Why China has failed to build ‘great power relations’ with the U.S. by KAWASHIMA Shin

“API Geoeconomic Briefing” is a weekly analysis of significant geopolitical and geoeconomic developments that precede the post-pandemic world. The briefing is written by experts at Asia Pacific Initiative (API) and includes an assessment of burgeoning trends in international politics and economics and the possible impact on Japan’s national interests and strategic response. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. HOSOYA Yuichi, Research Director, API; Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University; Visiting Fellow, Downing College, University of Cambridge)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on March 21, 2022:


API Geoeconomic Briefing

Photo: AFP/Aflo

March 21, 2022

Why China has failed to build ‘great power relations’ with the U.S.

Professor, Graduate school of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo




After the United States and China signed the Shanghai Communique 50 years ago, in February 1972, the U.S. pursued a policy of engagement with Beijing, hoping that China would become both a part of the existing international order and a democratic state in step with its economic growth.

Such a stance, addressed by Henry Kissinger, the U.S. president’s national security adviser at the time, has largely changed course today.

This year also marks 50 years since Japan and China normalized diplomatic ties in September 1972 after Washington and Beijing began moving closer to one another in the early 1970s.

But will the recent changes in the U.S.-China relations lead to the creation of a new China-Japan relationship?

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration, formed in 2012, began to call on the U.S. to form a “New Type of Great Power Relations,” through which the two countries could cooperate on global issues while respecting each other’s core interests.

Xi sought to build such a relationship with not only the U.S., but also with Russia, the European Union and even Japan.

China apparently believed that the concept had been accepted by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, but was nullified by the administration of his successor, Donald Trump.

Beijing probably hoped that current U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration would revive the concept, but that has not been the case so far.

The term did not appear in documents released by Xi in 2021, including the Chinese Communist Party’s latest resolution on history.

How did the term first arise and how did Beijing regard its relationship with Washington?

China recognizes that “once-in-a-century changes” are currently taking place, with the world — which is overly focused on the U.S. — becoming more polarized and moving towards a U.S.-China bipolarity.

In his address to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi said that China was seeking to “become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence” by the mid-21st century, which was interpreted as a call to match and eclipse the U.S. global influence by 2049.

But this also indicates that China believes it is a challenging goal that takes more than 30 years to achieve, and that is why Beijing needed a New Type of Great Power Relations to avoid unnecessary conflicts with superpowers like the U.S. and to emerge as a superpower itself.

The term was first used near the end of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao’s administration and was officially adopted in the early years of the Xi administration as a policy concept regarding China’s relations with the U.S. and other major powers.

Under the Hu administration, China’s “hide your strength, bide your time and never take the lead” policy — maintaining a low posture in international relations until it becomes an economic superpower — was gradually shifted toward focusing more on sovereignty and national security.

During the Obama administration, U.S. foreign policy experts meanwhile proposed the idea of forming the Group of Two (G2) between the U.S. and China, as Washington sought to make Beijing a “responsible stakeholder” while sticking to its policy of engagement.

In a September 2009 speech, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg touched on the idea of “strategic reassurance” through which China needs to reassure countries around the world that its development will not come at the expense of the security and well-being of others. Some took the remark as a further push by Washington for a G2.

However, when Obama visited Beijing in November 2009, then-Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said China disagreed with the suggestion of a G2, while stressing the significance of Sino-U.S. relationship.

Tensions between the U.S. and China grew in 2010 after Obama hosted exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama at the White House and China became more vocal about its sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea and surrounding waters.

While the relationship improved to some extent following Hu’s visit to Washington in January 2011, the U.S. did not make any proposal that suggested the creation of a G2.Instead came China’s presentation of the New Type of Great Power Relations.

Xi, then-Chinese vice president, proposed the idea directly to Biden, then-U.S. vice president, during Biden’s visit to Beijing in August 2011. It was made clearer when Xi visited Washington in February 2012 and said that the two countries could build a “new cooperative partnership” based on mutual respect and mutual benefit.


U.S. response

At first, the Xi administration, formed in November 2012, basically succeeded the foreign policy adopted in the late years of the preceding Hu administration.

In June 2013, Xi visited Washington for the first time as Chinese president and again put forward the idea of the New Type of Great Power Relations, but Obama did not make clear whether he approved or disapproved of the idea.

Susan Rice, then-national security adviser, said in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington in November 2013 that the two countries “seek to operationalize a new model of major power relations,” but later said this did not mean the U.S. had accepted the idea.

In December 2013, when Biden visited Beijing, Xi took up the concept once again.

It was notable that Xi said he and Obama, in their two meetings, had agreed to work together to “build a new model called Major Country Relationship between China and the United States based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

It is still uncertain whether China took a more hard-line stance regarding such issues as the South China Sea and cyberspace based on such a recognition, and we must continue to look into the issue.

In November 2014, in his speech before the Communist Party’s Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs, Xi laid out a new diplomatic policy that became the core of his speech at the 19th Party Congress in 2017.

He stressed that China should have “major-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics,” which implies that the Chinese government wanted to conduct its international affairs in ways that would align with traditional Chinese values, upholding international justice and speaking up for developing countries rather than accepting order centered in industrialized countries.

His remarks were seen as a challenge from China to the U.S.

Xi’s new diplomacy was also described in a speech by Fu Ying, then-chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s 12th National People’s Congress, at U.K.-based think tank Chatham House in July 2016.

Fu said the existing world order, built and led by the U.S., contained three pillars: American or Western values; the U.S.-led military alignment; and the United Nations and its institutions.

While noting that China had long been alienated politically by the West and that the U.S.-led military alliance was asserting increasing pressure on the country, she said China strongly belonged in the U.N.-led order system, quoting Xi as saying there was no intention to unravel the system.

We can say that the Xi administration was clearly challenging the U.S. with his words and actions at that time.

In response to such changes in China’s actions, the Obama administration tried to be harsh on Beijing, conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. But China’s stance did not change much.

The biggest issue with the U.S. policy of engagement was that the country failed to grasp how China viewed the policy.


The Trump administration

Xi made his stance toward the U.S. clear in a speech at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017.

And, in March 2018, China amended its constitution to abolish presidential term limits, making the country even more undemocratic.

Around that time — near the end of the Obama administration and at the beginning of the Trump administration — the U.S. shifted away from a policy of engagement.

It seems the U.S. finally understood that China had been challenging Washington for years. It must have been difficult for Beijing to understand why it took so long for the U.S. to react.

From the point of view of the U.S., China’s challenge was recognized gradually as a process to be reflected in the policy.

Even though the U.S.’ policy changed, China continued to adhere to the New Type of Great Power Relations idea.

Although Trump initially showed some consideration for China in dealing with Taiwan and Hong Kong, a speech by then-Vice President Mike Pence in October 2018 that accused Beijing of trying to influence American elections, as well as intensified tensions between the two countries that followed, made Chinese people think that the Trump administration had destroyed the New Type of Great Power Relations accepted by the Obama administration.


Biden’s approach

The launch of the Biden administration appeared to China to be an opportunity to revive the New Type of Great Power Relations, as Biden was the person Xi had originally explained the idea to.

Xi’s hopes were reflected in his calling Biden “lao peng you” or “old friend,” but Biden’s reaction fell short of Xi’s expectations.

China no longer uses the term in regards to its relationship with the U.S., but it has not stiffened its stance against Washington.

The Biden administration’s policy of ensuring that “competition” between the two does not become “conflict” is consistent with the notion of “no conflict or confrontation” under the New Type of Great Power Relations.

The Biden administration is also seeking to cooperate with Beijing in such areas as climate change, regional issues and nuclear arms control.

Such a stance is a positive factor for China. Beijing must have thought that Washington was coming closer in 2021.

The New Type of Great Power Relations had been a prerequisite to the Chinese dream of achieving “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049.

Its failure to establish such a relationship means China’s attempts to create a new world order through provision of international public goods and rule making will continue to be checked by the U.S. and its allies.

China, having difficulty cooperating with other major powers, is likely to try forming a majority by using frameworks such as the Group of 77 developing countries to make industrialized countries a minority.

But will it be possible for industrialized countries to counter such a move by checking China’s actions while winning the support of emerging and developing countries to form a majority in the global community?

If they can gain such support, they will be able to delay the formation of China’s own order or change its shape to some extent.


Japan’s actions

The world centered on the U.S. and China under a framework like G2 is not desirable for U.S. allies including Japan.

It is also not desirable for the U.S. and China to form a New Type of Great Power Relations that could make the U.S. respect China’s core interests regarding such issues as Taiwan.

Currently, the ideas of both G2 and New Type of Great Power Relations have diminished amid the formation of multilateral frameworks such as the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” and “the Quad” alliance of Japan, the U.S., Australia and India, to construct a comprehensive regional order that covers military and economic affairs.

However, the dynamics toward creating some sort of a G2 not only in terms of military and security affairs — including nuclear parity — but also in economic and technological terms will never go away. And China will keep on attempting to create its version of world order.

The key for Japan, as a country located in East Asia, will be to take a flexible stance in dealing with a variety of issues, check attempts to create a G2 or a New Type of Great Power Relations and work to form a majority in the global community.



The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the API Institute of Geoeconomic Studies or any other organizations to which the author belongs.