Chinese President Xi Jingping cannot be faulted for offering up a formula for Sino-American relations that he calls “New Type Great Power Relations.” From Xi’s perspective, it is very reasonable to demand U.S. acceptance of China as a prime power in Asia without the attendant responsibilities, power competition, and potential conflict. It is the Obama administration that is acting foolishly in accepting the formula.
The idea comes from a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that is very self-conscious about two historic events: the fall of Soviet communism, and the ways is which established powers have thwarted the ambitions of rising powers in the past. Xi wants to avoid both. His formulation seeks to both secure the CCP’s popular legitimacy as the vanguard of a nationalist revival and to fend off attempts at containment.
But Washington has no interest in solidifying the CCP position at home or abroad, particularly without any Chinese commitment to shoulder global responsibilities.
Moreover, America should know better than to confer this status upon China as if rhetorical acceptance makes competition and conflict less likely. Washington’s own experience with great powers politics should lead to vastly different conclusions about the future of Sino-American relations.
The established European powers did not simply accept the United States as it was rising. The United States had to assert itself with such policies as the Monroe Doctrine. Even the relatively benign British policy toward the rising United States was severely tested as late as 1895 over Venezuela. London considered America a potential threat well into the 20th century. It was only after the two countries fought side by side in World War I that Britain began to see that its Anglo brethren might be a partner and a possible successor. The other lesson here is the importance of shared values to great power peace.
The United States competed or fought with every other rising power in its midst from Imperial Japan to the Kaiser’s and Hitler’s Germany to the Soviets. Even benign, pacifist contemporary Japan felt American wrath after the Cold War when it seemed it would surpass the United States economically.
To be sure, America can learn from history and try not to repeat the bloody history of rising powers. High diplomacy is an essential part of U.S. China policy. Washington should do what it can to avoid conflict even as it upholds its interests in Asia. But a security competition intensifying between Beijing and Washington and no new formula for relations will erase that fact.
The gradual acceptance of Xi’s framework also underscores an unproductive habit of U.S. China policy dating back to the 19th century. Let’s call this the China exception to U.S. statecraft. Washington had a habit of romanticizing China and developing impossible expectations for it. Did it really make sense for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to declare a weak China riven by civil war one of the “Four Policeman” that would provide security to Asia after World War II? Was there really any hope that a committed Communist revolutionary like Mao Zedong would become Asia’s Tito in the early years of the Cold War? Would the CCP really “peacefully evolve” to democracy without a fight? Was it reasonable to think that the PRC would stick with “peaceful development” as its strategy even as it gained more power? The lesson is that the more we believe in Chinese exceptionalism the more we are disappointed. This results in more emotional turmoil than the relationship requires.
Chinese slogans about international relations are soothing to American ears. To the great consternation of many “realists,” Americans have a profound belief in human progress — in this case the idea that we have entered a new era in which great power rivalry has no place. The truth is there is not and never has been a Chinese exception to the tried and true rules of statecraft.
The PRC is just another garden-variety one-party dictatorship gaining more power and prestige. History should indeed guide U.S. policy toward China: its relations with Beijing will be highly competitive, slightly tempered by shared economic interests, and buffeted by the different political values of each political regime.
This is a very old type of great power relations. U.S. China policy does not need new slogans. Rather it requires a very measured statecraft to find areas of cooperation while competing effectively for power and influence without resorting to conflict.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
Like this article? Read an unlimited number of articles, plus access to our entire 47-year printed archive, the FP App, and the Digital Magazine when you subscribe to FP Premium for just 99 cents!