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Foreign Policy

With Joint Efforts, Sino-US Relations Can Embark on a New Path

Jan 07 , 2015
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

It has been two and a half years since the idea of building “a new model of major-country relations” was first advanced as a vision for China-U.S. relations. Beijing is interested in this idea because it wants to make the relationship work for the two nations and for global peace and development. Although U.S. leaders have echoed this sentiment on many occasions, according to U.S. media analysis, Washington’s position is quite ambiguous: initially it was reluctant to embrace the idea, later it sought to interpret it as it saw fit. Now is perhaps the time when we take stock of the situation and dispel some misunderstandings about the new idea.

China raised the idea in good faith and has demonstrated ample sincerity from the start. President Xi Jinping has gone to great lengths to explain the vision, making clear that the idea is a necessary, practical and result-oriented one.

First, it is necessary that both sides adopt a vision that espouses non-conflict and non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.

Second, it is a practical idea supported by five enabling factors: political will, past experience, institutional safeguards, popular support, and space for cooperation.

Third, the idea is oriented toward delivering results. The U.S. has expressed the concern that it might be just another slogan. To alleviate this concern, China has proposed six priority areas in building the new model of relations: enhancing high-level communication and contacts to deepen strategic trust; handling the relationship on the basis of mutual respect; intensifying exchanges and cooperation in all areas; managing differences and sensitivities in a constructive way; pursuing inclusive coordination in the Asia-Pacific region; and addressing regional and global challenges.

The Chinese love neat ways to summarize an idea. The above can be called a “3+5+6” framework for operationalizing the new vision of major-country relations between China and the United States.

President Barack Obama has echoed President Xi’s proposal on a number of occasions. As recently as November 12th, he told his Chinese counterpart during his bilateral visit to China following the APEC meeting that he puts a lot of stock in the proposal and agrees that the two sides step up exchanges and dialogue to deepen mutual trust, expand win-win cooperation and constructively manage differences toward building a new model of relations.

Apart from the positive statements from the US president himself, the administration’s position on the Chinese proposal is often revealed through media reports. Here things get a little tricky.

In August, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech that, “we are busy trying to define a new great-power relationship”. This gave rise to speculation that Washington has not got a handle on what China intends to achieve through the new characterization of Sino-U.S. relations. So it was not exactly helpful when on 27 August, a senior State Department official in charge of APEC issues said that, “That’s a term that the Chinese came up with, not the U.S., so I’m not sure whether we subscribe completely to the exact interpretation of that.”

Worse still, some media outlets have interpreted “non-conflict and non-confrontation” as not allowing the United States to help its allies and therefore indirectly undermining the interests of those countries. “Mutual respect”, according to this school of thought, means that the United States can no longer criticize China’s domestic affairs and therefore represent a repudiation of America’s core values. “Win-win cooperation,” the argument goes, is the euphemism for a G-2 where the United States is a junior partner of China.

On September 18th, the Bloomberg website posted a signed article explaining U.S. avoidance of the new phrase. According to the article, in so doing, the U.S. is signaling its reluctance to accept a world that sees China increasing its influence while weakening that of the U.S. and its allies in Asia. The U.S. dilemma on how to describe its relations with China reflects the broader question of how Washington responds to Beijing’s economic, military and strategic rise: cede dominance to China, resist its challenge or somehow share power in Asia?

Then on October 9th, the website of Foreign Affairs ran another signed article, which argued that in uncritically signing on to the “new type of great-power relations” slogan at the Obama-Xi Sunnylands summit in June 2013, the Obama administration fell into a trap. At worst, the formulation risks setting U.S.-Chinese relations on a dangerous course: implicitly committing Washington to unilateral concessions that are anathema to vital and bipartisan U.S. foreign policy values, principles and interests.

These unfounded claims completely distort China’s intentions and will do nothing to help advance relations with Beijing. Political will is a must for building a new model of relations between the world’s two largest economies. Now that the direction is not in doubt, the two sides need to figure out a way to make it a reality. For starters, they must replace mistrust with mutual trust, arrogance with equality, discrimination with accommodation, selfish interests with “win-win” interests, trouble-rousing with trouble-shooting and aggravation of disputes with management of differences. The truth is, with joint efforts, Sino-U.S. relations can embark on a new path.

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