Managing Differences Key to New Model of China-U.S. Relations

Commentary | June 05, 2015

In a piece for China-US Focus Digest, EWI Board Member, Zhou Wenzhong analyzes the potential for a new proposed model of China-U.S. relations.

In February 2012, Xi Jinping, then vice-president of China, made a visit to the United States. During the trip, he called for “a new model of major-country relations befitting the 21st century” between China and the US. Three months later, then Chinese President Hu Jintao said in his speech to the opening session of the fourth round of China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) that “no matter how the international landscape or our domestic situations may evolve, China and the US must remain committed to enhancing our partnership and strive to build a new model of major-country relations that reassure the international community as well as our own publics.” Fast forward to June 2013. Xi Jinping, the recently elected President of China, held a retreat with US President Barack Obama at Sunnylands in California. During the summit, Xi laid out, in considerable detail, China’s proposal to build a new model of major-country relations with the US featuring no conflict or confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, to which Obama responded positively.

In my view, this vision of a new model of China-US relations is important for three reasons.

First, it outlines a new possibility of relations between a rising power and an established power.

After China overtook Japan as the second largest economy in 2010, US officials and pundits began to discuss the implications of China overtaking the US one day as the world’s largest economy. Some predict that this would happen as early as 2020 and no later than 2030. Trained in historical fatalism and the realist theory of international politics, American analysts are inclined to think that a rising China will inevitably challenge US interests and a collision between Beijing and Washington is all but certain. According to this argument, the US should start to prepare itself for such an eventuality. Mindful of this narrative, China offered to construct a new model of relations with the US. If successful, this attempt can help both sides to avert “the tragedy of great-power politics”, avoid the Thucydides’ trap and prove historical fatalism wrong.

Second, it champions an inclusive approach to China-US interactions in the Asia-Pacific region.

Early in his first term, President Obama announced a “pivot” to Asia. By increasing strategic, political, economic and security investments in the region, Washington seeks to contain the rapidly growing strength and influence of Beijing. This strategy has heightened differences and tensions, and created a more competitive environment in the region. It raises the specter of Sino-American conflict, which would be destructive to the bilateral relationship, and might jeopardize peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. To stave off this dire scenario, China has championed a more inclusive approach. Chinese leaders argue that the Pacific Ocean is big enough for the two nations. China and the US should strive to avoid conflict and confrontation, show mutual respect and pursue win-win cooperation. By addressing sources of competition and friction, the two countries build a more positive relationship in the region.

Third, it reflects China’s commitment to peaceful development and win-win cooperation as it rises to major-country status.

Under the new leadership, China has pioneered ground-breaking theories and practices in its diplomacy. Whether or not China can build a constructive relationship with the US will be the touchstone of this new approach. Conversely, the vision of a new model of major-country relations can enrich China’s innovations in diplomatic theory and practice. Make no mistake: the vision is not aimed at challenging American supremacy in the world, seeking parity with Washington, or forming a G2 with the US. On the contrary, it is to maximize positive interactions and constructive cooperation between the world’s largest developing and developed countries. A more immediate goal is to dispel strategic distrust between the two sides and the often negative predictions about China-US relations, and persuade the world that this vital relationship is a positive, amicable, cooperative, constructive and predictable one.

Since 2013, some tangible progress has been made toward realizing this vision.

First of all, Chinese and US leaders are pursuing constructive dialogue with unprecedented depth and width.

The Sunnylands summit between President Xi Jinping and President Obama in June 2013 created a new model of engagement between our leaders. Without fussing over whether it was a state or working visit, the two presidents spent more than eight hours in face-to-face dialogue. They discussed a broad array of issues: from domestic developments and governance experience to economic and financial issues facing China and the US, from traditional bilateral issues to nontraditional regional and global challenges such as North Korea’s nuclear program, climate change and cyber-security. While helping to drive China-US cooperation around concrete issues, the meeting did not shy away from certain long-standing disagreements. The Sunnylands summit will be remembered as an unprecedented investment in China-US relations for its novel format, length and depth of discussion, and range of topics.

Then in November 2014, President Obama came to Beijing to attend the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting, after which he paid a state visit to China. All eyes were on his meeting with President Xi. As it turned out, the two presidents spent ten hours together over two half-days. They met informally at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound for an evening walk, a restricted meeting, a private dinner and a tête-à-tête over tea, where they shared domestic developments and priorities. The next morning, they met again in formal talks to discuss bilateral and international issues at the Great Hall of the People.

Both sides characterized the conversations as constructive, candid, sincere, in-depth and productive. Obama said that they gave him “the most comprehensive, in-depth understanding of the history of the Chinese Communist Party and its idea of governance and a better understanding of why Chinese people cherish national unity and stability.” Through these talks, the two leaders had an opportunity to reaffirm their shared desire to work toward a new model of relations, increase mutual understanding, address misperceptions and reduce mistrust. With Obama passing the halfway point of his presidency and contemplating his diplomatic legacy, the meeting drove home to him the importance of building a more positive relationship with China in his last two years in office. He sounded a positive note at a joint press conference with Xi, saying, “The truth is that we have made important progress today for the benefit of both of our nations and for the benefit of the world. The truth is that even more progress is possible as we continue to develop this important relationship. I am confident that we will be able to do so.”

In addition to unprecedented presidential “face-time”, China and the US have also reaped “early harvests” over the last two years in important bilateral and multilateral areas.

The two sides have agreed to launch substantive negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) based on pre-establishment national treatment and a negative list, a major breakthrough in China-US economic engagement. Meantime, two-way trade and investment continue to soar. Last year saw a record $555.1 billion of trade and $120 billion of cumulative investment between China and the US.

For too long, military-to-military ties have lagged other areas of the relationship. After the two presidents agreed at Sunnylands to improve and enhance mil-to-mil relations, a number of advances have been made, such as increased interactions at all levels, institutionalized dialogue and consultation, exchanges between young officers, joint trainings and exercises. Last summer, China participated for the first time in the RIMPAC exercise organized by the US, a significant breakthrough as China fielded the second largest fleet (after the US) in the 23-nation exercise. This was followed by the signing of the mechanism of notification of major military activities and the code of safe conduct for maritime and air encounters by senior defense officials in November 2014. These two confidence-building mechanisms (CBMs) will go a long way toward bolstering strategic trust, managing crisis and preventing risks between China and the US and help to reduce the chances of miscalculation and accidents involving their militaries.

The expansion of bilateral exchanges calls for a more convenient visa regime. Last November, the two presidents agreed to issue five-year, multiple-entry visas to each other’s students and ten-year, multiple-entry visas to each other’s business travelers and tourists. The announcement was hugely popular in both countries and will surely bolster people-to-people exchanges across the Pacific. As a result, the number of Chinese visas issued to US visitors grew by 54% in the three months after the announcement, culminating in 4.3 million two-way visits for 2014.

In the multilateral arena, the two sides have reached bilateral understanding to expand the WTO’s Information Technology Agreement (ITA), which will inject momentum into multilateral discussions in Geneva. The two sides have enjoyed close communication and coordination on the Iranian nuclear issue and worked together to drive progress in the P5+1 negotiations. They have also stayed in close touch on the Korean nuclear issue to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula and in northeast Asia. In addition, there have also been collaborative efforts to improve the situation in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and to fight the Ebola epidemic in Africa.

The joint announcement on climate change issued after the Xi-Obama summit last November deserves special mention. With the United Nations Climate Conference scheduled for December in Paris, the world is watching whether an agreement can be secured to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. As the world’s largest emitters, the positions of China and the US will be crucial. The joint announcement was eye-catching because it contained clear targets: the US intends to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its emissions by 26%-28% below its 2005 level in 2025, while China intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030 and achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions around 2030. Both sides agreed to push for a global deal at the Paris conference. Meantime, China and the US will enhance practical cooperation, including on advanced coal technologies, nuclear energy, shale gas, renewable energy, carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), low-carbon cities, and trade in green goods. These significant steps will bring about a paradigm shift in the global politics of addressing climate change. The New York Times noted that in the past, no country was willing to cut emissions until other countries have done so; with the China-US announcement, countries will be motivated to follow their leadership. This demonstrates the enormous value of China-US cooperation to strengthening global governance.

More can be expected. On Feb 11, President Obama called President Xi to invite him to pay a state visit to the US in conjunction with attending the UN’s 70th anniversary events, which Xi readily accepted. The Chinese and US teams are preparing the ground for a successful visit, which will hopefully cement the momentum of high-level engagement, remove mistrust and build consensus for better relations through patient and in-depth dialogue, and deliver more tangible results of cooperation. If so, Xi’s September visit will surely drive new progress in building a new model of major-country relations between China and the US.

Let me end with a few thoughts on the implementation of the new-model vision.

Building a new model of China-US relations will be fraught and complex process full of opportunities and challenges. It is important that both sides adopt new thinking. China’s rise is taking place against the backdrop of economic globalization, regional integration and international cooperation in the post-Cold War environment. Committed to peaceful development and win-win cooperation, China has drawn lessons from the past. Beijing has expressed a sincere desire to avoid the strategic mistakes other rising powers have made and find a new path to major-country status. The US rose to global preeminence after the Second World War. It established a global architecture during the Cold War and stood out as the world’s sole superpower after the end of the Cold War. But times have changed. The US should stop relying on military and geopolitical methods as the way to maintain its advantageous position. It should stop viewing the rise of China in zero-sum terms and take a fresh look at its relationship with a rising power whose values and social system is fundamentally different from its own. Thus, both sides can give sustained impetus to the vision through new thinking and dynamic action.

To build a new model of China-US relations, the two sides need to respect each other’s core interests and major concerns and manage their differences and tensions. As China’s economy and interests continue to grow, Beijing will not shirk from upholding its sovereignty, security and development interests and will assume a bigger role in regional and global affairs. The US must stop thinking that China’s actions are targeted at the US and its allies and designed to weaken US supremacy or the regional order. Washington must not seek to counterbalance or even contain Beijing. Hence the importance of managing differences, which is as central to the relationship as augmenting cooperation. To do this, both sides must focus on the big picture, discard a confrontational approach and improve internal coordination.

To build a new model of China-US relations, both sides must approach it from a larger, global context. The course taken by China-US relations will have a big impact on world events. While our world is becoming more multi-polar and globalized, the urgency and challenges of global governance are more prominent. In the current phase of China-US relations, both sides need to closely monitor and analyze global developments, think outside the box, and be prepared for both opportunities and challenges in a fast-changing world. This is the best way to achieve sound and steady growth of China-US relations in the long run.

To read the article at China-US Focus Digest, click here.