crucial in any bilateral relationship. For China and the US, whose social systems and ideologies are so different, it is particularly true. Mutual respect in this case includes respecting each other’s core interests and major concerns as well as respecting each other’s social system, value set and development path. Since President Nixon’s ice-breaking visit to China, the two countries have reached the understanding that China and America have very different social systems and ideologies and do not like the other’s system or values, but both recognize the other side’s system and value set will stay in the foreseeable future and their ability to influence the other side is limited. This common understanding still stands today. 

Cooperation for win-win results is an outstanding characteristic of foreign relations in the era of globalization, as opposed to those of yesteryear. The 19th century was the era of carving out spheres of influence and national interests when China was divided into several spheres of influence by some major powers. Much of the 20th century also saw major powers or superpowers vie for global domination. Since the Cold War ended the world has entered the era of peaceful development and globalization has gradually led nations to a new form of foreign relations characterized by cooperation for win-win results. Now, China and the US find themselves relying on each other more than ever. Building a new type of major power relations requires continuous efforts to break new grounds for cooperation and develop common interests so that both peoples can benefit from their countries’ bilateral relations. 

Tao Wenzhao is a Researcher for the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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