China’s Search for a “New Type of Great Power Relationship”

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 17

Deputy Chief of the General Staff Cai Yingting with Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter

When Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Cai Yingting spoke with the Chinese media during his visit to Washington in August, he emphasized the importance of building “a new type of military-to-military relationship with the United States” (China Daily, August 26). Cai’s comments focused specifically on military ties, but they also reflected Beijing’s broader search for a “new type of great power relationship” (xinxing daguo guanxi) with the United States, which it hopes will allow China to avoid destabilizing competition while protecting China’s most important interests. Indeed, Chinese decision-makers are clearly concerned about the implications of China’s rise for its relationship with the United States, especially given widespread views that the historical pattern of great power conflict suggests a rocky road ahead for the U.S.-China relationship. To make matters worse, according to Beijing-based scholars Wang Jisi, Qian Yingyi, Wang Min, Jia Qingguo and Bai Chongen, lack of mutual trust intensifies the challenges of forging a stable and mutually beneficial U.S.-China relationship, and this requires new strategic thinking about how to properly manage U.S.-China ties (China Daily, February 13).

Beijing is thus searching for a way to build and maintain a stable and constructive U.S.-China relationship capable of weathering the challenges that will inevitably arise as China’s power increases. Specifically, Chinese leaders have stated on numerous occasions that they want to create a “new type of great power relationship” between China and the United States. Related discussions already were taking place among Chinese scholars and officials last year, but the theme of “building a new type of great power relationship” has been highlighted consistently in high-level official statements since Vice President Xi Jinping’s February 2012 visit to the United States [1].

During Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States in February, he urged the two sides to "set a good example of constructive and cooperative state-to-state relations for countries with different political systems, historical and cultural backgrounds and economic development levels, an example that finds no precedent and offers inspiration for future generations," and emphasized the importance of building “a new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 20). In a February 15 speech in Washington, Xi highlighted four areas in which he said the United States and China need to make greater joint efforts to build such a relationship:

(1) Increasing mutual understanding and strategic trust;

(2) Respecting each side’s “core interests and major concerns;”

(3) Deepening mutually beneficial cooperation;

(4) Enhancing cooperation and coordination in international affairs and on global issues (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 15).

In May, President Hu Jintao emphasized the importance of forging this new relationship in a speech at the fourth U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in Beijing. Speaking at the opening session, Hu called for the two sides to “build a new type of relations between major countries.” Most critically, such a relationship would differ from historic great power relationships in that it would not be dominated by distrust and competition. As Hu stated, “we should, through creative thinking and concrete steps, prove that the traditional belief that big powers are bound to enter into confrontation and conflicts is wrong and seek new ways of developing relations between major countries in the era of economic globalization.” Furthermore, Hu said, "Whatever changes may take place in the world and no matter how the domestic situations in our two countries may evolve, China and the United States should be firmly committed to advancing the cooperative partnership and build a new type of relations between major countries that is reassuring to both peoples from China and the United States and people across the world” (Xinhua, May 3). Similarly, State Councilor Dai Bingguo’s speech at the S&ED highlighted the “tragic lessons” of history and emphasized the importance of working to build a “new type of great power relationship” with the United States (Xinhua, May 3).

Seeking a “New Type” of Relationship Between Major Powers

President Hu’s statement at the May meeting of the S&ED emphasized the importance of mutual trust. "To build a new type of relations between China and the United States, we need to trust each other," Hu said (Xinhua, May 3). Hu also highlighted expanding common ground, and handling differences constructively: We should approach our differences in a correct way, and respect and accommodate each other’s interests and concerns." Hu further elaborated on Beijing’s vision of the way forward at the June 2012 G-20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico. During a meeting between Hu and President Obama on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, Hu put forward what official Chinese media have described as “a four-point proposal on forging a new model of great power relations between the two countries” (Xinhua, June 20). An official media report summarized Hu’s four points as follows:

(1) The United States and China should continue to engage in a broad range of dialogues, strive to enhance mutual trust and continue to maintain high-level communication through senior-level visits, meetings, telephone conversations and letters;

(2) The United States and China should further deepen “win-win cooperation” in traditional fields—such as commerce, investment, law enforcement, education, and science and technology—while pursuing a similar level of cooperation in emerging areas such as energy, environment and infrastructure construction;

(3) The two countries should “properly manage their differences” and minimize interference or disruption from outside factors, such as by insulating the relationship from the U.S. presidential campaign;

(4) The United States and China should share international responsibilities to better meet global challenges, and maintain “a healthy interaction” in the Asia-Pacific region (Xinhua, June 20).

Perhaps more revealing was a July 2012 essay by Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai and Pang Hangzhao, entitled “China-U.S. Relations in China’s Overall Diplomacy in the New Era: On China and U.S. Working Together to Build a New-Type Relationship Between Major Countries.” The essay places strong emphasis on the importance and implications of China-U.S. bilateral relations, which it indicates occupy “a special and important position in China’s overall diplomacy.” Furthermore, according to the essay, “To maintain and promote a healthy and steady development of China-U.S. relations is a priority in China’s foreign policy.” This is because “the central goal of China’s foreign strategy is to uphold its sovereignty, national security and development interests and seek a generally peaceful and favorable external environment for the great revitalization of the Chinese nation,” and a stable relationship with the United States is still an “important condition and requirement for realizing that goal.” Moreover, according to Cui and Pang, “a major issue to be successfully addressed for China’s peaceful development is for China and the United States to develop a model of their bilateral relationship featuring cooperation not confrontation, win-win results not ‘zero-sum’ game, and healthy competition not malicious rivalry, namely a new-type relationship between major countries” [2].

Cui and Pang see several factors—including numerous high-level contacts, “well-developed channels of dialogue and communication,” closely intertwined economic interests and growing people-to-people exchanges—as conducive to the development of a “new type” of relationship between the United States and China. They, however also identify a number of potential obstacles to the successful development of such a relationship, including lack of mutual trust at the strategic level, conflicts over some of China’s “core interests,” friction over trade and economic issues and competition in the Asia-Pacific region (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 20).

To Cui and Pang, the blame for these problems is quite clear as is what should be done to resolve them. "China has never done anything to undermine the U.S. core interests and major concerns,” they write, “yet what the United States has done in matters concerning China’s core and important interests and major concerns is unsatisfactory." Indeed, the essay contains a number of statements that appear to reflect an expectation that the United States is the side that must compromise and accommodate China’s interests as part of the "new type of great power relationship.” For example, the essay indicates the United States should stop selling arms to Taiwan and places responsibility for improving the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship solely on the shoulders of the United States. Cui and Pang also indicate Washington should stop criticizing China for its actions in Tibet and Xinjiang and its repression of domestic dissent. In addition, they indicate the United States should stay out of China’s maritime disputes with its neighbors. According to Cui and Pang, “There have been some problems recently in China’s neighborhood. China is not the maker of these problems, and still less the perpetrator of the harm. Rather, it is a victim on which harm has been imposed” [3].

Back to the Future?

Although China’s emphasis on the importance of building a “new type of major power relationship” began this year, Beijing’s search for a stable and constructive U.S.-China relationship is more than forty years old. In the words of Tao Wenzhao, a long-time America-watcher now with the Center for U.S.-China relations at Tsinghua University, “after President Nixon’s ground-breaking journey to China in 1972, especially after the normalization of Sino-American relations in 1979, the two countries began exploring this kind of relationship.” Tao suggests that what has changed is that perceptions of China’s rapid rise and the relative decline of the United States have deepened mutual suspicion. As Tao puts it, some in the United States are concerned that a rising China will challenge its position in the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, and some in China are worried that the United States will seek to preserve its influence by containing China and slowing its growth (China-U.S. Focus, May 7). As a result of this mutual suspicion, and the historical record of competition between established and rising powers, there is reason to fear the United States and China will become locked in a confrontational relationship that damages both countries.

That China attaches a great deal of importance to its hopes that the establishment of a “new type of great power relationship” will help it avoid repeating the historical pattern of conflict between rising and established great powers is thus relatively clear. It is, however, probably fair to say that exactly how Beijing expects to achieve this goal is still somewhat less so. Chinese scholars appear to be trying to determine which factors will make the greatest difference. For example, according to Zhu Feng of Peking University, "The glue keeping these two nations together is not only pragmatism, but also mutual interest, especially in trade" (Global Times, May 4). Similarly, Chen Jian, Dean of Renmin University’s School of International Studies in Beijing, argues common interests are vital to the development of “new type” relations between major powers. Chen also suggests the prospects for success are relatively good, because the interrelated trends of “economic globalization, political multi-polarization and social informationization” make major power conflict much less likely than it was in the 20th Century (Xinhua, July 9). Yet recent friction over issues like the South China Sea suggests building the “new type of great power relationship” Chinese leaders see as so vital will require more creativity and flexibility [4].

Implications for the U.S.-China Relationship

The United States welcomes China’s emergence as a great power with an expanded role commensurate with its growing global interests and influence. Moreover, avoiding a tragic repeat of what is widely perceived as a historical pattern of antagonism between rising and established great powers has been a consistent theme of high-level U.S. statements. For example, at the S&ED in May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “Together, the United States and China are trying to do something that is historically unprecedented, to write a new answer to the age-old question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet…what we are trying to do is to build a resilient relationship that allows both of our nations to thrive without unhealthy competition, rivalry, or conflict while meeting our national, regional and global responsibilities” (U.S. State Department, May 4).

For China’s part, the broad outlines of the type of relationship its leaders aspire to build with the United States are relatively clear—Beijing seeks a U.S.-China relationship that is more stable than many historic great power relationships and less prone to degenerate into a destabilizing competition or an outright confrontation. Importantly, Beijing clearly sees such a relationship as one that will facilitate China’s pursuit of its broader domestic and international interests. What is less certain is precisely how China’s next set of leaders intend to pursue these objectives, and how successful they will be in forging a new relationship as China’s power grows.

The most problematic aspect of Beijing’s vision of a “new type” of U.S.-China relationship is that it appears to require Washington to accommodate China’s interests and to do so largely on Beijing’s terms—apparently without reciprocal adjustments. Although some of the language that suggests it is the United States alone that needs to change its approach is perhaps intended, at least partly, for domestic consumption, it also seems to reflect China’s estimation of its growing leverage in the relationship. Such an approach will make it much more difficult for Washington to embrace the concept in spite of many shared interests. Seeking a stable and healthy relationship and trying to enhance mutual trust are laudable goals, but suggesting this must take place largely on China’s terms risks making it much harder to realize the "new type of great power relationship” Beijing has proposed.


  1. For example, see the discussion of China and the United States “exploring a new path for coexistence as major powers” in Yue Yucheng, “Shijie dabianjuzhong de zhongguo waijiao” [China’s Diplomacy in the Context of World Change], Waijiao Pinglun [Foreign Affairs Review], November 25, 2011, pp. 1-6. Yue is an assistant to China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
  2. Cui Tiankai and Pang Hanzhao, “xinshiqi zhongguo waijiao quanjuzhong de zhong-mei guanxi [China-U.S. Relations in China’s Overall Diplomacy in the New Era: On China and U.S. Working Together to Build a New-Type Relationship Between Major Countries],” in Beijing University Institute of International Relations, ed., Zhongguo guoji zhanlüe pinglun 2012 [China International Strategy Review 2012], Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, July 2012. For the official English translation, see, and for the Chinese version, see
  3. Ibid.
  4. On August 3, a U.S. State Department spokesperson reiterated that the United States does not take a position on the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, but warned that Washington believes the rival claimants “should work collaboratively and diplomatically to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats, and without the use of force.” The next day, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson retorted that the U.S. statement reflected a “total disregard of facts, confounded right and wrong, and sent a seriously wrong message.” See “Press Statement: South China Sea,” U.S. Department of State, August 3, 2012,; and “Statement by Spokesperson Qin Gang of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China on the U.S. State Department Issuing a So-called Press Statement On the South China Sea” PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 4, 2012,