Chinese Perspective

"New Model of Great Power Relations"

How is a “New Model of Great Power Relations” Possible?

The two decades following the end of the Cold War witnessed continuous peace, stability, social progress, and economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, despite occasional disturbances across the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula. Numerous institutions and mechanisms aimed at promoting regional economic integration and constructing “new security architecture” in East Asia were created, and thousands of conferences, workshops, and research programs were conducted along the same lines, often with noticeable optimism. Questions were asked as to why a regional formulation similar to the European Union could not be developed soon in East Asia, as if this had been a desirable and reachable destination for the peoples in this vast area.

In the last three to four years, however, there seem to be fewer and fewer optimistic discussions of notions like the “East Asian Community” or a “multilateral security mechanism” that would include all the major powers in the region. It is not difficult to identify symptoms of this lack of progress or retrogression. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, led now by a young leader, exploded its third nuclear device and appears to be even more belligerent than before. The Six-Party Talks on denuclearization are, in effect, deceased. The China-Japan relationship has sunk to its lowest ebb in recent history, ostensibly owing to their territorial dispute over a few small, uninhabited islands. Japan’s attitude toward its own history before and during the Second World War complicated its diplomacy with South Korea and the United States, not to mention China. More complaints are heard in Southeast Asian countries and India that they are facing China’s increased assertiveness, as seen in Beijing’s handling of the South China Sea issue and the border issue with India. Although the likelihood of a major military conflict on the Korean Peninsula or between China and any neighboring country remains slim, the recent events do not bode well for continued regional tranquility.

On the economic and social front, the situation is only marginally better. New free trade agreements are reached and implemented but also meet political impediments. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations are going on under US stewardship; yet the TPP has drawn suspicion, criticism, and protest from the public, advocacy groups, and elected officials in various communities. When the East Asia Summit includes the United States, Russia, India, Australia, and New Zealand in addition to “ASEAN +3,” its regional identity is further diluted, making the prospect of an integral “East Asian Community” even more illusionary and remote.

It could be assumed that the backdrop to all these developments is the intensifying geostrategic competition between the United States and China. Many Chinese commentators argue that it is the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” posture, presumably designed to contain China, that has encouraged other claimants to the Nansha (Spratly) and Xisha (Paracel) Islands to be more defiant against China. It is also a remarkably popular view among China’s political elites that the United States is siding with Japan in the China-Japan discord and should be held responsible for the deterioration of their bilateral relations. In the eyes of these Chinese, Washington has driven a wedge between China and Myanmar, which caused some failures of China’s investment in that country. They also point to Washington’s intransigence and hostility toward Pyongyang for the recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In other words, Asian security is overshadowed by US intentions to maintain its regional domination at the expense of China. China’s only option, therefore, is to strengthen its national power, especially military capabilities, to counter US and Japanese pressures. It is also necessary for China to move strategically closer to Russia and other “friendly” countries, which guard against US interference in their domestic affairs.

Evidently, the perspectives of the United States, Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore, the Philippines, and possibly some other countries are decidedly different from these Chinese observations. These countries have expressed concern that China has deviated from the previous normality of diplomacy that assured the regional players of its moderation in pursuing national goals, and instead has adopted a hardened, less accommodating approach. In particular, a number of US strategists and analysts portray China as a rising power driven by hegemonic ambitions that will inevitably seek to challenge and ultimately replace America’s leading position in the Asia-Pacific and even in the world. Some other US analysts suspect that Chinese leaders are mobilizing resurgent nationalistic aspirations in China for domestic political purposes, and that such practices may result in dangerous international crises. Whatever the reasons, it is suggested that the United States should find ways to hedge against a more assertive China.

Beijing’s official pronouncements, at least for international audiences, continue to reiterate the long-held position that China persists in the path of peaceful development and good-neighborly policy. The new leadership headed by President Xi Jinping has proposed to the United States the construction of a “new model of great power relations,” which means that China and the United States should avoid following the same old disastrous road of great power rivalry that led to catastrophe, such as the Peloponnesian War, First World War, and Second World War. The Obama administration has responded positively, although it is somewhat reluctant to use the wording “new model.” The Xi-Obama conversations at Sunnylands, California, in June 2013 were recognized as successful, paving the way for more productive dialogues between the two giants.

It will benefit both nations, as well as all other countries in Asia, if this “new model of great power relations” can be built. However, if the bottom line of this “new model” is simply “no war, no major conflict” between China and the United States, have they already enjoyed the “new model” for over 40 years since President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972? Is the current and long-term objective in China-US relations just the maintenance of the status quo of non-confrontation? If it is, then what is new?

My favorite metaphor for China-US interactions today is the old Chinese saying, “if you are sailing against the current, you’ll either forge ahead or go backwards.” The many crosscurrents we see in East Asia warrant serious attention. Although it is hard to imagine a forthcoming, head-on confrontation between the United States and Japan on the one side, and China—and conceivably Russia—on the other, the observable strategic distrust, suspicions, competitions, and maneuvers between them would waste a great deal of natural and human resources and obscure cooperative efforts for common public goods. What is referred to as the “new model” should entail really new elements and new work that will not only prevent the international players from becoming antagonistic to each other but also push them into more cooperation on sustainable economic growth, financial stability, free and fair trade, climate change, environmental protection, renewable energy, social welfare, public health, cybersecurity, the rule of law, and other issues in global governance.

A better way to deal with traditional security issues, especially those related to thorny territorial disputes, is to “seek common ground while reserving differences,” as Zhou Enlai proposed at the Bandung Conference in 1955, and to “put aside disputes and engage in joint exploitation,” as Deng Xiaoping repeatedly advocated in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite occasional abrasive rhetoric, Beijing’s international behavior remains quite defensive and prudent. China should pay more attention to the concerns of its neighbors. Other countries, in particular the United States, should be sensitive to China’s consciousness of national sovereignty.

Advocacy of prudence on traditional security issues and focus on global governance is not very appealing to many domestic constituencies in East Asia and in the United States. In fact, some groups see their interests being served by continued international tensions. The media, especially social media, tend to exaggerate and sensationalize frictions across national boundaries. The key to developing a truly new model of great power relations between the United States and China is an expansion of their common economic and security interests, which now go far beyond East Asia. The same principle applies to China’s relations with Japan and other Asian powers.

It is time for strategists in the Asia-Pacific region to think what the countries can reasonably achieve short of a comprehensive, multilateral, security architecture or viable East Asian integration and identity. For China and the United States, while they are both preoccupied with domestic priorities and both have global interests to take care of, reaching a modus vivendi in East Asia seems to be appropriate, though a new model of relations is desirable in the long run.

  1. […] previously witnessed in history. The question is how these two continental powers can take a different course than previous great powers who were in competition. In history, conflict and war between two major […]