A Sino-U.S. joint cultural business group, the Dream Center, holds a commencement in Shanghai on March 20, 2014 (XINHUA)
During a 2012 visit with President Barack Obama in the United States, then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping said, "The greatest Tao is the simplest one." Put another way, sometimes the best path is the simplest one. At this same meeting, Xi proposed building a "new model of major power relations" between China and the United States. The following year, Xi, as the new Chinese president, again met with his U.S. counterpart. The leaders came away from the meeting saying the relationship between the two powers moving forward will be based on mutual respect and benefit and reducing conflict and confrontation.
Recently, however, the rift in the Sino-U.S. relationship has become more distinct. Its negative elements are in the spotlight and drawing more media attention.
The world has undergone profound changes since the beginning of the 21st century. Increasing globalization and multi-polarization has shifted the power balance between the world's largest developed country and the biggest developing one. The United States entered two expensive and protracted wars in the Middle East and South Asia following the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The 2008 financial crisis that originated on Wall Street also dealt a heavy blow to U.S.' power.
Now, international relations have reached another inflection point. Developed Western countries are on a relative decline, while emerging market economies are on the rise in both national strength and international stature. China is the world's second largest economy and it is expected to surpass the United States to become number one. But as an ancient Chinese proverb says, "The tree standing taller than the rest of the forest endures the most wind."
At the end of the first decade of the millennium, the United States looked back at its security strategy with unease. It has since decided to drastically modify its policy by pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan and "rebalancing" its focus to the Asia-Pacific. However, rather than calming the region, its focus on fending off challenges posed by rising powers has only resulted in increased uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific.
Sino-U.S. relations have since wobbled. The countries' bilateral economic and security cooperation has shifted with the restructuring of both economies leading to fresh issues in maintaining economic and trade ties. The United States has thrown its full weight behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)--a trade agreement with 12 Asia-Pacific nations that China has not joined and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)--an agreement between itself and the European Union.
The "third party factor" also counts. As the policy-making environment in both countries becomes more intricate, factors outside their relationship have come to the forefront, meddling in and even hijacking the U.S. policy toward China. Despite stating it is not taking sides on issues in the East and South China seas, the United States has shown partiality from time to time, which further undermines bilateral ties.
Western media has had reasonable debates on whether Sino-U.S. relations are on the verge of a crisis or "tipping point." Some people even claim the two countries cannot avoid a Thucydides Trap, or the dangers two parties face when a rising power rivals a ruling one, as seen in the relationship between Athens and Sparta in 411 B.C.
In the face of these challenges, both countries must reinforce the belief that building a new relationship model is not only essential but also feasible. In fact, a desire to avoid the rivalry between an established and an emerging power is one of the motivations for China in developing the new model.
Necessity and feasibility
American engineers test spare parts of an electric bus at one of Chinese automaker BYD's manufacturing facilities in Lancaster, California, on April 29 (XINHUA)
A line from one of the late Chairman Mao Zedong's poems reads: "Range far your eyes on long vistas ." This applies to the Sino-U.S. relationship, which, despite frictions, has historically been defined by mutual benefit and cooperation. The current situation is not as pessimistic as some in the media state because both countries have the will and basis to cooperate.
As globalization and multi-polarization accelerate, no country can fare well on its own. The international community needs more cooperation. The shared international and regional interests of China and the United States have been on the rise.
Both countries desire a peaceful and stable international environment. They regularly collaborate on a broad range of issues concerning peace and development, such as nuclear programs in Iran and on the Korean Peninsula as well as issues relating to South Sudan. They have also cooperated in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, combating terrorism, cracking down on cross-border crimes and seeking solutions for regional hot button issues.
China and the United States are the leading engines of global economic growth with China's GDP growing 7.3 percent and U.S. GDP growing 2.4 percent in 2014. The countries are proactive in improving global economic governance by initiating negotiations on the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. Both stand by a free, open international trade system and support free navigation in the high seas.
Their cooperation on multilateral diplomatic platforms--the UN, G20 and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation--has been fruitful. They have ramped up efforts to cut emissions, setting an example for global cooperation on climate change, environmental preservation and sustainable development. The two powers also work together to prevent and control epidemics such as Ebola.
Bilaterally, a new relationship model between China and the United States will serve as an example of how major countries can work together in the face of globalization.
The confluence of Chinese and American national interests provides the impetus for cooperation. Their economic interdependence is intensifying. Last year bilateral trade exceeded $555.1 billion, or $100 million every working hour, while two-way investment stocks topped $120 billion. With their economies so tightly interwoven, the two countries are economically in the same boat.
Meanwhile, their citizens are in closer contact. Some 4.3 million people traveled between China and the United States last year. All of these demonstrates that building a new relationship model has substantial economic and social bases, and is inevitable.
Progress has been made in staving off conflict and building mutual trust. A notable achievement is their agreement to report major military operations and raise a code of conduct on military encounters in the air and at sea.
It is clear that maintaining a healthy relationship through dialogue and negotiations is in the interest of both countries. The Chinese leadership's intentions and expectations of Sino-U.S. ties are best described by Xi's recent remarks, "Continually pile up small loads of earth, and a mountain will eventually come into being. Make firm decisive steps, and footsteps will become clearly imprinted on the ground. We should, in this manner, join hands in advancing the construction of a new model of major country relations."
At the Seventh China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the Sixth Round of the China-U.S. High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange, both convened in June, the two countries exchanged candid opinions on a range of issues. They included enhancing cooperation, building interactive relations in the Asia-Pacific, managing disagreements and sensitive issues, as well as responding to regional hot button issues and international challenges. The results of the meetings are encouraging and prelude Xi's upcoming visit to the United States.
Seeking common ground
Where Sino-U.S. ties are headed will influence not only the two parties but also peace and development in Asia and the world at large. There will be bumps on the road now and then, but their mutual interest will continue to grow. The two countries should hold more dialogue for candid discussion and work to transform their agreements on paper into tangible results. This will give substantive meaning to the "new model of major power relations" for the two nations and ensure that the ship of bilateral ties can navigate obstacles and forge ahead. To achieve this goal, emphasis should be placed on three aspects.
First, both countries should handle bilateral ties on the basis of mutual respect. As large countries with different domestic conditions, China and the United States should objectively and rationally assess each other's strategic intentions, respect each other's sovereignty, territorial integrity, political systems, development paths, core interests and major concerns, as well as try to understand each other's cultural traditions and ways of thinking. They should not impose their respective will or approach on the other party. These are the preconditions and basis for the development of a healthy and stable relationship.
China's pledge to follow the path of peaceful development is not expediency or a diplomatic platitude. It is a national policy that embodies China's ideological confidence and behavioral conscience. A China that develops itself peacefully is not a threat to the United States. Peaceful coexistence won't be possible on the global scale until all countries on the planet follow this path. China genuinely aspires to and needs peaceful development, but this in no way means that it will sacrifice its sovereignty and core interests.
As China becomes more actively involved in international affairs, the world will place greater expectations upon it. The United States should develop a rational opinion of and adapt to China's transformation. It should welcome China's development and success with a normal frame of mind while finding opportunities for cooperation. It is not advisable for certain people to stick to Cold War thinking and bet on the containment policy. The Sino-U.S. relations cannot afford any strategic missteps.
Second, China and the United States should have deeper exchanges and cooperation in all aspects. As allies in the anti-fascist war and permanent members of the UN Security Council, the two countries are both beneficiaries and defenders of the current international order. China is willing to join hands with the United States in steering international systems in a more equitable and reasonable direction, and in coping with various regional and global challenges.
President Xi was quoted as saying that "the Pacific Ocean is big enough for both China and the United States." The two countries are supposed to engage in active, positive interactions in the region, promote inclusive diplomacy and play a constructive role in regional peace, stability and prosperity.
China and the United States share a vast range of interests and a solid foundation for cooperation with trade and economy acting as the ballast for bilateral ties. The negotiation for a bilateral investment treaty has not yet borne fruit. Still, more efforts should be made in increasing American exports to China and Chinese investments in the United States. China also hopes that the U.S. Government and Congress will loosen their restrictions on Chinese businesses. Practical cooperation should be enhanced between their militaries and in counter-terrorism, energy, public security, law enforcement and infrastructure. Exchanges in other fields should be advanced to serve as new momentum for the development of bilateral ties.
Third, the two countries need to explore new methods to control and manage divergences. It is no surprise that two countries at different stages of development, of disparate social systems, cultural traditions and economic interests may have disagreements and misunderstandings. A wise approach is to focus on long-term benefits and resort to dialogue and negotiations on an equal footing. They should not allow a single issue or a single situation to undermine the foundation for stable relationships. Instead they must handle differences and sensitive issues in a constructive manner and avoid hurting each other's core interests.
On disagreements over values, China and the United States can enhance mutual trust and dissipate suspicions through communication. Negotiation is the best solution, and both sides should be cautious not to politicize trade and economic issues. Even structural and incompatible conflicts should be controlled to avoid misjudgment. In this regard, setting up mechanisms to prevent and properly handle crises is vital for preventing any lapses that may escalate a smoldering issue into a confrontation.
Xi's upcoming state visit will be another milestone in Sino-U.S. relations. It is the time to reaffirm the call of the times, which is peace, cooperation and development.
China is ready to develop a relationship with the United States that stands on mutual respect, inclusiveness, strategic mutual trust and extensive exchanges and cooperation, which it believes will benefit the two countries and the world. Building this new model of major power relations requires that both countries move in the same direction.
The author is president of the China Institute of International Studies
Copyedited by Jordyn Dahl
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