Beijing long sought a rhetorical reboot in bilateral ties. Now it’s talking differently.
- By David WertimeDavid Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.
China’s long love affair with a curious phrase appears to be ending. For years, Chinese bureaucrats have dutifully parroted a phrase near and dear to President Xi Jinping’s heart: “A new model of great power relations,” or “新型大国关系” in Chinese. It was never clear exactly what it meant — the Obama administration was loath to use it, meaning its details were never fleshed out — but it appeared to imply some sort of parity, equality, and shared responsibility between the United States and China. Now, after years of regularly appearing on the lips of Beijing apparatchiks, the phrase appears to be fading into history.
For several years, promise of a “new model” was nearly impossible for a consumer of Chinese media to avoid. On the eve of Xi’s September 2015 state visit to the United States — the last time China’s president set foot on American soil — Chinese state outlets, bureaucrats, and Beijing-approved analysts flooded media with mentions of the term. Days before the visit, Cui Tiankai, then as now Chinese ambassador to the United States, used the phrase twelve times in a single editorial in mouthpiece People’s Daily.
It turns out that Xi’s visit was the beginning of the end. The “new model” notion was duly flogged during and after his visit, but has petered out since. Following the U.S. presidential election, Chinese-language mentions of the “new model” have fallen still further, according to trend data from Qihoo, a search engine. According to Chinese-language readouts, when Xi spoke with President Trump during their delayed and much-scrutinized Feb. 10 phone call, the phrase did not come up, nor did it during Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi’s Feb. 27 meeting with the U.S. President.
The absences have been notable enough that on Feb. 10, a reporter asked foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang whether China had “given up on building a new model of great power relations after Trump took office.” Kang, whose ministry has largely avoided criticizing Trump directly, said there had been no change to policy.
But the slogan may have failed for political reasons, according to Robert Daly, who directs the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Xi Jinping has moved on to new slogans and agendas,” Daly told Foreign Policy. “It is now conferences and research on One Belt One Road that bring in funding. Abandonment of the phrase also coincides with Xi’s interest in donning the mantle of global leadership, which was most clearly displayed in his January address on economic globalization in Davos.”
The term’s evident demise is somewhat ironic, given that during the presidential campaign, Trump called for a new approach to the relationship — at least, he did so implicitly, by criticizing virtually every major aspect of the Obama administration’s approach to Beijing. A Feb. 9 analysis in Global Times, a popular outlet that’s sanctioned by Beijing but often more nationalistic than the official line, insisted that Trump’s campaign slogan, “America First,” was “perfectly understandable” given that Beijing had its own “China first” policy. That article compared Trump’s exhortation to “make America great again” with Xi’s favored promise, “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and concluded that only a “new model of great power relations” would allow for both to remain true.
Yet some of the hotter rhetoric aimed at Beijing appears to be giving way, as U.S.-Sino relations slowly re-normalize. After much criticism of China during his campaign, Trump pledged as President-elect to revisit the one-China policy, which Beijing considers sacrosanct, only to recognize the policy within weeks of being inaugurated. Economic advisor and Death By China author Peter Navarro has taken a senior White House role, but may end up being less influential on China policy than senior advisor Jared Kushner, whose family firm has business ties to Chinese insurance behemoth Anbang, and recently-confirmed Wilbur Ross, the billionaire Commerce Secretary who, prior to the presidential campaign, frequently expressed admiration for the country and its culture. Trump’s White House currently looks as likely to find entente with China as it does to enter a trade war.
Whatever understanding Beijing and Washington ultimately reach, they will both have to find something else to call it. That’s just as well, according to Daly. “There is no reason to refer to U.S.-China relations as anything other than U.S.-China relations — an adequate, commonsense phrase that has served both nations well since 1979.”
Leah Liu contributed research.
Update, March 3: The article has been updated to include comments from Robert Daly.
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