Tea Leaf Nation
Unpacking Xi Jinping’s Pet Phrase for U.S.-China Ties
A "new model of great power relations" sounds innocent enough. So why won't American policymakers say it?
In a Sept. 22 speech before business leaders in Seattle, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in country on the first leg of a multi-city visit that will include a state dinner at the White House and a speech at the United Nations, was expansive and occasionally disarming, pledging to “set up a high-level joint dialogue mechanism with the United States on fighting cybercrimes,” while at another point declaiming his fondness for mojitos. He was also steadfast in repeating what has become something of a rhetorical drumbeat in Chinese-language media; that the United States and China needed to construct “a new model of great power relations.” American policymakers aren’t so sure they agree.
While Xi isn’t the author of the “new model” phrase, it’s one he’s adopted with gusto since ascending to China’s presidency. But it’s so far failed to resonate in the United States. Chinese policymakers have explained that the concept comprises a lack of conflict, mutual respect, and mutually beneficial cooperation between the world’s two most powerful countries. But those component terms are themselves vague, and U.S. policymakers worry that lurking within them might be a promise to refrain from criticizing China, or a recognition of Chinese policies that American diplomats oppose. According to Bill Bishop, editor of the influential China-focused Sinocism newsletter, it “leaves one with the impression that the U.S. has to respect whatever China says are its core interests” — which include territorial claims to Taiwan and areas of the South China Sea that the United States does not recognize — “while not leaving any room for what the U.S. may see as its core interests. “
That hasn’t stopped Chinese state media from using the incantation with great frequency in the days leading up to Xi’s Stateside trip. In this regard, state mouthpiece People’s Daily has been at the forefront. A Sept. 18 infographic elucidating Xi’s hopes for his visit to the United States wrote that “making the new model of great power relations clearer” and “more concrete” was the first priority. (For perspective, discussing a bilateral investment treaty and reducing mistrust in cyberspace ranked second and third.)
That was just the beginning. On Sept. 21, an essay in the same publication by Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai employed the “new model” phrase 12 times. Cui wrote that during Xi’s June 2013 visit to the Sunnylands estate in California, his first U.S. visit as China’s president, “the two leaders focused on Sino-U.S. relations, and proposed building a new model of great power relations.” Xi’s state visit, Cui wrote, “must inject new momentum” into that model. And a Sept. 22 People’s Daily opinion piece wrote that Chinese leaders “have pointed out that [we] cannot let the new major model of great power relations stop at theory, and it’s not enough to be satisfied with short-term gains — we must continue moving forward.” On Sept. 23, the slogan again sat conspicuously on the Daily’s front page, where an article declared the new model would “promote the stable development of the Asia-Pacific and world peace.”
Given the rhetoric, Chinese readers who hadn’t taken the time to parse White House and State Department pressers could be forgiven for thinking the United States, or at least its president, Barack Obama, had already given the model a full-throated endorsement, even if American policymakers had been dragging their feet on implementing it. In fact, although Obama employed the phrase in post-Sunnylands remarks summit and later discussed “continuing to strengthen and build a new model of relations” as late as early 2014, his administration has cooled to the phrase since then. It would be surprising if Obama used the slogan publicly during Xi’s stay in Washington, DC.
Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, told Foreign Policy that China knows where U.S. policymakers stand, but that the phrase has taken on a life of its own. Following Sunnylands, Beijing has “conducted endless think tank studies and conferences and included the phrase in nearly every speech on bilateral relations.” It may be too late for China to turn back, he added. “Xi has made it a hallmark of his leadership and cannot now set it down without losing face in China. The phrase is important to China, at this stage, primarily because it is important to Xi.”
For his part, Xi, and the state media apparatus he controls, has in recent days tried to communicate a capacious and optimistic view of a 21st century co-led by the United States and China. A state Xinhua news agency headline from late September advertised that Xi had told visiting Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch that Xi and Obama agreed the United States and China had “common interests far, far larger than disagreements.” Xi referred to the “massive potential for cooperation” between the two. That involves “expanding the space for pragmatic cooperation,” and “deeply planting a foundation of public opinion” to support the relationship. Those sounds both conspicuously more concrete and less ambitious than a “new model.”
If Xi cannot explicitly ditch the motto, he may at least need to narrow it further. According to Daly, the phrase has become an obstacle to mutual understanding instead of an enabler. That doesn’t mean it’s a rhetorical trap, as some Americans fear. “Neither side is at fault here; the United States and China have different diplomatic cultures,” he said. “China likes to put forward a broad concept, reach consensus on it without asking too many questions in order to build trust, and then fill in the details without legalistic concern for definitions or consistency. The United States doesn’t do that.”