President Xi’s State Visit to the United States and the Development of New Model of Major-Country Relations

Yang Jiemian former President of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies
From 22 to 25 September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid his first state visit to the United States. President Xi and President Obama reaffirmed the new model of major-country relations between China and the US, which represents new progress in this unprecedented undertaking. In face of the fast-changing international situation, profound adjustment in the international system and new tests in China-US relations, the new model of major-country relations between China and the US is of great relevance and historic significance.
I. Internal and external basis of the new model of major-country relations between China and the US
International relations have long been underpinned by the rise and fall of state power, but in the globalization and information age, they are also largely affected by how major countries comprehend history and steer their course of development. As China has surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy and plays a greater role in international affairs, the global significance of China-US relations has increased, and the two countries interact more frequently in the international system. Since 2008, China has been exploring new trends and features of China-US relations. During his Sunnylands meeting with President Obama in June 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed a new model of major-country relations between China and the US featuring non-conflict and non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.
To accept this goal of bilateral relations proves no easy task for the US. Over the past two years and more, the Obama administration has faced tremendous domestic pressure because of its consent to this new model. Strategists and senior government officials of the US, based on their long-held realpolitik thinking, deem that a rising power is destined to fall into the Thucydides trap, i.e, conflicts, confrontation and, ultimately, wars between a rising power and a hegemonic or established power. They equate China-US relations with Germany-UK relations before World War I and believe that China will be the No. 1 challenger to America’s global dominance. At the strategic and policy level, America’s “pivot to Asia” and rebalancing to the Asia Pacific have further complicated the geopolitical landscape of China’s neighborhood. On the part of China, despite negative impacts of sluggish world economy, it has kept a stable domestic economy. China put forward the initiative of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road to shape the geoeconomic structure of the Eurasian continent and regions around the West Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean. It initiated the New Development Bank of BRICS and is in the process of establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It pushed for the internationalization of the renminbi to raise China’s influence and voice in the international economic and financial system. It moved forward the negotiation of regional free trade agreements and bilateral investment agreements to offset the pressure from the formation of international economic blocs. China has safeguarded its maritime rights and interests and other core national interests more firmly and more confidently as well as through concrete and effective measures. Given the profound transformation in international relations, serious geopolitical challenges posed by Eastern Europe and the Middle East to the US, as well as America’s reliance on China in addressing multiple global issues, China’s rising status as a major country is ever more prominent. For these reasons, US decision-makers have no choice but to accept China’s initiatives.
President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the US highlights the significance of the new model of major-country relations between China and the US in the sense of historical trends. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the world’s anti-fascist war and the founding of the United Nations. China is the largest developing country in the world, while the US the largest developed country. In face of the new challenges of the era, both countries should move towards each other in terms of international system building, make joint efforts to address global challenges, and work together on global development issues. In addition, a steady and progressing China-US relationship is conducive to the two countries’ respective relations with the Asia Pacific, Europe and other regions. Such sound interactions contribute to world peace and development. This new model of relationship is bringing more benefits to the Chinese and American people. That is the fundamental reason why President Xi was warmly welcomed by local governments, business community, and educational and cultural circles during his US visit. Given these internal and external contexts, the Obama administration stayed committed to the strategic goal and direction of the new model of major-country relations during the presidential election, a politically sensitive period.
II. The status quo and development trend of the new model of major-country relations between China and the US
First, in terms of “non-conflict and non-confrontation”, neither China nor the US can afford the huge price of direct confrontation. For both countries, conflict has to be averted with maximum efforts. The reasons are: first, the two countries’ economic, trade, investment and financial interests are deeply intertwined. Both countries benefit enormously from this economic relationship. The high economic interdependence has become the major stabilizer of bilateral relations. Second, in times of peace and development, competition between major countries has shifted to the areas of economy, science and technology, as well as international system and rules. Political or even military confrontation is not a sensible choice as it is very likely to cause a lose-lose situation. Third, challenging global issues and incessant regional hotspot issues have expanded the scope of China-US cooperation, and the US needs China’s cooperation and support in addressing many of the above-mentioned issues. Therefore, in the age of globalization, China is not a rising power, nor the US an established power in the traditional sense. China is firmly committed to a path of peaceful development. It does not seek to challenge the current international order; rather, it has participated in and contributed to the establishment and improvement of the international system. Hence, this new model of major-country relations “requires both sides to view each other’s strategic intention in an objective and reasonable manner, be partners instead of adversaries, and properly handle problems and differences through dialogue and cooperation rather than confrontation or conflict”. This would serve the long-term interests of China and the US. When it comes to specific issues, both sides should seek cooperation in areas prone to problems and enhance mechanisms to manage their differences and crises. Take cyber security, a hot issue in the China-US relations right now, as an example. During President Xi’s visit to the US, both sides pledged that national security will not be used as an excuse for trade protection, reached important consensus on fighting cybercrimes together, and called on all governments not to engage in or knowingly support cyber-enabled IPR theft. The two countries established the High-level Joint Dialogue on Fighting Cybercrime and Related Issues to avoid escalation of this issue. Yet, given the broad spectrum of bilateral issues, it is only natural that the two countries will encounter problems which might evolve into frictions or conflicts of interests. That is why both sides need to explore effective measures for managing differences which will create a web of cross-cutting cooperation mechanisms and prevent the slide toward confrontation and conflict. All of these are important safeguards for sound China-US relations.
Second, the principle of “mutual respect” is both a priority and sticking point in the building of a new model of major-country relations. Mutual respect for each other’s core interests and major concerns is key to the steady and sound development of China-US relations. On the one hand, the two sides have growing consensus over “mutual respect”. For example, one of the outcomes of President Xi’s visit is that the US pledged to implement the IMF’s voting quota and governance reforms, which will amplify China’s influence in this institution to match its real status in the global economy. The US also promised to support the inclusion of the renminbi into the SDR currency basket, which marks a big step forward in China’s efforts to internationalize the renminbi. And the Chinese side stated that it respects America’s traditional influence and practical interests in the Asia Pacific and welcomes the US to continue playing a positive and constructive role in regional affairs, thus accommodating the core concerns of the US. On the other hand, there will be twists and turns before China and the US can get along on the path towards “mutual respect”. For China, “mutual respect” refers to respect for each other’s choice of social systems and development paths as well as core interests and major concerns. For the US, it fears that once it accepts China’s formulation of “mutual respect”, the principles it upholds in international relations such as “human rights above sovereignty” and “humanitarian intervention” will lose its moral strength and China would benefit. So, there is still a long way to go before China and the US can truly have mutual respect for each other.
Third, “win-win cooperation” requires the two sides to abandon the zero-sum mentality, accommodate the other’s interests while pursuing one’s own, promote common development while developing oneself, and continue to deepen shared interests. China-US cooperation in economy, trade and non-traditional security issues has expanded the areas of converging interests. First, the economic and trade cooperation between the two sides has generated immense benefits for both. Over the last decades, China-US economic and trade ties have advanced by leaps and bounds. According to the US-China Business Council, China is now the third largest export market of the US, only next to Canada and Mexico. In the past ten years, US export to China has increased by 198%, faster than that to any other country. China’s customs statistics show that China-US trade amounted to nearly 560 billion US dollars in 2014. Apart from trade, investment has also become an increasingly important link between China and the US. By the end of 2014, two-way investment of various forms had exceeded 120 billion US dollars. Direct investment made by the Chinese companies in the US has grown rapidly and made its way to 45 states. The activities of the US companies in China and the business cooperation between the two countries have contributed to China’s development. Such cooperation has also delivered huge benefits to the US companies and boost the US economy. In recent years, the Chinese investment in the US has gained momentum and created a large number of American jobs. Second, the two sides have reached broader agreement on jointly tackling global issues. Such cooperation is expanding and will continue to expand as multiple challenges are threatening the entire humanity, including those in the fields of environment, finance, resources, terrorism, security, food, public health and cyberspace. The Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change issued on 25 September is a case in point, which reaffirms that climate change is one of the greatest challenges to mankind and that the two countries have an important role to play in combating the challenge. Third, there is also broad space for the two countries to jointly address complex international hotspot issues. Given that the basis of the aforementioned cooperation is durable, the two countries will work together to deal with a wide range of issues, from bilateral ones to international ones, and truly become the anchor of world peace.
III. Prospects of the new model of major-country relations between China and the US
Due to the chequered history and complexity of China-US relations, it will take a long time to build such new model of major-country relations. The exercise calls for the joint efforts of the two countries and the support of the wider region and world.
First, the new model of major-country relations between China and the US conforms to the trend of times and history, so the vision can and will be turned into reality with hard work. What has happened since President Nixon’s 1972 visit shows that China-US relations have kept broadening and deepening. Over the last 40 years and more, the relations have been affected by some events, such as the Tian’anmen incident in 1989, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the aircraft collision in 2001. But the overall trend has been a positive and forward one, evidenced by the increasing commonalities, areas of cooperation and dialogue mechanisms between the two countries. The three principles of this new model of relations are built upon what generations of Chinese and US leaders have learned from the past and what they aspire for the future. They can survive the politics of American elections.
Second, the building of the new model of major-country relations between China and the US will be punctuated by twists and turns. On the one hand, during President Xi’s visit, the two countries reached 49 important outcomes in various fields, such as economy, trade, energy, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, science and technology, agriculture, law enforcement and cyber security. Enterprises of the two countries signed many business contracts. This will help shape favorable views about the future of China-US relations. On the other hand, it was only shortly after President Xi’s visit that the US sent naval vessels into waters of the South China Sea to assert the so-called “freedom of navigation”. It was an outright challenge to China’s sovereignty and security. In light of this, we must be aware that China-US relations are long-term and complex. We must be prepared to make strenuous and protracted efforts to get the US to warm up to the vision of building a new model of major-country relations with China and help make the vision a reality.
Third, we should face up to the disagreements and disputes between China and the US and take concrete actions to ensure better communication, cooperation and risk management. At the present and for some time to come, the two countries should exercise prudence so as to more effectively manage differences, prevent crisis and resolve disputes. This would be the only choice if China and the US are to avoid the worst situation of conflict and the escalation of confrontation, overcome the ups and downs in their relations, and realize greater mutual respect and win-win cooperation.
Finally, we should inject more positive energy into China-US relations. The two sides should continue to deepen their shared interests in economy, trade, people-to-people exchanges, non-traditional security issues as well as response to regional hotspots and global challenges. This will help provide the basis for a stronger community of common interests between the two countries, boost the demand for their cooperation, and ultimately steer clear of the Thucydides trap. What is more, China and the US should increase their shared interests and common responsibility as they work with third parties so as to prevent the interference and disruption of others. In short, only by consolidating the basis can we forge ahead without hesitation. Only by removing the disturbances can we stay on the right track. This will help ensure that the relationship always keeps to the right direction despite complex and thorny challenges.
Yang Jiemian is former President of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.