China and the United States: Building New Relations Between Major Powers

China International Studies | 作者: Yu Hongjun | 时间: 2013-11-25 | 责编: Li Xiaoyu
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by Yu Hongjun[1]


In recent years, the “new-type relationship between major powers” has become a hot-topic term in the studies of international politics and international relations. Why is it necessary to build a new-type relationship between major powers? What are the essence and the connotation of such relationship? How to build it against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world that is undergoing a profound structural reform and the evolving balance of international forces in international relations in all fields and at all levels? What are the differences and commonalities between such relationship and the traditional big-power relationship? What is the roadmap for building toward such relationship and what are the prospects? – all these questions are arousing a heated debate and everybody’s deep thinking in the international community today, and therefore they are also topical subjects in earnest studies in foreign affairs authorities of the Chinese Government and among Chinese experts and scholars.


I. To build toward a new-type big-power relationship, it is imperative to transcend the pattern of the traditional big-power relationship and the Cold War mentality.


China-U.S. relationship is one of the most important sets of bilateral relationships in the world today. Due to various historical reasons and present-day problems, such relationship is very important, but at the same time it is very complicated, and sometimes tends to be rather tense and uncertain in grim prospects. Undoubtedly, the new-type big-power relationship, being widely discussed in the international community today, is above all referred to China-U.S. relationship.

With regard to the connotation of the new-type relationship between China and the United States, statesmen, diplomats, experts and scholars in different countries hold a wide range of different views. In his visit to the United States in January 2011, Chinese President Hu Jintao reached agreement with US President Obama on the need to establish a win-win cooperative partnership between the two countries based on mutual respect and mutual interests, thereby laying a good foundation for initiating the concept of new-type China-U.S. relationship. A year later, that is in February 2012, in his U.S. visit Vice-President Xi Jinping exchanged views with U.S. leaders on how to put the consensus of the two Presidents into effect and build toward a sound and stable China-U.S. relationship in all aspects. He put forth the idea of building a new-type relationship between the two countries in clear-cut terms. In May 2012, the two sides held a new round Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing. The participants had an in-depth discussion of this subject. In his meeting with the U.S. participants, Vice-President Xi further pointed out that in building toward a new-type China-U.S. relationship, the two sides need both determination and confidence, as the saying goes “He who does not reach the Great Wall is no true man”, as well as patience and wisdom as one “wades across the river by feeling out for stepping stones”. This vivid figurative expression indicates that the Chinese side is fully aware of the longevity, complexity and difficulty in the process of building toward a new-type China-U.S. relationship.

In his meeting with President Obama in May 2013 at Annenberg Estate, Sunnylands, California, President Xi Jinping penetratingly explained and succinctly epitomized the concept with three principles of preventing conflict or confrontation, respecting each other and carrying out win-win cooperation. Bearing these guidelines in mind is of a great inestimable and practical significance for the two sides to better understand the new-type China-U.S. relationship, firmly proceed in the direction and for the long-term goal of this relationship and better handle relations with other major powers.

The purpose of building a new-type China-U.S. relationship is to prevent the bilateral relations from becoming confrontational in a “You win as I lose” zero-sum game and jointly establish exchange mechanisms based on mutual benefit and cooperation. The basis of and the prerequisite for such relationship are mutual respect, mutual understanding and interdependence. On certain issues and in certain aspects both sides should take appropriate actions to support each other. Such new relationship between major powers requires that each side should be a true, long-term strategic partner of the other. This means that being both contestants and partners, China and the United States each must take the interests of the other side into consideration while pursuing its own interests, bear the common development in mind while promoting its own development and constantly optimize the trading-off of interests and work for intertwined interests while maximizing its own national interests. Obviously, these features of new China-U.S. relationship are entirely different from the zero-sum relationships between big powers in the rise-and-fall balance of forces as “rivals for world hegemony” in the old days.

In the world today, China is an emerging power, a later comer and a developing power, or is often referred to as “a rising power” whereas the United States is an old-line power and an established power that tries in every possible way to protect its dominant status, or is referred to as a “hegemonic power”. If China and the United States make concerted efforts and join hands in exploring for a new-type relationship, it will certainly facilitate both sides to establish more effective dialogue regimes and communication channels, steadily increase the convergence of interests in all aspects and at all levels and ultimately build a “community of interests”. And it will also be conducive for both sides to promote better understanding and communication in regional and international affairs, enhance coordination and cooperation in meeting common threats and challenges and handling many global issues.

The only way to build a new-type relationship is that China and the United States must above all respect each other and pursue the common goal of mutual interests through true cooperation. There is no other way. This is because the two countries differ in national history, cultural heritage, development level, values and world outlook. Sometimes they are at odds in foreign policy and for strategic interests. In these circumstances both sides should properly handle their strategic differences and conflicting interests and seriously abide by the following principles so as to build a new-type relationship as never seen before:


1. Both sides should transcend their ideological conflict and the difference in social system and respect the other side’s political system, development path and socio-economic governance.

Simply put, the U.S. side should cast away its bias and prejudices against the communist doctrine, socialist development path and the distorted image of Communists and forsake its anti-Communist and anti-socialist mentality and policy of discrimination against Chinese residents in the United States and opposition to China. It should refrain from poking its nose into or meddle in China’s internal affairs, and nor should it make wild guesses about and unwarranted charges against China’s foreign policy. By the same token, the Chinese side should take a matter-of-fact, sober-minded approach to America’s economic might, historical experiences and their great value for the progress of human civilization. In observing and thinking about the existing contradictions and conflicts around the world, it should be true to facts and refrain from taking one-sided views or infer from the preconceived idea that the United States is “the root of all evils”. Only by casting away the Cold War mentality and the antiquated way of thinking and ultimately abandoning antagonism and means of war can the two sides learn how to truly understand and respect each other in the course of building a new-type relationship.


2. Both sides should seek common ground while reserving and acknowledging their differences and each side should learn from the other side’s strong points to offset its own weaknesses.

The wide difference between China and the United States in social system is attributed to their different histories. The two countries also differ in their domestic and foreign policies, not only because their national interests differ, but because it is sometimes a historical alternative. Each side should acknowledge the other’s institutional advantages and development potentials and recognize that the development path and mode of each side have its own advantages. In the field of international politics, each side should take an objective and rational approach toward the other’s strategic intention and diplomatic agenda, including all kinds of work plans and programs of action in the security field. Both sides should unswervingly abide by the principled stand of acting as partners more often than as opponents, try to properly control and handle their contradictions and differences left over from history through dialogue and cooperation without coming into conflict, and try hard to prevent any new conflict as a result of misunderstanding or misjudgment.


3. In the course of building a new-type relationship, China and the United States should acknowledge and recognize the multipolarization of the world, diversity of development modes and cultural plurality.

In addition to mutual respect, both sides should accept the diversity of the world, respecting the histories, cultures, values, social systems and development modes of all other countries. Neither side should covertly or overtly form an alliance of like-minded states which have the same social system and ideology against the other in pursuit of its selfish interests or as a matter of expediency. Both sides should shoulder a universal responsibility and have a sense of accomplishing a historical mission, using their influence and mobilization capacity unique of big powers to give guidance to other countries so that all countries will make joint efforts to avoid conflict, seek cooperation and give priority to the maintenance of stable development of state-to-state relations while building a new-type bilateral relationship. China and the United States share an unshirkable responsibility to truly respect and take care of the common interests and major concerns of the international community. They should be bold in shouldering a shared responsibility for long-term future of mankind.


II. Building a new-type China-U.S. relationship is in the interest of both countries and at the same time conforms to the trend of times.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the upheavals in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union were a major setback for the international socialist cause. It indicates that human civilization would take an extraordinarily complex and twisted course. Many politicians and ideologues in the United States and other Western countries were wide with joy over their “triumph” in the Cold War. They believed that capitalism had now become the order of the day and that the next century would be an American century or Western century. Americans even thought that the post-Cold War unipolar world order under which the United States was the only superpower would never change.

However, the wheels of history had not rolled forward in the way as Western prophets wished. In the surging waves of economic globalization, the trend of diversified development paths is irre-sistible. The 1.3 billion Chinese people led by the Communist Party of China, holding high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, are unswervingly making giant strides on the path of building their country into a strong, prosperous, democratic, civilized and harmonious modern country. The whole world sees a new China in rapid progress. Multipolarization and changing balance of forces in the world hold out the vision of a new world in which all nations live in harmony and engage in win-win cooperation. Despite the fact that many of the problems left over from the Cold War time have remained unresolved, that the disintegration of the bipolar world structure has given rise to new contradictions from time to time and that new challenges and the test of time are often unpredictable, if one takes an overall look at the development of humanity, one will find that peace and development remain unchanged as the main theme of the time and that win-win cooperation is a universal aspiration of all nations.

China is the largest developing country, the second largest economy and the largest socialist country whereas the United States is the largest developed country, the largest economy and the strongest capitalist country in the world today. The nature and evolution of China-U.S. relationship will greatly affect the international community and the destiny and future of all mankind. Given the unique international status and influence of China and the United States while the two countries can coexist for long and carry out extensive cooperation, contradictions, differences and conflicts of interests between them would emerge inevitably. At the same time the international community will have greater expectation for sound and stable development of China-U.S. relations in all aspects, which is imperative for the two countries to handle their bilateral relationship with greater care. Therefore, to explore for a new type of civilized, rational, constructive and harmonious relationship between China and the United States is not only the common need of both countries, but is a universal call in our times.

In recent years, leaders of China and the United States have on numerous occasions expressed their good wishes for jointly building a new-type bilateral relationship. Exquisite statements and comments of American leaders in this regard are encouraging. When meeting President Xi Jinping at Annenberg Estate, Sunnylands, President Obama said: “The United States welcomes the continuing peaceful rise of China as a world power and that in fact, it is in the United States’ interest that China continues on the path of success, because we believe that a peaceful and stable and prosperous China is not only good for Chinese but also good for the world and for the United States.” Of late, Secretary of State John Kerry has also clearly pointed out that China is a great country, that U.S.-China relations must move forward, and not backward, and that the two countries can cooperate more than before on many important global issues. One may conclude that the two sides have reached broad consensus on the need to build a new-type bilateral relationship. It is undeniable, however, that conceptual similarity and common understanding merely provide a basis or prerequisite for policy decisions and practical measures. To put the consensus into action and bring about the good vision of building a new-type relationship, it is necessary for the two sides to make concerted efforts, with each side dispelling the suspicions of the other while continuing to build on mutual assurance. Both sides need to unswervingly work hard to accumulate assets for virtuous interaction and inject positive energy into the relationship. Each side needs to learn how to regard the development accomplishments of the other as an opportunity for promoting its own development. While paying close attention to its own strategic interests, each side should also be keen on the common strategic interests of both sides. To do so is by no means easy though, obviously this alone is not enough. Both sides must learn how to put their bilateral relations into a larger context of long-term development of mankind and the overall needs of the times. Only by doing so, can the two sides truly take advantage of each other’s strengths and tap all their potentials to chart a new course of bilateral relations for the well-being of all mankind acknowledged by all countries through Trans-Pacific cooperation.

The world today is undergoing a period of rapid development, profound change and major readjustment in which changing balance of all forces in the world and reshuffling of national interests are evolving in depth. The Asia-Pacific region, known for its rapid development potential and intertwining national interests, has become the “main battlefield” of rivalry among major powers. It is also a deep-water zone for building a new-type relationship between China and the United States. In the past two years the United States has refocused its overseas strategy on Asia-Pacific. It has stepped up its strategic arrangements in the region, reinforced the military alliances with its allies, frequently held military exercises of all descriptions with them, openly meddled in the disputes between China and the countries concerned over maritime rights and territorial waters, and brazenly bolstered Japan on the question of the Diaoyu Islands. The dual nature of China-U.S. relationship in which the two countries are both partners and opponents has thus become more prominent. The Chinese side is strongly opposed to such acts in contravention of the consensus of the two Presidents and the new-type relationship. Unfortunately, one cannot understand why the United States, in addition to the acts of encirclement and containment of China on security issues, has stepped up efforts to conclude the Trans-Pacific Strategic Partnership Agreement without the participation of China and even tried to rig up a “Democracies 10” (or D-10) to isolate China. All this makes one worry that the course of building toward a new-type China-U.S. relationship would be extremely rough and tortuous!

Nevertheless, we should still have confidence in the new-type China-U.S. relationship. As times have changed, China-U.S. relations, after all, are quite different from U.S.-Soviet relations at the time of the East-West Cold War under the bipolar structure of the two opposing camps. As the interests of China and the United States are deeply interwoven and the two sides have similar views on a broad range of international issues, neither side can afford to pay the price for the consequences of a major armed conflict or fierce confrontation. The international community is also unwilling to take enormous risks of getting involved in a possible war taking place as a result of the rupture of China-U.S. relations. As is seen in the international public opinion in the last two years, it is almost universally acknowledged that the evolution of China-U.S. relations will not only affect the interests of the two countries, but have a major impact on peace and development in Asia-Pacific and the world as a whole. In the course of building a new-type China-U.S. relationship, both sides should realize more deeply that world peace and international cooperation provide a sure guarantee for the long-term development in the new century for all countries, and that the success of building such relationship serves the interests of both countries and all peoples in the world and is ensured only when the two sides bear in mind the strategic need of their common development and have a common understanding of their shared interests. If the two sides follow this path smoothly and successfully, it can help the Chinese people realize their dream and the American people realize theirs. It will also help the people of the world, working together hand in hand, ultimately realize the dream of peace and prosperity for all mankind. The two sides should always have deep conviction and firm resolve in this course and advance valiantly with their unswerving and solemn commitment to mankind.


III. Building a more inclusive and broad-ranging new-type relationship between major powers is also necessary for the rise of emerging powers as a group.


As the world has entered the new century, a group of emerging powers are growing rapidly in Asia, Africa and Latin America against a backdrop of the changing international economic structure and complicated evolution of the world’s politico-ecological environment. Apart from China, this group includes India, South Africa, Brazil and others with significant international influence. As the principal successor state of the Soviet Union and its international political legacy, Russia has stepped up its efforts to rehabilitate in its overall national strength and steadily resumed its clout in international and regional affairs. As a member of the BRIC group, Russia is now more often categorized as in the rank of emerging countries. But Russia as a UN P-5 country is a major actor in global affairs and therefore is, in the U.S. eye, a major opponent and partner in the world arena today as Russia’s clout in the CIS, Europe and Asia-Pacific should not be underestimated. Russia has both certain characteristics of an emerging power and certain features of a traditional or established power. Just as China and the United States, the emerging powers and traditional powers (for example, Britain, France and Germany) are also trying hard to find ways of how to handle global problems that affect human survival and development. Such states are therefore also major actors in and supporters of the existing international system. As each of these states is confronted with many problems of its own, they also want to build a new-type relationship different from the past so as to properly handle various structural contradictions in their relations with China and the United States and among themselves. They also wish to use peaceful means to resolve differences and disputes between states so as to readjust and streamline all kinds of relationships in which they are major stakeholders.

As two most important and most representative powers in the world today, if China and the United States can build and develop a new-type bilateral relationship that meets the development needs of our times and is universally expected, its exemplary role and demonstrative effect will be invaluable and inestimable. Such a new relationship may serve as a good example of extensive and true partnership and an excellent development opportunity for all emerging powers in different localities with different cultural backgrounds and social systems, at different development levels or following different development paths so that all emerging powers and traditional powers can develop more rapidly through mutually beneficial cooperation in all aspects and at all levels, build a more just and reasonable international political and economic order and bring about broader prospects for peace, security, stability and development across the world. Seen from this perspective alone, the new-type China-U.S. relationship is by no means a narrow-minded, exclusive and selfish concept. Rather, it is an open-minded, inclusive and universally beneficial initiative. China-U.S. new-type relationship should complement and share strengths with all new-type relationships between emerging powers and between emerging powers and certain traditional powers, already established or being taking shape, which conform to the direction of the times, so as to form a more encompassing progressive network of big-power relationships around the world.

It should be pointed out in particular here that under the comprehensive impact of many factors including geo-political environment, historical heritage, religious background, social system, ideology, market orientation and development level, emerging powers used to play a minor role in regional and international affairs as they engaged with one another in limited areas and at low levels. In the world today, these countries also need to establish high-level dialogue regimes, promote common interests and increase bilateral and multilateral exchanges; they also need to nurture domestic public opinion on a solid basis for more extensive friendly exchanges and cooperation. As its international influence grows and overseas interests increase, China has established strategic partnerships of all descriptions with many emerging powers and traditional powers including Russia, Britain, France and Germany. All these partners are indispensable and none of them should be ignored, as the development and consolidation of relations with these countries are extremely important for the new China-U.S. relations. While promoting the new-type China-U.S. relations China should pay close attention to the development of its relations with Russia, India and other emerging powers as well as traditional powers like Britain, France and Germany and ensure that such relations will play a more important role in regional and global affairs and have broader prospects.

In search of constructing a new-type bilateral relationship between China and the United States, the word “new” means that the two countries can avoid taking the beaten track in history: “A rising power is bound to seek hegemony” or “big powers in rivalry will inevitably go to war”. Through concerted efforts they can chart a new course of peaceful coexistence and common development in relations between two major powers in the world. It also means that such a relationship is entirely different from the U.S.-Soviet relations under a bipolar world structure characterized by “worldwide Cold War” and “confrontation between the socialist and capitalist camps led the two superpowers.” In the present international situation, China and the United States are constructing a new-type bilateral relationship without common strategic rivals. The new China-U.S. relationship is not against any third country and is, therefore, also entirely different from the China-U.S. relationship of a quasi-alliance nature against Soviet hegemony during the 1970s and 1980s. In constructing the new China-U.S. relationship the two sides do not seek to establish a world order under China-U.S. condominium or bipolarity. It is by no means a disguised form of G2 as some ignorant people profess. If such new-type relationship proceeds smoothly, it will definitely serve as a driver and lubricant for sound development of the entire system of the international relations as well as an inexhaustible motive force for revolutionary restructuring of the world in the new century.


VI. New China-U.S. relationship is significant for developing new theories of international relations.


The fact that Chinese leaders have initiated the idea of constructing a new-type China-U.S. relationship in forward-looking thinking is based on their understanding of the evolution of human civilization and its intrinsic laws, and defined it from their strategic perception of the global pattern of international relations and the general orientation of changing circumstances in the world today. This new concept resounding with universal acclaim is not a meaningless diplomatic jargon. Nor is it a sensational term in vogue. The essence and connotation of this idea fully demonstrate the profound wisdom and fine qualities of the Chinese nation upholding harmony and unity. It also reflects universal aspiration for peaceful development and international cooperation. It is an organic synthesis of China’s national tradition and spirit with the lofty ideal and faith of mankind.

What is “new” in the new-type China-U.S. relationship is manifested in that each side regards the development and growing strength of the other as a shared opportunity rather than a threat, and that both sides wish to grasp such an opportunity to further promote and deepen bilateral cooperation rather than engaging in mutual containment and confrontation. This “new” concept also implies that both sides abide by their respective values and morals, with each side bringing its advantages into full play in its own course of development while learning from the other side. It does not mean that the two sides should take the same development path and model in disregard of the diversity of development models. The “new” concept also implies that with justice on its side, China will continue to oppose hegemony and power politics, but does not intend to challenge America’s global influence. China will support U.S. efforts to promote peace in Asia-Pacific and the world as a whole; the United States may not be in favor of the social system and development path China has chosen, but Americans must acknowledge a rising China as reality. The United States must recognize that China is justified to increase its regional and international influence as it continues to grow in strength and refrain from challenging or threatening China’s core interests. It should seek every opportunity to cooperate with China on the vast world arena.

It is by no means easy to construct a new-type China-U.S. relationship. Both sides need to make painstaking efforts to turn the idea into reality. It is gratifying that the international community more and more recognizes, understands, appreciates and supports this new concept and looks forward to seeing China and the United States truly join hands with concerted efforts to push relations between all major powers in benign interplay. Of course, we should also take note that building a new-type China-U.S. relationship is related not only to the two sides’ strategic thinking, but to their specific foreign policies and diplomatic conduct. As long as both sides move toward the same direction and act in close coordination, this new concept and ensuing practices under its guidance can bear rich fruit as they expect, provide new experiences and forms for renewing and further developing the traditional theories on international relations, and succeed in making major innovations and breakthroughs for such theories.

The Western realist theory of international relations has been more influential or even prevalent in the theories of big-power relations. Such theory has misled the international community. According to this theory, national strength of a country was the only denominator of its international status, and the rise-and-fall of big powers was the determinant in international affairs. It concluded that rising powers would inevitably challenge the hegemony of established powers through non-peaceful means including war, and the latter would inevitably counter the challenge by using force to check force, which would lead to “political tragedies” in bitter rivalry between rising powers and established powers. However, more and more people have come to realize that the old theory of international relations which was built on political antagonism, economic deprivation, social conflict and colonialist culture runs counter to the trend of the times, and is therefore doomed to failure. Trying to apply the logic and rules governing the outmoded theory of international relations to the handling of contemporary state-to-state relations and global issues, especially big-power relations and the problems between big powers, is simply a fatal attempt. It is not only untenable, but harmful to the international community and future generations. This is because such modes of international relations and big-power relations do not conform to the calling of the times at all. If any country should follow this theory, it would undermine the interests of other countries, ultimately to the detriment of its own interests.

The new China-U.S. relationship we initiate and endorse is a new type of relationship between major powers that is to be built on mutual political assurance, mutual economic benefits, mutual community support and learning from each other in enhancing national cultural heritages. Building such a new-type big-power relationship that is never seen in human history and valuable for future generations calls for the international community to formulate a brand-new theory of international relations which will ultimately lead to an all-round reform in the theories of international politics, international relations and human progress. If China and the United States succeed in their joint efforts to construct a new-type bilateral relationship, it will certainly serve as a brand-new example for smooth development of relations between all major powers and usher in a period of underlying breakthrough and advancement in the overall theory of international relations.

From the perception and expectation of the international community on the successful construction of China-U.S. new-type relationship, it is imperative for the two sides to, while building on the cooperative partnership with mutual respect and mutual interests as defined long ago by the two Presidents, study the new relationship in greater depth and inject more substantive meanings into it.

China is more proactive than the United States in endorsing the construction of a new-type state-to-state relations, especially new relationship between major powers. China has taken the lead and made great efforts in exploring and implementing the new concept. As China’s counterpart in building the new relationship, the United States should be more active in government-to-government exchanges and in other official venues to expand the new concept of big-power relations with more detailed and more operational policy statements. In the light of further development of bilateral relations and in the changing circumstances of international order and international relations, the two sides should build on the consensus in all walks of like in their own countries to enrich and further develop the meaning and contents of the new concept so that it will keep up with the times and better display its epochal spirit, inspiration and vitality.

Source: China International Studies September/October 2013 p16-33

[1]Yu Hongjun is Vice Minister of the International Department, Central Committee of the Com-munist Party of China. He is also President of China Center for Contemporary World Studies.